Friday, May 4, 2012

Revisiting My Own Private Kent State

After the Kent State shootings student protests and strikes erupted across the nation.

Note:  The memoir portion of this entry was first posted on this blog on May 5, 2010.

May 4th is a date fraught with significance in American history.  On this date in 1886 a mass protest meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square was attacked by a phalanx of police.  A bomb was thrown.  Eventually the leaders of the labor and anarchist movements were hung and May Day became International Labor Day in their memory.

On May 4th 1961 the first Freedom Riders set off from Washington, D.C. split between two coaches, a Greyhound and a Trailways.  The plan was to ride through the South through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending with a rally in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The aim was to desegregate public accommodations in the South.  Ten days into the trip, after several ugly incidents, the buses were attacked outside of Birmingham by Ku Klux Klan led mob attacked and severely beat the riders and set fire to the buses.  The attack drew national attention and the ride was completed by more volunteers.

But for folks of my generation, May 4, 1970 will always be the day when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on student anti-war demonstrators on the campus of Kent State University killing 4 and injuring several.  The shootings sparked a nation-wide wave of campus protests.
What follows is an account of my own small part in those events, as best as my poor memory can reconstruct things more than 40 years later.


I must have been at my brother Tim’s (later known as Peter) apartment on Sheridan Road near the Morse Ave. Beach when we got the news of the shooting.  Oddly, unlike other Great Events, I can’t fix in my mind the moment I heard the news.  Rather than hop on the L to get to my own school, Columbia College, a small communications college located on a few floors of a commercial building at Grand Ave. and the Inner Drive north of the Loop, my brother convinced me to go with him as his friends to his campus, Kendall College in Evanston.  Kendall was then a small, private two year college mostly drawing students from the northern suburbs.  Neither the school nor my brother was particularly politically active.  Tim was the center of acid dropping spirituality and the self-appointed guru to a circle of acolytes, many of them fellow students at Kendall.  He said he left the Revolution to me.  

When we arrived on campus, students were in full possession of the buildings and the administration was nowhere to be found, although some faculty was on hand mingling with the students.  There was no police presence; it was as though the administration had simply abandoned the school to the students.
Some folks had gone over to join Northwestern students at barricades erected on Sheridan RoadOthers milled about trying to figure out what to do.  One student was working a Ham Radio and gathering information from actions at campuses across the country.  We soon realized that this could become an asset. 

Phone connections were somehow made with students from campuses across the Chicago area and we fed them news gleaned from the Ham operator.  Not all of that information was reliable, some turned out to be wild rumor, but enough was good so that it became apparent that we were part of a spontaneous nationwide student strike that was growing by the hour. 

Besides participating in the phone network, I started posting the news on large sheets of paper, updated regularly throughout the night to keep students informed.  I called them the Joe Hill Memorial Wall Posts and had about a dozen of them lining hallways by the time the night was over. 

There were also informal discussions all night.  I was considered a real live “activist” because of my connections with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and my input was probably given more credence than I deserved.  By morning I had agreed to return to campus later and set up some educational programs, which I did do, although Kendall never became a hot bed of radicalism.

In the morning, running on adrenalin, I headed down to Columbia.  Columbia was a commuter school specializing in communications and the arts—broadcasting, photography, theater, dance, and writing.  With no one living on our non-existent campus, I was not sure what I would find.  There were no classes but it wasn’t exactly a strike either because the administration was totally supportive of the student cause and offered the facilities of the school free to the movement. 

I headed down to the print shop in the basement, where I worked as one of two printers.  We ginned up our little A.B. Dick 360 and Multilith 1250 offset presses and were soon turning out hundreds, even thousands of flyers, posters, handbills and other material advertising actions across the city and region.  

I have no recollection of how, but I was selected as one of two representatives from Columbia to a city wide student strike committee.  I believe it was Wednesday when a couple of hundred folks met at the Riviera Theater in Uptown to plan coordinated actions.  The meeting was a perfect example of sometime chaotic participatory democracy, but a consensus was arrived at to have a unified, city wide march and demonstration downtown on Saturday.  I was named to the demonstration organizing committee with students from University of Illinois Circle Campus, University of Chicago, and Roosevelt, among other schools.  Many of the others members were in SDS.  Others were Trotskyites, who made something of a specialty of organizing big demonstrations.  There was a sprinkling of Anarchists as well.  But the ideological wars that wracked campuses were suspended—mostly—in the face of the common emergency.  Another meeting the following day was held at Circle Campus.

Again, I have no memory of how, but I was selected to try and negotiate with Chicago Police in what most felt was the vain hope of avoid an attack by authorities the day of the March.  Given the background of the Police Riots against demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic Convention, at protest marches connected to the trial of the Chicago 7, and the virtual street warfare around the Days of Rage in October ’69 there was little reason to hope for a better outcome.

Late Thursday afternoon I was escorted through an eerily quiet Police Headquarters to the office of Deputy Superintendent James Riordan.  I believe I may have been taken through a route intended to keep rank and file police from seeing that the brass was meeting “the enemy.”  Riordan was cordial.  We shook hands.  We both clearly understood the potential volatility of the situation.  I told him that organizers intended an entirely peaceful march and pointed to some earlier mass marches that had gone off without a hitch.  I also pointed out that there had been no significant acts of violence on any of the Chicago area campuses even at Northwestern with its barricades the first night or the building occupations at other schools.  I said that we would have marshals to keep our demonstrators in line and moving and to discourage break away marches.  Although others were trying to obtain a parade permit, I said that we intended to exercise our free speech rights and march with or without a permit. 

Riordan said he understood and said that the police did not want to provoke a confrontation and would be as “restrained as possible.”  I told him that we expected police would line the rout of march, but that putting those officers in full riot gear or having them stand with batons conspicuously exposed might be provocative under the circumstances.  Riordan made not explicit promises but indicated that if we kept our people in line there would be a kind of truce.  I got the distinct impression that higher-ups had already decided to try and avoid more bad national press,

All during this period, although I was known to be a Wobbly, I was not acting in any way as a representative of the union.  I did inform the Chicago Branch of developments and the branch decided to participate in the march.  That Saturday rather than joining other “leaders”—and I use that term in the loosest possible manner—in the front of the march or joining with Columbia or Kendall college contingents, I marched as a rank-and-file member of the IWW behind our black and red banner.  Although riot equipped police were on hand, they were kept largely out of sight.  Officers lining the route wore standard blouses and soft caps.  Their batons were kept under their coats.  The march and rally went off without a serious hitch or any violence, which is more than can be said of marches in other cities.

Later, I reported on the events in the pages of the Industrial Worker.

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