On 2 January 2016, a small group of armed men occupied a headquarters building at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in an area south of Burns, Oregon. Among the many media narratives published about that issue was a claim that former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder had participated in a similar armed occupation of federal property during his college years at Columbia University.
Social media users who repeated the claim about Holder typically cited a 1 October 2012 article from The Blaze ("Report: Did Eric Holder Participate in 'Armed' Occupation of Columbia ROTC Office?") which stated:
The Daily Caller is reporting that the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, participated in what has been described by some as an "armed" takeover of Columbia University's Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) office in 1970.
The Blaze cited a contemporaneous Daily Caller article credited to Ryan Girdusky and Charles C. Johnson which reported that:
As a freshman at Columbia University in 1970, future Attorney General Eric Holder participated in a five-day occupation of an abandoned Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) headquarters with a group of black students later described by the university's Black Students' Organization as "armed," The Daily Caller has learned.
Holder was then among the leaders of the Student Afro-American Society (SAAS), which demanded that the former ROTC office be renamed the "Malcolm X Lounge." The change, the group insisted, was to be made "in honor of a man who recognized the importance of territory as a basis for nationhood."
Black radicals from the same group also occupied the office of Dean of Freshman Henry Coleman until their demands were met. Holder has publicly acknowledged being a part of that action.
The latter article asserted that "the details the student-led occupation, including the claim that the raiders were 'armed,' come from a deleted Web page of the Black Students' Organization (BSO) at Columbia, a successor group to the SAAS." However, the archived material in question described not
a student takeover of Columbia's ROTC office in 1970, but a completely different incident involving the student occupation of a different building in 1968:
Tensions between students and the university mounted in the 1960s for two reasons. First, Columbia had become heavily involved in research for weapons systems to be used in the Vietnam War. Second, the university planned the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park where Harlem residents could only access the gym through a back door entrance on the bottom level, while the upper levels of the gym were accessible only to Columbia students and affiliates through the main entrance. This blatant segregationist policy led to black students and Harlemite supporters protesting what they called "Gym Crow". In 1968, students passionate about both issues held a demonstration in Morningside Park, where the university had already begun to erect construction fences.
Soon after, black students and supporters occupied Hamilton Hall to protest the building of the gym, Columbia's involvement in weapons research, the general lack of black students and faculty, the absence of a Black Studies department, and the lack of transparency and input into the university's dealings with surrounding Harlem.
Armed with guns, the students took over Hamilton Hall, and locked the building from the inside. After some time in Hamilton, the black students told the white sympathizers, many of whom were members of Students for a Democratic Society, to leave and contribute by taking over other buildings on campus. They did, effectively shutting down the university. The President of the university ordered the NYPD to smother the protest by force, aided by white athletes and members of the ROTC. Ironically it was the white students in other buildings who bore the brunt of the police storming. Had the police broken into Hamilton, they may have suffered casualties at the hands of the sisters and brothers inside.
Although this excerpt refers to the 1968 protest as "armed," that description was made long after the fact by the Black Students' Organization (a group that did not exist at the time of the protest), not the Student Afro-American Society (SAAS) group that actually took part in the protest. And the Daily Caller noted that "contemporary newspaper accounts in The Columbia Daily Spectator, a student newspaper, did not mention weapons."
The Daily Caller article also linked to a speech in which Holder purportedly admitted to taking part in the 1968 Hamilton Hall protest. The article quoted a small portion of Holder's 19 May 2009 commencement speech at Columbia College but opted not to excerpt the portions bolded below:
I was among a large group of students who felt strongly about the way we thought the world should be, and we weren't afraid to make our opinions heard. I did not take a final exam until my junior year at Columbia — we were on strike every time finals seemed to roll around — but we ran out of issues by that third year.
I also recall one day when we got together and decided to peacefully occupy one of the campus offices. We felt passionately about the need for a place where black students could gather and we went ahead and staged our sit-in. This became the black student's lounge in what was then Hartley Hall. The person who we had to negotiate with, and whose office we also occupied later, was Dean Henry Coleman. In the ultimate display of chutzpah I later asked Dean Coleman to write my law school recommendations. This being Columbia of course he agreed. He was a great, generous man. This College allowed an impetuous, testosterone laced youngster to express himself in ways that other institutions would have considered unacceptable. Not Columbia. This is why I love this place.
Although the Daily Caller's confusing narrative suggested that Holder had admitted to participating in the 1968 Hamilton Hall protest, he could not possibly have been part of that incident as he was a high school student at the time and did not begin attending Columbia until 1969. Moreover, the Daily Caller's source material described a protest at Hamilton Hall, while Holder talked about having staged a sit-in at Hartley Hall. Although the names were similar, Hartley Hall and Hamilton Hall were two separate buildings on Columbia's Manhattan campus. (Hartley Hall was a residence hall, while Hamilton Hall was an administrative/academic building.) The Wikipedia page for Hamilton Hall notes that it was the site of multiple civil rights protests during the time frame in question:
In the latter half of the 20th century, Hamilton Hall was taken over several times in the course of student protest activity, most famously during the protests of April 1968. In the course of this protest, a multiracial group first barricaded themselves inside the building, imprisoning acting dean Henry Coleman in his office. The black students eventually asked the white students to leave, prompting the latter's takeover of several other university buildings.
The 1968 armed protest to which Daily Caller referred was the subject of a 28 April 2008 New York Times article that made no mention of guns or Eric Holder. Several months later, the Times published a piece that chronologically unlinked Holder from the purportedly armed 1968 protest:
When he arrived at Columbia in 1969 as a boyish-looking freshman, [Holder] was recruited by upperclassmen to help take over the R.O.T.C. office. Armed with pillowcases and sheets, he joined several dozen students and christened the office as a student center named for Malcolm X.
A 2010 GQ profile of Holder also foregrounded the conflicting timeframe:
It wasn't until Holder arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 1969 that he connected with four other African-American students who could relate to his somewhat prismatic experience. On weeknights, they studied until the small hours; on weekends, they delved into the Harlem scene and immersed themselves in the activism of the times—marching in the streets for housing and education, coaching a youth football team, mentoring kids in the Manhattan Valley projects. "We took over the ROTC lounge in Hartley Hall and created the Malcolm X Lounge," says Steve Sims, laughing.
So while it is true Holder was politically active during his time at Columbia University, he didn't take part in the 1968 Hamilton Hall protest (at which students may or may not have been armed). He did, however, participate in a sit-in of an ROTC lounge a few years later, of which reports described him as being "armed" ... with bed linens.