May ’70: 11. The Campuses Start To Empty Out

(2PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Before following up on the strategy that college and university administrators were adopting to defuse the strike on many campuses, I want to tip the hat to the Canadian radicals who took a page from Richard Nixon and invaded the border town of Blaine, Washington from Vancouver on May 9.

Declaring they were doing it to strike at “sanctuaries for aggression,” the 500 or so young militants vowed that they’d go no further than 19 miles into US territory, the limit Nixon had placed on his Cambodia invasion. That far they didn’t get, retreating in good order into British Columbia after trashing the Bank of Commerce and most of the vehicles on a freight train hauling new autos. A joke, certainly, but a pretty pointed one and the first foreign invasion of any of the United States since the War of 1812.

Yesterday I wrote of how University administrators around the country were adopting or contemplating a strategy of proclaiming agreement with their protesting students and shutting down the campuses., declaring the school year ended early. This, folks who have read the third installment of this retrospective study may recall, was the strategy adopted by Yale president Kingman Brewster as he faced the May Day protests in New Haven.

[An interesting sidenote: Brewster had adopted this strategy after holding a secret meeting held in rural Massachusetts under the guise of a picnic. The other party there was Archibald Cox, head of the Harvard Law School, who shared the mistakes made at his campus the previous year when the administration sent in the cops in to retake an occupied building. Their brutality enraged many uninvolved students and triggered a hard fought, weeklong student strike.]

A couple bloggers at the left liberal Daily Kos site who had been at Michigan State in May ’70 wrote comments about the piece I reposted there yesterday. A woman named Pam described how intense the struggle had been:

During this period I was a student manager at the MSU Union Bldg. The riots that broke out because of the Cambodia invasion occurred when I was on duty at the Union. It was real bad.

We were directly assaulted with tear gas fired into the building air intakes. I had received assurances from the state police that they would not do that because I had several groups of elderly citizens meeting there. Several students who had been on the street came in to clean the gas out of their eyes and I recruited them to help me take care of our elderly visitors.

After days of intensifying struggle, suddenly things changed according to a DKos regular who goes by austinblue:

As I recall, Michigan State was roiling. Then President Wharton cancelled classes just before Mother’s Day weekend, and poof, the air just went out of the Movement.

I was astonished at how effective the tactic was. Up to that point I thought he wasn’t paying attention (remember Nixon watching football a couple years later?), but it turned out that he outplayed us, or maybe he just lucked out. Whichever, the strike lost all momentum after the campus emptied out for a few days, and I always saw that last day of classes before the weekend as the peak of the Movement on our campus.

Naturally, most students seized the opportunity, when it presented itself, to get away from campus and start chasing summer jobs early. But not all did. My bud, Mindy who was at NYU Uptown with me recalls:

At my campus, as at hundreds, maybe thousands across the country, students shut the school down. I don’t remember now how it happened but I know that there were no final exams and there are no grades on my college transcript for the second semester of 1970. It’s just 16 credits of PASS.

Somehow contact was made with students at the nearby high schools in the Bronx, the girls at Walton and the kids at Taft, and at Lehman College. Within a few days there was a massive march down the Grand Concourse. It wasn’t just students; lots of regular people from neighborhoods in the Bronx came out to protest. Speakouts were held on campus over the next few weeks. Workshops were developed on the war in Vietnam, the expansion into Cambodia, U.S. imperialism, racism, feminism. We set up a summer day care center for Bronx parents who lived near the school. We demanded, and got, free dorm space for the summer.

I don’t know how we did it. I don’t remember what it was like day-to-day. But I do remember that I was no longer a quiet college student, working hard in my classes and at my off campus part-time job while also trying to get a better understanding of how my country worked. I had become, and after many twists and turns, remain, a committed political activist.

The school’s administration was amazingly cooperative, as Mindy indicates. If folks were using the university’s resources to provide sanctuary and real education to local high school kids or Serve the People programs to the community, they didn’t mind. Those who stayed in those free dorms and worked themselves to the bone all summer to create a different kind of institution with a different kind of relationship to the community were welcome to do so. Professors who wanted to help were encouraged to do so.

I’d like to think that the folks who ran NYU were open to developing a new vision of their institution, but we didn’t believe it at the time, and nothing that they have done since has ever suggested we were wrong. They did it largely because while we were only a handful, the respect we had won from many who would be returning in the fall made them think twice about trashing us. And the ties folks like Mindy were patiently starting to build in the West Bronx were turning our attention away from our student peers and campus affairs and toward the community. And they looked good doing it. All in all, it was a bargain for them.


    • dennis on May 11, 2010 at 06:18

    something smart or at least lively to kick things off here, but I am beat and rebeat…

  1. They did it largely because while we were only a handful, the respect we had won from many who would be returning in the fall made them think twice about trashing us.

    … make me think about the left (a handful) and the Democratic Party (“them”)?

    This is a great series, dennis, thanks.

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