• Cy Gilman

To Kill a Marching Band

Updated: Feb 19

EXISTENTIAL CRISIS.

The stories we tell about The Cleverest Band in the World and the stories it tells about itself.

By Cy Gilman.


I.

The complaints, couched as a long overdue institutional confession, seemed to portray a group engaged in indefensible behavior rather than a nerdy ragtag marching band that gleefully retooled Katy Perry songs for its eclectic instrumentation, and taunted opposing teams that they did not know who Plato was.Corey Kilgannon, New York Times


These lines seem to convey a journalist’s frustration—even suspicion—at encountering a narrative that fails to conform to their story’s expected angle. And the Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB), without a doubt, has confounded many a journalist before. For decades, commentators have been unable to decide whether to label the Band reactionary, revolutionary, political, apathetic, radically inclusive, racially exclusive, privileged in its platform, unjustly silenced, a threat to students’ well-being, or a critical part of the Columbia community. But Kilgannon’s mistake is to assume that the Band is reducible to a single narrative—that his two characterizations of “a group engaged in indefensible behavior” and “a nerdy ragtag marching band” are mutually exclusive. Evidence suggests, in fact, that both descriptions are accurate: CUMB, which officially disbanded in September, was a haven for geeky students, a community for many who struggled to find one elsewhere; it was also an abusive institution that, in the words of former CUMB Minister of Propaganda Maria Pondikos, “literally traumatized members and nonmembers alike.”


It is telling that in the same article, CUMB Alumni President Samantha Rowan chose to criticize not the current Band’s decision to disband, but its “characterization” of the Band’s history. But this history is itself a decades-long war of conflicting narratives, all of which attempt to impose a unified “characterization” of the group. For the Band derived its power—and subsequent impact on the lives of generations of Columbia students—from stories about itself. These mythologies enabled it to perpetuate vicious cycles of trauma, entrance and alienate countless students, and stand up to a hostile administration’s attempts to disband it. And ultimately, it was reckoning with these mythologies that led Band’s members to disband it themselves.


II.

“Rejected From A Cappella? Join the Band!” – CUMB Recruitment Poster, Fall 2018 (approximate)


This poster on a Carman bulletin board firmly implanted two ideas in my first-year head: that rejection from exclusive clubs was enough of a phenomenon at Columbia to warrant a pithy flyer, and that the Band positioned itself as a bold alternative. Though I never had any inclination to join, I naively began to see the group as the antidote to the toxic elements of Columbia’s social and extracurricular scenes. In the face of widespread jostling for social status, glamor, and popularity within Greek life, a cappella, and pre-professional clubs, CUMB embraced its pitiful social stratum and took in anyone willing to do the same. And at a school whose students often fixate on academic and professional achievements, the Band was proudly unproductive and stress-free. Coming from a background in classical music, with its exorbitant financial barriers and outsize temporal demands, I was especially impressed by the Band’s willingness to accept all levels of musicianship and to provide instruments for its members—something that many cited as among the most important factors in their decisions to join. In particular, Orgo Night—CUMB’s 65-year old performance in Butler on the eve of the Organic Chemistry final—felt to me like a collective activity, the screaming Band members and the blob of stressed students performing their communal rage against the social hierarchies and self-seriousness that permeated campus.


III.

“Keep your damn frat shit out of our Band. Non-frat frat shit is still frat shit.” CUMB_Constitution, ratified Nov. 2019


My rose-tinted view of the Band closely resembled how the group tried to portray itself, with much of its self-description couched in defiance—of the administration, other clubs, Greek life, other Ivies, mainstream sources of humor. Particularly motivating was the Band’s opposition to “stress culture” on Columbia’s campus, a crusade that Joan Tate, CC ’22, the Band’s final Poet Laureate—responsible for writing Orgo Night jokes and game day scripts — cites as the most prominent internal justification for many of the Band’s more questionable pursuits.


The social identity of the Band formed as a protest against the student body’s tendency to reserve its most coveted social spaces for those with the most wealth. “We didn’t have any prestige,” Tate said. “There weren’t that many students who were really super wealthy. It was mostly a bunch of real outsiders and people who didn’t have money and who were normally very confused about stuff.”


But for all the Band’s attempts to portray itself as cutting against the social grain on campus, its internal social dynamics often mirrored those of the organizations and subcultures it nominally opposed. Tate explained that mentions of “frat shit” and “non-frat frat shit” in the CUMB Constitution often took on an ironic double meaning. On one hand, they reinforced a culture of internal loyalty to the Band, invoked jokingly against members who brought up issues from fraternities or other campus student groups. On the other, the line was a winking nod to their striking resemblance with Greek life. “Like, what is frat shit?” Tate asked rhetorically. “Because we did a lot of stuff that would be considered frat shit…. We partied constantly. We drank a lot. We… were very irresponsible. We had a huge network of alums who would sometimes give us money… We were very much just kind of like a frat for a non-frat crowd.” Tate even suggested that one of the Band’s mottos, g(tb)^2 (“grab them by the balls”), was treated as the Band’s Greek letters. In an op-ed for the Spectator published shortly after she disaffiliated from the band, Amanda Amilcar attributed many of the Band’s internal troubles to its “secretive nature” and “culture of discouraging transparency,” which, she argued, “mirrors the toxic nature of many Columbia organizations.”


And although the Band would accept anyone into its ranks, those in leadership positions often formed an exclusive clique, which likely undermined attempts at reform. CUMB’s Bored Procedure for Supporting Band Members and Maintaining a Safe Environment and Community Standard Agreement, created in 2014 during the aftermath of incidents of assault within the Band, were cited by the Spectator as the source for a genealogy of similar standards from major student organizations at Columbia. But these standards could only take effect if members reporting an incident felt that they could trust the board: any incident reported to one board member would subsequently be shared with the rest, and with no outside contact, the board would be entirely responsible for deciding on and enforcing disciplinary consequences.“The board really was not a place where people necessarily felt like they could go to,” Tate said, both because of “a gigantic breach in communication between the board and the Band” and “rumors of boards past that had gotten reports that they just really didn’t handle very seriously.” Thus the narrative of an organization dissolving social hierarchies and relieving the strains of normal campus life began to crumble.


IV.

“The culture hurt me a lot and I ignored it because I had no self-esteem and thought that it wasn’t that bad or at least better than me being alone.” – Columbia Confession #7162 Anonymous CUMB member, allegedly

It is especially difficult, of course, to trust the board to handle harassment if that harassment is both committed by the club’s leadership and inscribed in its rituals. And from what has been revealed, many of the traditions and social dynamics within the Band had two effects: they established unofficial barriers to entry that undermined the group’s claims to universal acceptance, and they forced those who remained to integrate into a sexually and emotionally degrading—or downright abusive—culture. As Pondikos put it, “Many of its ‘traditions’ actually constituted hazing.”


“Initiations,” as described by the Spectator, occurred on specific occasions, such as at an annual flashing of new members on the Staten Island Ferry or during “CUMBquest…a scavenger hunt in which former members described that at least one participant was required to strip for some challenges.” It also happened habitually, as when senior members would spontaneously undress in front of unsuspecting newbies in “jump scares.” The Band also collected and maintained intimate information about its members—any sexual experience was subject to irrevocable and uncontestable inscription on “The Napkin” or incorporation into the Band’s choral repertoire.


Meanwhile, as Amilcar notes, “The secretive nature of the CUMB consequently created a hostile environment that discouraged members from speaking out against inappropriate actions or events… we were forbidden from discussing Band events with non-Bandies.” CUMB thus predicated membership in its social community not only on subjection to harassment, but on complicity in its cover-up. The Band claimed to accept everyone who wanted to participate but made it difficult for many to feel comfortable doing so.

Choosing to leave, however, came with its own costs. Tate reflected on the fact that she had not recently spoken to many friends who had left the Band due to negative experiences—and although she expressed regret over this, her anecdote is a powerful reminder of the Band’s power to isolate those it drove away. Considering the profiles of typical Band recruits—usually outsiders, rejects from other groups on campus, students “who really didn’t know where to go”—a Bandie’s choice to leave might have amounted to forfeiting the only friendship they had on campus. And the degree to which many older students fused their personas with that of the Band made departure a potential identity crisis. So the Band presented each member with a grotesque choice between subjecting oneself to sexual harassment and losing the community that had drawn them to the Band in the first place.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the Band’s sexual culture was the contradiction between the chaotic libertinism it claimed as its spirit and the explicit subjection of members to relationships of unequal power. Sexualized forms of hazing exercised the power of higher-ranked members over newcomers; the recitation of former members’ sexual exploits, many of which were enshrined in the constitution, use the trope of sex as conquest to assert power over rival schools’ Bands; even the frequent sexualization of the Band’s public image could be interpreted as an attempt to claim social power among an age group for whom sexuality is often linked with social status. The Band’s assertions of its sexuality, then, marked the point at which bottom-up efforts to assert power against perceived external authority devolved into top-down abuse of power against peers.


V.

“I was very lost and it was a place that was offering substances. And I wanted to explore. I didn’t know what I was doing, which I think is a lot of people.” – Joan Tate, CC ’22, former CUMB Poet Laureate


CUMB’s “traditions” of harassment, hazing, and peer-pressure-induced drinking most obviously impacted those who were uncomfortable or unconsenting, but Band culture took its toll on even its most enthusiastic adherents. Tate explained to me that although she always thought of CUMB’s debauchery as optional, she often dove headfirst into the Band’s substance-centered events, both in desperate pursuit of social acceptance and in an attempt to reckon with more personal questions of identity.


And while Tate emphasized that she was speaking to her particular experience, it’s unlikely that these patterns were unique. Several former Band members emphasized the naiveté of first-years entering the Band. One remarked to the Spectator, “As a freshman, you don’t know what is just uncomfortable and what is a threat.” Given the Band’s appeal to students who are looking for a community or uncertain about their identity, it’s clear that the bacchanalian traditions often took advantage of its newcomers’ inexperience. Tate described many CUMB initiates as “people who don’t know what they’re doing or are at a very vulnerable time in their life, and they are being told, look, you don’t have to drink, but everyone’s doing it.” Internally, many members of the marching band justified such pressures by pointing to the few members of the Band who successfully refused to drink. But even if the drinking culture was technically optional, it enabled and legitimized substance abuse as a valid response to personal crises and external stresses, a manipulative practice that had the potential to cause long-lasting damage to its most vulnerable members.

Furthermore, those not driven away from the institutionalized harassment detailed above were left desensitized to instances of sexual assault and generally troubling attitudes about consent. As described by former members, sexual encounters at Band events were often treated as insignificant, and often took place when participants were far too inebriated to give affirmative consent. And that “no one batted an eye” at this toxic behavior normalized it among the incoming first-years, many of whom were grappling with the concept of consent for the first time.


The Columbia Confessions posts that precipitated the Band’s downfall—primarily accounts of actions committed by Band members against non-members—demonstrate the ripple effect of this twisted acculturation throughout the surrounding community, as individual members imposed the Band’s culture of irresponsibility on students across campus.


VI.

“I thought it was hilariously draconian when they tried to dissolve the Marching Band. The whole thing felt like a Beginner Fiction Workshop submission where the professor commented, “Your villain is one dimensional and not believable. Who would dissolve a marching band for performing in a library? AND threaten to cut the students’ financial aid? What would they have to gain!?” – Jacob Kaplan, Bwog Senior Wisdom, 2020


But for all its internal tumult, most of the public CUMB-related drama over the last four years concerned a feud with the Columbia administration. As has been extensively chronicled elsewhere, the Band was kicked out of Butler, snuck back in, lost its funding, performed outside under threat of further punishment, was disbanded by the administration, and was reinstated after intervention from the incensed alumni.


According to Pondikos, the saga distracted from the board’s efforts to reform some of the Band’s most problematic practices. External pressures from the administration shifted the immediate goals toward “what we could do to get admin’s respect.” Furthermore, the amount of work required from board members in dealing with the controversy made it more difficult for them to deal with other pressing matters inside the organization. “Executive board members were expected to liaise between administration and alumni as well as to handle the inevitable conflicts that arise as a result of what the Band does,” Pondikos said.


Externally, however, CUMB’s war with the Columbia administration was the best PR gift they could have asked for, as media coverage shifted away from the Band’s political insensitivities and toward an anti-establishment narrative that was more sympathetic to the public. Bwog’s announcement of CUMB’s expulsion was accompanied by a photo of Chief Librarian and Vice Provost Ann Thornton—who had requested that the Band be ejected—edited by CUMB members to include devil eyes and the Grinch’s Santa-hat; the Spectator’s Editorial Board published a statement opposing the move; the New York Times wrote of Fall 2018 Orgo Night, “It is hard to see who would be aggrieved by these kinds of attacks on power, except perhaps the power structure itself.”


The specific actions taken by the University played directly into this narrative, validating the Band’s greatest institutional paranoias and threatening exactly those elements of the Band that made them a sympathetic organization. By choosing to justify the original expulsion with “complaints from students about the expected disruption of their study time,” rather than the political backdrop to the event, the administration willingly played the part of the self-serious, hyper-academic, stress culture-inducing behemoth the Band claimed to oppose. Because the administration supported this logic by invoking library rules, it also framed the opposition to Orgo Night as coming from the administration rather than the student body.

According to Tate, one of the Band’s motivations to continue performing despite uncertainties about many of its traditions was the prospect of a University-sponsored replacement—one that was sanitized and free of CUMB’s boisterous culture. Rowan told the New York Times that members of the administration “want something that’s pretty on a brochure.” To confirm these fears, after banning CUMB from atheletic events, Columbia hired straight-laced high-school marching bands from the surrounding area as temporary stand-ins and announced plans for a permanent University-sponsored replacement Band—one that would require auditions.


Meanwhile, many of the administration’s tactics in disciplining the Band ended up disproportionately targeting its low-income students. Given the Band’s relatively high proportion of members who fell into this category, this only further exacerbated its public status as an underdog organization. Cutting the Band’s original sources of funding quashed its ability to pay for transportation to games, instruments, uniforms, repairs, meals during Band trips—funding that made membership possible for students who could not otherwise pay for those things themselves. The Band argued that the sources of funding proposed by the administration, through Undergraduate Student Life, would not have been sufficient to sustainably cover those expenses for each student. The worst look for the administration was its threat to jeopardize the financial aid of individual students—a form of disciplinary action completely determined by the income of each student subject to it.


And so, as the final cohort of CUMB leaders were arriving on campus, the group’s defining struggle was against an authoritarian bureaucracy that bullied low-income students, a battle far more appealing than the culture wars of just a few years before.


VII.

“Orgo Night… It’s like, a lot of white people screaming or something.” – Danielle Evans, quoting a suite-mate, in a Spec Op-Ed, 2004


But CUMB’s claims to being an institutional underdog must have rung particularly hollow to those who remembered its previous era, particularly many students of color. The Band maintained its status as, in Pondikos’ terms, a “Predominantly White Institution” by alienating students of color while also benefiting from institutional treatment not afforded to BIPOC students.


Even if, as Rowan attested, race has never been a formal barrier to entry, it is not hard to understand why the Band made a hostile impression on many students of color. A group whose members at recruitment events cried, “Is that what massa’ says to the slaves?” would not likely present itself as a welcoming community to prospective BIPOC members; a public event where the “jokes” have included, according to Tate, a bunch of white people screaming the n-word while blaring air-horns, would not be a cherished campus tradition to BIPOC students in the audience. As Evans noted in her 2004 op-ed, the Band’s reputation as a group by and for white people preceded it, which remained true until the end, even if many of its members attempted to reform some of its most racist practices.


While many Band members and alumni relished the vehement opposition to their foibles, their opponents noted that the consistent levels of support for the Band shown by both students and alumni reflected broader racist insensitivities within the campus community. In a more recent Spectator op-ed, Dunni Oduyemi and Tracey Wang argued, “The unification of predominantly white students who think it’s okay to laugh at the trauma we feel on a daily basis is literally the creation of an unsafe space.” The defense most commonly levelled against those protesting Orgo Night by both students and administrators—its status as a long-standing tradition—was particularly grating given what Evans describes as Columbia’s “real tradition of isolating minority students and exacerbating the problem with its approach to the study of marginalized groups.”

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

And despite the Band’s complaints of administrative injustice, critics have often noted a discrepancy between administrative responses to the Band’s most incendiary actions and to public controversies surrounding students of color, with the latter usually facing far more immediate consequences. Pondikos explained that this discrepancy in official responses reinforced CUMB’s status as a PWI, with the Band’s culture “weeding out students of color who could not equitably participate in the Band’s ‘chaos’ without facing disproportionate repercussions.” In other words, social life in the Band often revolved around controversial activities, such as extreme drunkenness, petty theft, and public obnoxiousness, that only white members could partake in with the confidence that they could get away with it.


VIII.

“You don’t ever have to drink, but all the cool kids are doing it.” CUMB_Constitution, ratified November 2019


It’s difficult to determine the impact of the Band’s past controversies on its final cohort. Nearly all of the members I spoke to emphasized the difference in perspectives between themselves and the Band’s alumni—and although the alumni were very vocal about “preserving Band tradition,” those from different eras often had wildly different ideas of what that tradition actually was. According to Pondikos, the last cohort had dismissed concerns about the Band’s troubling history when joining, telling themselves, “we aren’t like that anymore.” Meanwhile, many were engaged in an ongoing effort to reform the Band’s most egregious practices and texts, rewriting songs to remove particularly offensive lines. Tate described to me an attempt among recent Poet Laureates to reorient the humor of their Orgo Night jokes in order to “punch up.” The board banned the Napkin—their written record of Band members’ sexual activity—in September 2019 and very slowly began to question their institutional dependence on alcohol.


But reforming ingrained attitudes and practices was an uphill battle. “‘Reforms’ have taken place every year,” Pondikos said. “But with each reform came pressure to retain the ‘tradition’ we all learned to praise and follow religiously.” Alumni—particularly the younger ones, who hailed from an era when the Band was concerned primarily with offending as much as they possibly could—proved a reactionary influence, singing the removed lyrics at events and giving advice on running the Band that often conflicted with reform efforts. After CUMB’s feud with the administration, the Band came to rely on the alumni much more heavily for funding and negotiations with the University, making their input even harder to ignore.


Such debates regularly arose regarding particularly problematic lines in the CUMB Constitution during its annual revision—whether to preserve them for the sake of CUMB tradition or to excise them for the sake of institutional reform. The resulting compromise was a document that preserved some of the embattled lines, but crossed them out—a portrait of an institution battling within itself, of a culture suppressed but never fully out of sight.

The Band’s ambiguous history encouraged its worst tendencies: Even as progressive-minded members pushed for change, the lingering influence of the old ways validated the misanthropic and reckless actions of those who found them appealing. And so, while none of the members I spoke to knew anything about the specific incidents described on Columbia Confessions, they didn’t doubt their veracity. As Pondikos put it, “It doesn’t surprise me to know that someone would take the Band’s culture and run with it like that.”


IX.

“The pandemic most certainly was, I would say, a nail in the coffin.” – Joan Tate


As multiple former members related, the COVID-induced period of remote learning proved a watershed moment for the Band. When members had the opportunity to remove themselves from CUMB-centered campus life and emerge from its cave of suffocating mythologies, they were finally able to separate their own identities from that of the group: “With distance from the Band, a lot of people kind of recognized where they were and who they were, which is kind of hard to do when you’re in the Band,” Tate said. “I know that my identity was incredibly tied to the Band for a long time.”


Their reflections weren’t pretty. “The Band saw what we really were,” said Tate. Pondikos ventured even further: “I realized that there was no real community in the Band as a result of the shift to online learning. Although we’d all been around each other in a social setting before, it felt really uncomfortable watching everyone get drunk individually through my computer screen.”


The Columbia Confessions posts from the following summer bolstered these unsavory ruminations, giving members the language to interpret their experiences in an even more revealing way. “The Confessions posts named many of the Band’s traditions as hazing and sexual violence, which I hadn’t realized until then,” Pondikos said. “I hadn’t processed the fear and discomfort I felt until way after the fact.” The posts drew attention to the persistence of structural and cultural issues within the group, making it impossible for Band members to continue dismissing them as relics of the past. At this point, some saw the writing on the wall: By the time the Band was discussing full dissolution, five board members had already resigned.


The transition to remote life thus stripped the Band of the power it held over its members. CUMB had often functioned as an emotional crutch, its members trapped (and simultaneously complicit) in an abusive environment out of fear—of losing their community, of facing uncertainties about their identity, of complete isolation. Quarantine not only realized those fears, but made clear CUMB’s fundamental inability to address them in ways that were healthy, meaningful, and enduring. As Pondikos said, “The Band being stripped of its superficial notion of community was the first step in its downfall.”

X.

“While substantial efforts have been made in recent years toward undo-ing decades of wrongdoing, we as a Band feel ultimately that it is impossible to reform an organization so grounded in prejudiced culture and traditions.” Official CUMB Statement of Dissolution, 2020


Meanwhile, this summer, the largest civil rights movement in half a century was demanding existential reckonings across the country. BIPOC activists and organizers brought the language of abolition into national discourses, insisting that reform can never root out racism from institutions and systems that are racist and racialized to their core, from police departments to prisons to capitalism itself.


Though the movement ought not be reduced to a debate between reform and abolition, that discussion seemed to emerge everywhere, including on campus. Band members, too, started to explore the possibility that, in the end, any efforts to merely change the group would be futile.


The summer’s movements also asserted that an institution must maintain a community’s trust in order to serve it. As Tate and Pondikos both explained, the fallout from the Confessions posts made it explicitly clear that even a reformed Band would and could not earn the trust of the Columbia student population—not to properly respond to sexual harassment, nor to “fight stress culture,” nor to foster a healthy community of any kind. In addition to its internal support, the Band had lost its public mandate to exist.

So Pondikos, citing the Black Lives Matter movement, the campaign against Greek life, and the wave of Columbia Confessions posts as immediate influences, co-wrote a letter to the CUMB executive board advocating for full disbandment of the Band in all capacities. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Some of the Band members I spoke to expressed hope that a new Band, one free of CUMB traditions, leadership, and especially alumni—yet similarly financially accessible and welcoming—might eventually form in its place. For Tate, this was yet another reason that dissolution was necessary: By continuing to exist, the Band would take up space on campus that might otherwise be filled by something better. It is apt, perhaps, that a group that broke with the authoritarian tradition of the American marching band during the political tumult of the ‘60s would choose to once again break off from a reactionary past and build something new. At the very least, it would make for a very good story.


#November2020

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