May 3, 2010

May '70: 5. The Gathering Storm

May the Third, 1970 was a Sunday.

The main thing about it was that we still really didn't quite have a handle on what was happening. Not did we know what was about to happen. Those who had spent years fighting campus battles--or who felt ourselves part of the broader multifaceted forces of social justice generally known as The Movement--were pretty much as full of excitement and uncertainty as the high school sophomore who had suddenly decided that she would cut school on Monday and head on over to see what was happening at the local college.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we now know that forces were gathering which would only one day in the future recast everything that had happened so far and intensify it by an order of magnitude.

What were we doing on May 3?

Though Students for a Democratic Society was gone, and with it any chance of real national leadership and coordination, it would be wrong to overestimate our isolation. Local successor groups and semi-formal regional networks were solidly in place in many parts of the country.

The first thing we did was share information. That was harder in the pre-Internet days, but every nugget plucked from a high school classmate or sib who had gone to a different school halfwayacross the country, every report from the radio, the teevee or the newspaper, circulated immediately.

And we networked. 20 campuses in the mid-Atlantic area had representatives at an emergency meeting at the University of Pennsylvania to coordinate strike activity.

And we organized. In the Boston area alone, organizers at M. I. T., Harvard. Tufts and Boston University were building for mass meetings on Monday to vote on strike proposals, while students at Brandeis met in their dormitories on the 3rd to decide what action to take. More than a dozen campus newspapers around the country endorsed the demands coming out from New Haven rally two days before.

[Interestingly the article from the Harvard Crimson issue of May 4th where I found some of this info reported 1. that a "National Strike Committee" had come out of the May Day rally in New Haven and 2. that there was a fourth demand, Impeach Nixon. A good call, history would prove, but I don't remember it myself, and for sure it was not on the semi-canonical 11x17 black on yellow strike poster.]

What were they doing on May 3?

Around the country, school administrators, government officials and cops were also feverishly sharing information and trying to plan their response to something they had never expected--a deeply militant and locally-centered national student strike.

Newspaper editorials ran the whole gamut, from full throated denunciations to timid declarations that we were right to be concerned and it was too bad that we were going about things in the wrong way.

On May 3, Governor Rhodes of Ohio, raging after the National Guard contingent he deployed to Kent State failed to stop the burning of the campus ROTC building the night before, said of student protesters in a table-pounding radio broadcast:

They're worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the night riders and vigilantes. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. And I want to say this: They're not going to take over a campus.
Now we today we are used to hearing rhetoric on this order from yahoos like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh directed at protesters, movie stars, Democratic elected officials and miscellaneous other targets whose sin is having a political outlook to the left of, say, Vlad the Impaler.

The difference is that these clowns are media figures, entertainers. Governor Rhodes held political power in the state of Ohio. He had a state police force and tens of thousands of National Guard troops to back up his big talk. So did California governor Ronald Reagan, who had had threatened campus demonstrators only a month earlier, on April 7, saying "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with." So did President Nixon, whose Cambodia speech (which I quoted in the second of these May '70 posts) conjured up the threat of anarchy and warned that "Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed."

Let me repeat, these people exercised state power, to use a fine old Marxist term. They ran the government. And while we knew that they were potentially capable of using the force at their disposal, we were also wrapped in a cocoon of privilege, white privilege for most of us and the class privilege that comes from being college students, being in a transitional class location en route, many of us, to professional and managerial careers.

Yes, white folks had been killed in protests--James Rector was gunned off a roof by Berkeley cops during the People's Park riot the year before. Yes, students at traditionally Black college campuses had been shot in cold blood by police--three had been killed just two years before at South Carolina State in Orangeburg.

So we knew they could kill us, but we didn't quite believe they would.

Click here to read this series from the beginning.

Click here to read the next installment.

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