Altogether, the kerfuffle lasted less than five minutes. Barr recently told the New York Times Magazine that he was on the front line of the “fistfight” but wasn’t injured because he was on the side of football players and picked his opponents carefully. “Over a dozen people went to the hospital, between the two groups, when they tried to rush through,” he told the Times reporter with a smile, adding proudly that the protesters “didn’t get through.” (Barr has inflated the drama of that moment. There appears to be no record of any trip to the hospital, and no one of the hundreds I’ve interviewed about that day mentioned it.)
Barr, now the top law and order man of the Trump administration, told Vanity Fair last year that the incident on campus when he was still in his teens was crucial in focusing his priorities. If leaders at Columbia “had taken a stronger stance, up front,” said Barr, “it would not have degenerated so much.”
The story has been part of Barr’s public political narrative for years, and the way he tells it might go some way toward explaining his apparent comfort using force against even lawful-seeming protest. In Barr’s framing of events, the Columbia protesters’ actions were more significant for what they obstructed than for what they expressed. It was his rights that merited protection, and an illegitimate assembly which required governmental intervention.
In his 1991 Senate confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Barr explained: “I went to Columbia University during the riots in the late 1960s. People interfered, private citizens interfered with my constitutional rights, and I am not saying this is an analogous situation completely, but people blocked me from getting into the library. I know how it feels to be blocked when you are going about your lawful rights and it is quite offensive. But even though I was being blocked in the exercise of my constitutional rights, I was being blocked not by the State, but by private people. And my remedy there was to go to State courts and get the city police to get them out of my way, which is what ultimately happened.”
Barr’s group got what it wanted in 1968. The protests were eventually forcibly ended by the New York Police Department—though it may have come at a cost.
Former New York Governor George Pataki, a Columbia law student in 1968 who says he was sympathetic to the aims of the Majority Coalition, told me in 2010 that he regarded the leftist demonstrators in the same way as Barr did—high-handedly impeding their classmates’ rights to go to class, “reflective of that authoritarian concept of ‘if we believe it’s right because it advances what we believe are society’s interests, you can set aside the rule of law and just impose your will.’”
But Pataki also recalled the police bust at Columbia, when a thousand NYPD officers cleared the five buildings, then turned on the onlooking crowd. “Without any warning, you have these big [riot control] troopers with clubs and locked arms come sweeping across the campus, chasing everybody.”
That night was a memorable one for Pataki, a fiscally conservative yet socially moderate Republican who has had his own mixed relationship with protesters. And it could offer insight into Barr’s approach as he deals with protests today: Unlike Pataki, Barr seems to have ascended the ladder to power without ever coming to understand that incident 50-plus years ago from the other side. According to Pataki, “All you had to do was say, ‘We’re the police. We’re going to clear the campus, please leave,’ and we would have left. I’ll never forget being chased by a cop. You couldn’t turn around and say, ‘Wait a minute. I’m on your side!’ They didn’t want to hear that. So you just ran.”
“Many of my friends who had been in the Majority Coalition flipped sides,” he told me. “They said, ‘Well, maybe the radicals have a point.’”