In the previous installment of this growing May ’70 retrospective (criminy, can this be installment four already?) I wrote about being at the New Haven rally for Black Panther leader Bobby Seale on May Day and the call that the assembled demonstrators issued for a national student strike in the wake of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.
Thus armed, the NYU Uptown contingent headed back to campus on Saturday, May 2, to start organizing the strike. Imagine our surprise--half delight and half chagrin--when we found out that the despised campus liberals (like the student government types headed for law school and a career in the Democratic Party) already had it taped!
They had called a mass meeting and voted to go out on strike and the majority of the student body was aboard. A friend of mine ever since those days, Mindy, who had not gone to New Haven with the Uptown hardcore, recalls:
I date my getting involved in the struggle to the invasion of Cambodia. On April 30 President Richard Nixon announced to a national television audience that US troops were invading Cambodia. I was a sophomore in college. I had gone to antiwar demonstrations. But I wasn’t an activist. Then, with the invasion of Cambodia, my country crossed a line. I felt that I could not longer just be critical and express my outrage. At my campus, as at hundreds, maybe thousands across the country, students shut the school down.The same thing had happened at NYU's much larger Washington Square campus. At this point the center of the action at NYU shifted there, where the university’s administration was--as were some important targets, which I’ll write about later.
And the NYU campuses were only straws in the wind. Spontaneous demonstrations hit schools from coast to coast on May 1. At Kent State University in Ohio, for instance, an anti-war rally on the Commons drew over 500 pissed-off students; one burned a draft card, an act Congress had made a felony punishable by five years in jail, A big rally was announced for the Commons at noon on May 4. In the evening, anger exploded on a downtown strip with trashing, a bonfire street blockade and clashes with the police.
The next day, May 2, Ohio Governor James Rhodes announced he was sending in the National Guard. The mayor imposed a dusk off-campus curfew. The Guard started rolling into Kent about 10 PM, forty years ago tonight. Too late. A big demonstration had started swirling around the campus in the early evening and soon a couple thousand students were watching the ROTC building go up in flames. When the fire department showed up, first a few, then hundreds of students grabbed their hoses, unrolled them and dragged them across the campus. Police reinforcements arrived, then the National Guard, but the building burned.
So did Reserve Officers Training Corps buildings at the University of Maryland-Hobart, Princeton and Oregon State! This underlines the importance of one of the demands from the New Haven rally: End Campus Complicity With The War Machine. Being able to find immediate targets helped students take effective action against the war, and highlighted the question of what was higher education for anyhow—to serve the needs of the rich and their government or to serve the needs of the students and the people?
Dramatic though these ROTC actions were, the campus I want to highlight is the University of Maryland at College Park. May 1 started with a big rally, which proceeded to the campus ROTC building and trashed it pretty thoroughly. Then thousands of students headed down to nearby US 1, a main drag between Baltimore and the nation’s capital (especially as that stretch of 1-95 wasn’t opened until 1971).
They blocked all traffic on Route 1. Governor Marvin Mandel ordered the state cops out in force, and at 6 PM they informed the protesters that their blockade was illegal. The demonstrators informed them that the invasion of Cambodia was also illegal--and the whole occupation of Vietnam, for that matter.
Clubs swung, tear gas grenades were fired and the battle was on. After several hours it swung to the campus where all students were fair game. Cops put pepper-fogger machines in the front doors and mail slots not only of the dorms but also the frats and sororities on Fraternity Row and beat the students as they fled the teargas for open air. The battle didn’t die down until about 3 AM. And while US 1 was no longer a liberated zone, it would remain contested territory in the coming weeks, blockaded again and again.
A grace note to the whole thing. News reports on the war meant many students knew of the main North-South road in South Vietnam-- Highway 1--running the coast from Hue through Danang to Saigon and down into the Delta and frequently cut by National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) guerillas. Thus one of the slogans chanted during this and subsequent blockades of Route 1 was “Highway 1, Highway 1, Take Saigon And Washington!”
I have loved that chant since I was first told of it forty years ago, so much so that I hate having to play the pedant and deconstruct it for those of you who may not have been in the house then. Oh, well. Note that it rather matter-of-factly takes the side of the Vietnamese against the US occupation. This reflected a big step many young activists had taken over the preceding years--from opposing the war because war is a Bad Thing or because this one was unnecessary to opposing it because the Vietnamese were right, and our government was wrong.
The other noteworthy thing is the semi-joking reference to taking Washington. We knew that wasn’t about to happen right away, but the idea that it might have to be done to win real change in this country was spreading.
And it wasn’t entirely a joke. Before another week was out, the administration would decide it was a good idea to secretly shift President Nixon from the White House to Camp David for a couple of days, and to fill the basement of the executive office building with armed troops from the 82nd Airborne!
Click here to read this series from the beginning.
Click here to read the next installment.