Originally posted May 4, 2009.
Editor: The following was forwarded to us, apparently written by somebody involved in the anti Viet-Nam war protests of a generation ago. They describe their experiences including a sit-in at the University of California San Diego the day the Kent State Massacre occurred. For obvious reasons, they wish to remain anonymous.
by Dr Anonymouse
May 4th, 1970, is forever etched in my brain and memory cells. I was a student at UCSD, and we had just taken over the 5th floor of Urey Hall – a Science building – in protest of the University’s complicity in the Vietnam War, when we heard the bad news from Kent State. It came over a small radio someone had perched on a chair out on the balcony overlooking the Quad.
I was part of a contingent of about 200 students who, at the prescribed moment, rushed the fifth floor of the ugly edifice named after a top nuclear scientist on the spreading La Jolla campus. We took over the elevators, jammed them with chairs, and somehow locked the doors to the stair wells. Some of us went around the floor, pounding on the doors to labs and offices, shouting “End the war, shut it down!” or words to that effect.
It has been 39 years. I can still feel those emotions, however, and I wanted to bring them back as we commemorate the Kent State Massacre of that May 4th – so many moons ago.
There had been protests against the Vietnam War at UCSD since the mid-sixties, but until things started to escalate in 1969 and then in 1970, most of these protests consisted of peaceful demonstrations, with speeches and teach-in’s, pickets and signs.
Sometime, I think, in late 1969, a small band of militant students gained access to records at the campus contracts office that disclosed UCSD had all kinds of contracts with the military, the Navy, the Pentagon, the Defense Department, corporate war-profiteers, and so on. This showed that the school was not some ivory tower but deeply involved in a war thousands of miles away that was tearing our country apart.
When the rest of us who were involved in anti-war protests found out about this complicity with what we then called “the War Machine” – a complicity that contradicted official statements and denials by administrators and top University officials – we upped the ante. We became more militant.
Military and corporate recruiters were physically blocked. Certain professors who were notorious in their connections with the military-industrial complex were identified and picketed – although no physical harm or injury ever occurred. Sit-in’s of campus buildings started to take place.
It does get confusing when I attempt to remember the sequence of events. I vividly recall this one sit-in, where several hundred students donned paper bags, with an enlarged photo of Chancellor McGill’s face on the outside. This was an ingenious -and funny – ploy to avoid recognition, of course, by campus cops and administrators. We sat in – and really nothing happened. The point of sit-ins was to bring business as usual to a halt. At the end of the day, we left the building peacefully.
As the war escalated, as President Nixon charged into Cambodia, college campus protests around the country grew more and more militant, where physical confrontations with campus cops and local riot police were happening in rapid succession from city to city, school to school.
The Night the Campus Police Building Was Rockin’
There was this one outrageous incident at UCSD that is clear as a bell. Anti-war radicals had split into at least several groups: the anarchists – who included new lefties and political hippies, the hardcore Maoists who then ran SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the liberals – antiwar professors and grad students who weren’t “radical” enough, the Trots who always for some reason had their own agenda (“Trot” is short for Trotskyist – a follower of Leon Trotsky – one of the troika of the Russian revolution of 1917. Actually Trotsky was no worst than the others, and he at least appreciated culture and literature – I’m getting off on a tangent – sorry.)
Back to this one incident I remember very well. I was at the anarchist meeting one evening. About sixty of us, sitting around in chairs or on the floor, on the bottom conference room of one of the dorms, were discussing our next action. We knew SDS was also meeting around the same time in another building across the Quad. Some times we did things with them, sometimes we didn’t.
Suddenly, a guy runs into the meeting room and yells that campus police are arresting people at the SDS meeting! To a person, we immediately jumped up and rushed across campus – and saw the school security herding several handcuffed students we knew into police cars. A German grad student with a thick accent kept yelling: “This is what they did in Wiemar Germany! This is what they did in Wiemar Germany!”
It was outrageous. Campus police rushing into a student meeting, arresting students for something they may have done with regards to the theft – we called it “liberating” – of records that showed proof of university contracts with war -profiteers.
I saw a guy I knew from high school being roughed up, and forced through the back door of the police car. He was resisting. Instinctively, we rushed the car to help him – but before we reached them, he was violently thrown into the backseat and the car roared off towards the UC Police Station – on another part of campus. The other cop cars drove off. By the way, that guy who was thrown into the car later became a medical doctor.
Furious, a large group of us that had now assembled started off for the police HQ. We went running, and broke up into smaller groups. Windows were being smashed. Urns were tipped over and shattered. But nothing too heavy or expensive.
Someone yelled out that one of the top administrators wanted to make a speech to us. We rounded ourselves up and stood outside the single-storied wooden building. He came out – I forget his name – and in the dark attempted to assure us that everything would be taken care of, people’s rights would be respected, proper procedures would be followed. His words defied reality. While speaking from an impromptu stage, he suddenly staggered and nearly fell forward. He was smashed. Totally drunk. I think I saw a bottle appearing his back pocket.
If we weren’t pissed off yet, this did it. We were livid – rights were being violated, bullshit was being shoveled at us. And it was all a cover-up of what the University really was doing for the war. We were even more outraged.
People left the administrator and started pelting the police station with rocks. Yes, it rained rocks on the small beige, wooden security building that night, lit-up by glaring lights, making it a fine target. This went on for about 15 to 20 minutes when the campus cops made a run for it and dashed to their cars. This part is a little fuzzy.
The mini-riot did fizzle out. Many people, spent of their energy, drifted back to the dorms. Some ran to other buildings and smashed more plate glass windows. Others retreated to their domiciles to plot, laugh and wonder at the series of events swirling around them, as they traded J’s and poured homemade beer.
Things did get crazy when Nixon invaded Cambodia. Do you see why? All along, he was telling the American people he had a plan for peace, “peace with honor.” Peace negotiations were going on in Paris. Then all of a sudden, on April 30th, Nixon lands a bombshell. He announced that we were invading another country – the total opposite direction that we were supposed to be going.
It made the anti-war movement go loco – . Campus protesters went into over-drive, demos, protests, sit-in’s, teach-in’s, take over of buildings, firing up ROTC buildings, fighting with helmeted cops who had billy clubs. It was going on across the country, in hundreds of schools, involving thousands, tens of thousands of students. And more…
The May 4th Sit-In of Urey Hall
I was not part of the decision-making process. But some of the disparate antiwar groups decided to do a joint sit-in of Urey Hall – a science building – one of the centers of the University’s complicity with war, as many of the offices of those professors with DOD contracts were located there.
We were to meet at 8 or 9 am. Once there, we ran up the stairs, commandeering the elevators and physically taking over a couple of floors. There was no plan to do damage to the building or to the offices, and none occurred. We just wanted to close down this center of the war – at least temporarily. For the next couple of hours, I hung out with friends on the fifth floor, arms hanging over the balcony. We were serious and young. We laughed, grimaced, smoked cigarettes, and waited for the school’s response. What would they do?
If they sent in the campus cops, would we fight them? Or would we go limp? Or would we simply run out of the building over to another one and take that one over? Someone had brought a sack full of rocks in preparation of a possible defense of our situation. Things were happening so fast in those heady days of protest and resistance that these kinds of scenarios often were not planned out. We weren’t carefully organized into affinity groups like protest groups were during the anti-nuke days of civil disobedience of the early 1980s.
But we were ready for whatever the University wanted to dish out. Our very own institution had become corrupted before our eyes. The school was part of the war machine. We – the students – were part of the war machine – unless we did something to resist it, to stand up to it. As Mario Savio said, “we’re just cogs of the machine” and at times we have to put our bodies in the gears of the machine.
As we stood there on the exposed balcony floor, we felt part of the wave of student-inspired uprisings that was just now sweeping across the nation. Our kin were doing this, and things like this, all over the country. Our brothers and sisters were doing sit-ins, bringing schools to a halt – all together. All over a few days. It was May 4th. Only 5 days earlier had Nixon invaded Cambodia. Since then, our world of campus life had exploded. There could be no business as usual.
We felt a deep solidarity with those other students and communities reacting to this significant escalation of the war. And of course, we all had individual responses to those times of crisis. But we acted together – a minority – a small minority compared to the thousands of students who were on campus – but a focused minority that was bringing the issue of the war directly to the other students, the faculty, the campus employees – many unionized, and importantly, to the larger community.
The radio perched on a chair was bringing us news of other demonstrations and protests. Then the chilling news from Kent State came in. National guardsmen had opened fire on demonstrating students and had killed four of them, wounding another score. Oh, my god. I lit up another cigarette. The killings proved that America was at war with its youth.
I now search my emotional memory. What was going through my young mind back then, nearly 40 years ago, as I stood on that balcony? Were we scared? Did the shootings put fear into us?
Mostly what I recall is a type of grim determination settling in. There was no more laughter or nervous joking. No tears were shed – not then. It could be us next, we thought. But we held our ground. We remained on the balcony.
This was war. Those killed and wounded could have been us. That sack of rocks looked pitifully worthless, however.
Finally, some time in the late afternoon, we ended our sit-in, peacefully. We ran down the stair wells and gathered for a final whoop, and then we all dispersed in different directions.
It was not over, of course. With the shootings at Kent, and then a few days later at Jackson State where two more students demonstrating against the war were killed, the antiwar students at UCSD joined the national student strike. There were protests everyday at this point.
On May 10th, six days after Kent State, an undergraduate by the name of George Winnie Jr. immolated himself on Revelle Plaza in protest of the war. I was not on campus that day so I did not witness this terrible sacrifice by one of my peers.
With the Student Strike, we did shut down the University at La Jolla. In fact, all UC campuses were shut down. Hundreds of colleges across America were closed. And then, for us in California, then-governor Ronald Reagan ordered all state colleges to shutter their classes for the duration of the school year. This ended the student strike here in San Diego, but not student anti-war demonstrations.
Looking back, I think the Kent State shootings hardened my convictions – that America was definitely going in the wrong direction, away from the founding principles, and it needed to be changed. I had a bumpersticker that read: “America: Change It or Lose it.”
I started thinking and reading about social change and revolution. I soon came to believe that my country – a country that I loved – needed another revolution. I still hold these beliefs. Somewhere in the glass-towers that dominate downtown San Diego is a professional – a doctor – who is a revolutionary – someone who wants to overturn the corporate order of war that has taken over our land. It is me, and unlike the last of some decimated Native Indian tribe, I know there are others like me – out there.
We didn’t go away, America. We’re still here – most of us – and we still want fundamental change. We are still revolutionaries at heart – and Kent State made us that way.