[Still playing catch-up with this series of reposts detailing the dramatic events of May 1970. May Day that year turned out to be the first day of the most massive student strike in US history, an upsurge I'm detailing in this series of diaries.]
Me, I don't have much memory of Nixon's April 30, 1970 speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia. It could have been because nothing the bastard did would have surprised me by that point, but more likely it's just that I was already on my way to New Haven to see about Bobby.
That would be Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, who was facing trial in the case of some Connecticut Panthers accused of murdering a member they thought was a police informant. A national call had gone out for a May Day demonstration to defend Bobby, and thousands of young radicals from around the country and especially the Northeast were en route. We had a couple of dozen from NYU's Uptown campus with us.
Lemme step back here to set a little context. NYU today is a bigtime, self-promoting academic powerhouse whose relentless pursuit of lower Manhattan real estate for expansion has earned them the hatred of all clear-thinking New Yorkers. Back then, NYU was a bit cheesier, with a campus in Greenwich Village and a satellite one in the Bronx. (The Uptown campus was abandoned by the racist NYU administration later in the 1970s when it found the West Bronx was becoming, let's say, too colorful, and is now the home of Bronx Community College).
We had a pretty good SDS chapter at NYU Uptown and saw no reason to change anything just because the national organization had imploded the previous summer. (In fact, at one point we decided the chapter head, Lon E. Thud, must be National Secretary of Students for a Democratic Society--nobody else was doing it, after all). NYU had given me a "compulsory leave of absence for academic reasons" at the end of the previous school year, a tactical mistake on their part. I was still a registered student and, as such, could not be excluded from the campus.
We began the school year with an orientation week packet and program we had put a lot of time into prepping and followed up with extensive dorm canvassing, picking up some fine new members. One of our fall activities was selling the Black Panther, the BPP’s weekly paper, to build support for the revolutionary group—a dynamic model of revolutionary organization, hugely popular in the Black community and under concerted and deadly attack by local police forces and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
In the early months, we could barely sell a dozen papers. The problem wasn’t their militant program or their guns. We were meeting particular resistance on a disproportionately Jewish campus. "Aren’t they anti-Semitic?" folks would ask, citing the BPP’s early support of the Palestinian struggle and Fatah.
But patient education and organizing would combine with the increasing radicalization of the times to create a more favorable climate. By mid-winter SDS took a contingent of over 100 from the Uptown campus to join a march from Manhattan to the Queens House of Detention in support of the Panther 21 (more political prisoners, victims of frame-up charges, whose long court case and trial, the most expensive in NY history, eventually resulted in complete exoneration).
When the call came to rally on May Day in New Haven to Free Bobby! (a slogan which had somehow mysteriously appeared writ large across various Uptown campus buildings), a couple dozen of the most active radicals at the school headed up there, to join 15,000 other protesters crashing in Yale dorms and rallying on the New Haven Green.
Friday, May 1 was a very tense day, which foreshadowed the month to come in its combination of repression and concession. The governor had persuaded Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, to airlift 4,000 Army paratroops and Marines from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune for deployment in New Haven! Meanwhile, Connecticut National Guard troops in APCs and tanks were stationed around the city.
At the same time Yale University head Kingman Brewster, facing a substantial groundswell of support for Seale within his elite student body, famously set himself against the establishment, declaring at a mass faculty meeting, to the horror of many alumni:
I personally want to say 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.Significantly, that faculty meeting was dealing with the threat of a student strike at Yale, endorsed at a 1500 student rally where a Panther spokesman declared “That Panther and that Bulldog gonna move together!" In a pre-emptive strike, the profs voted to suspend business as usual. Faculty members didn’t have to hold classes, and no students would be penalized academically for not attending.
Finally, Brewster had decided to open the campus to the protestors, so as to avoid making Yale an easy target for us. Meanwhile, he negotiated with established organizers and leaders from New Haven’s Black community and the upstart Panther chapter there to ensure that dangerous violence wouldn’t break out. Even New Haven’s police chief fought for authority over the military contingent, and they were kept out of sight for the most part.
It was still a close thing on May Day. The afternoon rally was, as rallies tend to be, peaceful and long and boring, even with the occasional whiff of tear gas. In the evening, there were running skirmishes in the campus area, some clearly the work of provocateurs, and tear gas aplenty. We were ready to rumble, but the tactical and political leadership, headed by the Panthers, directed us to keep things cool. New Haven didn’t blow.
Nothing I’ve read mentions the most important thing to come out of the rally. We voted to respond to Nixon’s Cambodia invasion with a national student strike (which, though we didn’t yet grasp it, was already underway). And we laid out three main demands for the strike:
US Out Of Southeast Asia
End Campus Complicity With The War Machine
Free Bobby Seale & All Political Prisoners
With no widely-recognized national student organization to provide direction to the forces already set in motion, this call did a lot to lay down the political terms on which the events of May ’70 would take place. Campus after campus took the three demands up. Indeed, they were just what the doctor ordered—very broad, revolutionary in fact, but still specific, and representing mass sentiment among a whole layer in every part of the country and every section of the people, millions who had been thrown into motion by the ferment of the ‘60s.
[Those eager to skip ahead will find the whole series chain-linked and illustrated at the Fire on the Mountain blog, starting here.]