Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The AAS Takeover of WVBR

The book Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University by Donald Alexander Downs bears the following passage describing the 6:00 AM storming of a college radio station.
"At 6:15 a.m. students, one brandishing a club, took over WVBR, the radio station in the Straight, so that [Edward] Whitfield could announce the takeover to the community. The captors remained for a few minutes, leaving when they were informed that they were committing a federal crime. After "truly extraordinary" efforts, WVBR managed to reestablish broadcasting from a location downtown."
The event is described in a number of other books Cornell: A History, 1940–2015 by Glenn Altschuler and Harlem vs. Columbia University by Stefan Bradley to name a couple. What is not said above, but did happen is that Ed Whitfield  took the microphone and announced "We interrupt your regular broadcast for a relevant political message..."  He follows that with a tirade against the racist attitudes of Cornell University. More here.

After seizing the Straight the AAS (Afro-American Society) tried to defend a large building. But it was built into a slope and had entrances on multiple levels. Weapons entered the building as did fraternity members intending to repel them. About 75 members of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) blocked the outside of the building with a picket line. At the same time volunteers, Sherrifs, and the National guard were organizing to take back the building by force. The Cornell administration eventually negotiated a truce. The AAS walked out of the building with rifles shotguns and even bandoliers. The photos of the scene won a Pulitzer prize. Images here.

WVBR played only a small role in the whole escapade, but interestingly was the only Federal crime committed in the incident. No one was charged, and even the AAS student members were not punished. The entire event had been triggered by the Student-Faculty Board reprimanding members of the AAS lobbying for changes to the Afro-American Studies program. WVBR was already 34 years old at the time of the protest. The station moved from a cable FM service to FM radio in 1957, so by 1969 it already was (and still is) a highly organized broadcaster. Strangely this was not the only time the station was raided and taken over but I'll cover that prior event in another post.