Lessons from the 1970 Student Strike

by on January 12, 2008 · 0 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Organizing, Peace Movement, War and Peace

(Editor’s Note: This article appeared a year and a half ago, but as it is mainly a history lesson from days of old, I thought it relevant for our continuing discussion on “The Future Direction of the Peace Movement.”)

Building a Movement that will be Stronger After the US is Out of Iraq

By BILL SIMPICH — May 18, 2006

Following the April 29 antiwar march in New York, which gathered 350,000 participants and very little press coverage, it looks like the movement to end the war in Iraq is poised to make the shift from single-day protests to an action campaign. There is a call for a “Declaration of Peace”, endorsed by United for Peace and Justice and twenty-five other antiwar organizations, calling for a week of agitation and civil disobedience with a focus primarily but not solely at Congressional offices throughout the country during the second half of September, after spending the next four months organizing and getting each Congressional member position on the war on record.

The strategy is to ensure that the war is a central issue in the November election, with a call for an immediate comprehensive withdrawal designed to “bring the troops out now”. The emerging plan is to sustain a steady string of actions over the initial weeks in September while Congress is still in session, with the hope that new people will join in and the campaign will attain a rhythm of its own. These actions would include everything from lobbying to civil disobedience.

Such a call raises some perennial questions about the structure of such a action campaign: Single-issue or multi-issue? Electoral or non-electoral targets? Traditional or confrontational? Centralized or decentralized? There is an understanding that local regions are free to pick and choose their own protest targets. Go to the Declaration of Peace website and let them know what you think..

I believe that such a campaign should include a call for economic justice, whether as a “peace dividend” or as some other formulation, ensuring that the movement stands with the poor and the working class in America and worldwide. Such a position will aid in building a movement that continues to grow after the troops leave Iraq, and lessen the potential of any “divide-and-conquer” tactics by our adversaries. Go back to the days of May in 1970, after Nixon’s April 30 announcement that he was sending ground troops into Cambodia – the high-water mark of the antiwar struggle in the US, and the alliances and strategies of that period that impacted our objective to get the US military out of Southeast Asia.

During the spring of 1970, as the anti-Vietnam war forces were looking for direction, the “justice” side of the surge for “peace and justice” was on the move in New Haven. On May Day of 1970, 15,000 gathered on the Yale campus for a tense three-day weekend of action at the height of a student strike to protest the attempted frame-up of Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale (also a defendant of the antiwar Chicago 8) for murder. The trial revealed Seale’s innocence and the central role of a probable FBI informant. (Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The Cointelpro Papers) In a highly militarized atmosphere, the authorities’ hopes for a shoot-out were dashed as the Panthers and the students kept the peace and the focus on Bobby’s upcoming trial. The lasting image was of Yale president Kingman Brewster (the model for “President King” in Doonesbury) stating that “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

During that fateful weekend, campuses began rising up throughout the country. They began to adopt Yale’s tactic of a “student strike”, a on-the-spot national mobilization in Washington DC for the following weekend, and a call for solidarity with the Panthers. It is noteworthy that the Panthers were one of the few African American groups willing to build alliances with the left during this era, and that Kent State University was part of this history. During November of 1968, Oakland, California police recruiters actually came all the way to Kent, Ohio. Protesting the racist history of this perpetual foe of the Oakland-based Panthers, African American students and others walked off campus and set up a “university in exile”. Students returned only when the administration agreed to set up an African American studies program – now known as the Department of Pan-African Studies. (Melissa Hostetler, “Thirty Years of Activism at Kent State” April 27, 2002, Friction Magazine)

Nixon knew how dangerous this alliance was. Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman wrote notes in his longhand journal on May 6 that indicate Nixon’s thinking:

“Re student crisis
q. of what to do
consider the Comm (note: The later-created “Pres. Comm. on Campus Unrest”)
but not as Kent State
whole matter of unrest re: ROTC,
war, curriculum, environment, Black Panther,
& Cambodia
find more eff. way to communicate–
in view of tragedy K State, Yale, Ohio State.
— get bkgrd of reasons for riots at various campuses.”

(National Archives/Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NPM); White House Special Files; Staff Member and Office Files; Haldeman, 5/6/70, no page numbers)

Is it any wonder why the Panthers were targeted so mercilessly for extinction by the police and the intelligence agencies during this era? Chicago BPP leader Fred Hampton worked with “white greasers” such as the Young Patriots – that’s the stuff that social change is made of, when people leave their comfort zone and work with people that are very different from them. Hampton was assassinated in his bed by federal and state law enforcement officers on December 4, 1969, during the Chicago 8 trial. It took twelve years for lawyers and activists to bring the FBI and the Chicago cops to heel for that horrifying act and ensuing cover-up, which even the courts ultimately could not stomach. (For more, google “Hampton v. Hanrahan, 600 F.2d 600 (7th Cir. 1979)”) Would history have changed if alliances with the Panthers had stayed strong, and not succumbed to such ridicule as that touted during autumn ’70 that such alliances were “radical chic”?

When the Kent State students were attacked by National Guard gunfire on Monday, May 4 (four killed, nine wounded), campuses shut down across the country. 350 institutions went out on strike, and 536 schools were shut down completely for some period of time, 51 of them for the entire year. More than half the colleges and universities in the country (1350) were ultimately touched by protest demonstrations. (Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, pp. 636-637) On the close of business on May 4, the stock market had its biggest plunge since Nov. 22, 1963. The Wall Street Journal sounded the bell: “It isn’t 1970 anymore. It’s 1928 and seven eighths.”

Histories of the era fail to address how Nixon quailed under the pressure of the growing national student strike and related protest. On May 5, he agreed to pull the troops out of Cambodia by the end of June, shortly before a bipartisan resolution known as “Cooper-Church” would have forced him to do it. The embarrassing nature of Nixon’s retreat five days after his presidential address illustrates the power of the movement in that moment.

Meanwhile, the White House decided to resort to direct physical attack to ensure that labor would not revolt from AFL-CIO’s George Meany and join the students in the streets. Meany’s main rival, Walter Reuther of the UAW, spent two days writing a public antiwar statement and was determined to take action (Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York; Basic Books, p. 437); UAW Department of Public Affairs, “The Last Public Statement by Walter Reuther,” in Appendix of Out Now, Fred Halstead, p. 546), but died in a mysterious plane crash on May 8 that remains suspicious to his family and an investigative question to this day. (Dirty Truths, Michael Parenti, City Lights Books, 1996) But what is well-documented is the White House sponsorship of the hardhat attacks on the students in New York City.

On May 5, construction workers, or “hardhats”, at a City College of New York building site attacked a rally-bound student with the war cry, “‘I was in Vietnam and I love to kill gooks.’ (New York Times, 5/6/70, p. 20). On May 6, hundreds of protesting students in Battery Park were attacked by “a number of workers from a nearby unfinished building.”, and a larger attack followed on a Wall Street rally later that day. (NYT, 5/7/70, p. 19; 5/8/70, p. 16) After many phone threats, the “hardhats” returned in force in the biggest attack yet on the morning of May 8, attacking another Wall Street rally in a precise assault behind standard-bearers hoisting American flags from all four directions. The protesters were attacked with fists, kicks, and heavy metal tools. The police on the scene shouted encouragement and doffed their helmets to the American flag. (Washington Post, 5/10/70; Washington Star, 5/17/70). Carrying walkie-talkies, the hardhats proceeded to storm City Hall, Trinity College, and Pace College (the national student strike clearinghouse).

The “walkie-talkies” indicated tactical control. That summer, Scanlan’s magazine reproduced a memo from Vice President Spiro Agnew identifying these hardhat-riot organizers as operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency– one of the bombshells that led the Nixon Administration to drive Scanlan’s out of the magazine business. (Philip S. Foner, “‘Bloody Friday’– May 8, 1970,” Left Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1980, p. 20; on the Scanlan’s story see Mission Betrayed.)

A lawsuit filed by antiwar protesters later unearthed White House tapes containing the following conversation between Nixon and Haldeman:

HALDEMAN: they’re going to stir up some of this Vietcong flag business as Colson’s gonna do it through hard hats and Legionnaires. What Colson’s gonna do on it, and what I suggested he do, and I think that they can get away with this, do it with the teamsters. Just ask them to dig up their eight thugs.

PRESIDENT: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: Just call what’s his name.

PRESIDENT: Fitzsimmons. (Frank Fitzsimmons was the head of the Teamsters, succeeding the jailed Jimmy Hoffa)

HALDEMAN: Is trying to get– play our game anyway, is just, just tell Fitzsimmons–

PRESIDENT: — they’ve got the guys who’ll go in and knock their heads off.

HALDEMAN: Sure. Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that’s what they really do. Like the steelworkers have and– except we can’t deal with the steelworkers at the moment.

PRESIDENT: No.

HALDEMAN: they’re the regular strikebuster types and all that and then they’re going to beat the [obscenity] out of some of these people. And hope they really hurt ’em. You know, I mean, go in with some real– and smash some noses [tape noise] some pretty good fights.

(Seymour Hersh, “1971 Tape Links Nixon to Plan to Use ‘Thugs’,” New York Times, September 24, 1981, pp. 1 and (excerpts) 26).

A key organizer of the attacks was Peter J. Brennan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, stating “any child” should know that “violence by them can bring violence by our people or others disagreeing with them.” As for the “unknowns” who had done the punishing, “Perhaps a few ruffians opened the door to some sanity.” (Brennan was later to become Nixon’s Secretary of Labor, only to be indicted and convicted based on still other corrupt activities.)

Even conservatives saw “disconcerting similarities between the fury of the workers and the Nazis during the last days of the Weimar Republic.” (“Wall Street: Three Days That Shook the Establishment,” Business Week, May 16, 1970, p. 24). Ironworker Charles Rivers came to the same conclusion: “I didn’t see Americans in action. I saw the black shirts and brown shirts of Hitler’s Germany.” (Emanuel Perlmutter, “Heads of Buildings Trade Unions Here Says Response Favors Friday’s Action,” New York Times, May 12, 1970, p. 18). Mainly due to this tumult, the labor movement was unable to reach even a partial consensus on joining the Vietnam protests in a mass way until the autumn of 1971.

High tension was the backdrop to the hastily called mobilization in Washington, DC, on Saturday, May 9. This event caused a permanent split in the national mobilization committee that was never resolved. On one side was the Socialist Workers Party and its unwavering belief that the way to end the war was to organize with repeated one-time rallies with the broadest possible message (“Out Now”). On the other side was the radicals and pacifists of what would become the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice, who believed in multi-issue organizing and the need to leaven mass mobilizations with civil disobedience.

A key “dirty tricks” tactic of the FBI involved “exploiting the hostility” between other sectors of the left and the SWP. Like the CPUSA, the Trotskyist SWP (aka “Trots”) was plagued with infiltrators during this period – a working estimate is that every third member was actually a government informant. James Kirkpatrick Davis, Spying on America: The FBI’s Domestic Counteintelligence Program. (New York; Praeger, 1992), P. 137.

Regardless of motives, the SWP was clearly counterproductive on the day in question. When Dave Dellinger and other organizers explained that they wanted to conduct a mass sit-in of thousands in front of the White House, an SWP spokesman responded that if Dellinger advocated civil disobedience at the rally, “the microphone would be cut off until they could gain control and denounce the call”. (Dellinger, More Power than We Know (1980) pp. 137, 141.)

“(T)he Trots were opposed to the sit-in. The White House was already encircled with buses. If we circled it with people, they said, there could be provocateurs who would set the buses on fire and blame it on us. So the marshals (who had been trained by Bradford Lyttle and the Socialist Workers Party’s Fred Halstead) labeled CD as violent. They violence-baited it.” Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? America’s Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975. (Garden City, N.Y.; Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984), p. 324.

The May 9 mobilization went nowhere, as directionless people wilted in the 100 degree heat and wandered off to picnic lunches, to cool off in the reflecting pools, or to burn off steam in ineffectual assaults on the double wall of buses. Further outrages such as the shooting deaths of two African American students at Jackson State and six African Americans in Augusta later that month were decried by movement leaders, but did not get the resources needed to effectively link with the mobilization. Instead, the media and the elites anointed “responsible” people to recruit people in an effort to elect antiwar candidates in accordance with the Movement for a New Congress’ “Princeton Plan”, and joined in a chorus designed to separate themselves from the “irresponsible” people responsible for the national student strike and busy drafting a “Peoples’ Peace Treaty” directly with the Vietnamese people. The Princeton Plan failed in changing the complexion of Congress, while the few authentic antiwar firebrands such as Democrat Al Lowenstein and Republican Charles Goodell were targeted by the Nixon Administration for defeat. It would take three more painful years to build alliances strong enough to stop the bombing of Indochina and enable the Vietnamese to decide their own destiny, and it was hard times for the antiwar movement afterwards.

Let’s learn from these tactics of division and build a multi-layered movement based on inclusion that will enable many different groups to participate without abandoning their own agendas. Such a strategy will ensure that the antiwar movement will be stronger after the US out of Iraq than it was before. We also have to force the war machine out of Afghanistan, the Middle East, and many other places. Without trying to be overly flip, let’s bring the “responsible” and the “irresponsible” people together. Those lobbying Congress for an unconditional end to the war seem like a reasonable alternative when people are in motion in the streets. We don’t have to agree on everything, but let’s make room at the table and treat each other with respect. At the protests during Bush’s inauguration, the black bloc was targeted by the police and rescued by the women of NOW. They had each other’s back. Let’s back each other with projects like the Declaration of Peace, and engage with each other to make sure that all of us are heard. If you have concerns about the direction of the project, get involved now and bring your concerns to the table. With a focus on both the war and economic justice, we can build the kind of peace and justice movement that looks like the world we want to live in.

Bill Simpich is an Oakland civil rights attorney and an antiwar activist. Credit goes to the late Charles A. Thomas for a number of the references provided in this article. (see the Blood of Isaac and his other writings at . Simpich can be reached at: billsimpich@yahoo.com

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