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This is probably the most personal of the diaries in this 19 (!) part series on the history of the May, 1970 campus rebellion that shook the US and is largely forgotten today. (If you haven't been following it, click here and read it from the first installment, should you be so inclined.)

The sign was hung out of an NYU dorm window. It read, simply

I want to use that sign as a starting point in talking about some largely unsuccessful emotional archaeology I’ve been doing, trying to reconstruct what it felt like to be 20 years old and a revolutionary in the midst of the first national student strike the country had ever seen.

I know I wasn’t expecting to be killed, even though--forty four years ago today—the Kent State murders were only two days in the past and in the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.

And that wasn’t what the dorm room sign was about. Those kids didn’t expect to be killed either. They were celebrating the fact that the scope of our movement, the hundreds of new campuses—including high schools—which had gone out on strike since May 4 had pretty much removed violent repression as an option for the ruling class. I quoted John Kaye on the intensity of those days in yesterday's installment. I’ve recently spoken with Mirk and Mindy, who, like me, came out of NYU and we all agree that there is a lot, a surprising amount, from these intense weeks that we just don’t remember.

I put this down to three things.

First we were drinking deep of an emotional cocktail that combined rage, exhilaration and simple exhaustion.

Second, we were in an environment where all of daily life was changed. Classes, papers, tests no longer had claims on students’ time; though they might still worry about such things, as 12+ years of US schooling had trained them to, we were on strike! The struggle demanded that we do new things and do old things in new ways and do them all at once.

In the two or three days following May 4th, I am fairly certain that I spent many hours with kids from nearby Taft High School with whom NYU Uptown SDS had been working, helped them organize a walkout and lay out the second edition of Rip Off, their underground paper, and get it printed by the Kimball collective. The Uptown crew also met to develop programs we were demanding that the administration put in place to serve the West Bronx community. I also seem to recall spending much of my time downtown, centered around stints, including some quickly grabbed zzzs in the middle of the night, guarding the seized Courant computer. And meetings to coordinate activities on the Uptown and Washington Square campuses. Then there was the peace march on Wall Street that the hardhats attacked. And a bunch of us went to City College to support the students there. And…

Third, was the simple fact that we had entered uncharted terrain. The enemy was in retreat, though still deadly. We were, in chaotic fashion, advancing. What should we be demanding—of our school, of the government, of society?

For instance, to return to my touchstone. our SDS chapter had a standing demand that NYU enact an open admissions program for community residents who graduated high school. It was a damn good program, written by some guy named Mike a year or so earlier (we lost track of him when he transferred out), but it had never been anything we had the power to make the administration deal with.

Now things were different, even if the majority of students who were on strike weren’t ready to go as far as open admissions-—concerned what it might do to the value of their diplomas and to tuition rates. Should we do more education to win our classmates over? Set up our own free tutoring programs for grads from Taft and other local high schools to prove to the administration it could work? Force the NYU administration to develop partnership programs with the city officials running those high schools and start taking the first steps?

Lacking experience, absent central coordination, without tested leadership to help us sort through the options, we tried everything, usually without a clear plan and goals.

I’m not sure how different things could have been, given the historical circumstances, but I guess the reason I am writing this multi-part reflection is to identify and salvage some of the lessons of May ’70, so when history puts something like it on our plate again, we can avoid some of the old mistakes, and make some new ones as we move forward.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Do you plan to cover University of Maryland? (4+ / 0-)

    My school.  I was a junior and I was there.

    "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

    by Navy Vet Terp on Tue May 06, 2014 at 05:15:45 PM PDT

    •  I did hit College Park in the fourth installment, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      terrybuck, oldpotsmuggler, kurt

      NVT, which you can find here and I think I do again in a later nistallment. You can cheat and read ahead at Fire On The Mountain, where this series originally appeared four years ago.

      That said, I'd love to hear your memories of May '70. I have maybe a dozen or so new sections I want to write, on top of the 19 (!) I've already done.

      And I've had a couple of feelers from publishers about turning it into a book, so more info is most welcome!

      •  Sorry I been missing these (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lao hong han, Naniboujou, kurt

        A few corrections and comments.

        ROTC had a room in the armory which was thoroughly trashed.  That didn't bother me - they really didn't do much damage, smashing some very old desks that were ready for the trash heap anyway.  But what really bothered me was that the SDS'ers also invaded the administration building and smashed a lot of expensive electric typewriters and copy machines and other office machines.  They lit a bonfire with one or more paintings hanging in the lobby.  I saw the damage the next morning and it made me sick.

        We were all hanging out on Route 1 after it was "liberated", General Warfield commander of the National Guard was there (I think he was related to the Duchess of Windsor) and so was Governor Mandel and I talked to them both.  Most of us ran back to the dorms when the "cops" appeared.  We didn't know it - they really weren't cops - they were Prince Georges County Sheriff Kersey's "possee".  PG County is mostly AA today but back then was white and blue collar and parts were really redneck - especially his posse.

        They came up the hill from dorm to dorm shooting tear gas grenades into the windows.  We were the ones trying to stay out of the riot and these a-holes were attacking us.  The first dorm was Montgomery, a girl's dorm, then Harford, a boys dorm, then Kent, mine.  When the kids couldn't take the tear gas they ran out the dorms and the posse "cops' would beat the kids with night sticks.  By the time they got to our dorm we knew we couldn't leave.  A Vietnam vet organized us - crowding us into the showers with wet towels to help us breath, and throwing the grenades back out the windows - yelling at them "Fucking Pigs".  They yelled back at us - "Fucking hippies, come out and take your medicine".  It was really horrible - we couldn't breathe, but we knew we would get clubbed and beaten if we tried to leave.

        Finally the state police came and rescued us.  The state police and the posse rednecks argued but the rednecks finally went away and the police said we were free to walk around campus.

        Some of the campus rioters were prosecuted - rightfully - but neither Sheriff Kersey or any of his redneck criminals were and 44 years later I am still raging with anger as I type this.  He was defeated for reelection - BFD.

        My own opinion this riot made no sense and had nothing to do with Cambodia or Vietnam - tearing up our own campus made no sense and IMO was stupid and criminal.

        The next day the National Guard replaced the state police and we were occupied until school let out.   Many of the guardsmen were students - it got them out of Nam, and they were quite friendly.

        This should have been a diary - sorry for the long comment.

        "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

        by Navy Vet Terp on Tue May 06, 2014 at 06:13:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I should add (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          lao hong han, Naniboujou, kurt

          That all day on May 1st there was the big protest rally on the campus Mall, speaker after speaker denouncing the invasion of Cambodia.  Then as it was almost evening they started yelling "Down to Route 1" and that's when it turned from a peaceful protest to a riot.

          "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

          by Navy Vet Terp on Tue May 06, 2014 at 06:16:55 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  And when you finish this, isn't the next logical (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lao hong han, kurt

    set of installments "Where did it all go?"

    When did the major sell out happen? Also, maybe, and why?

    I sat this one out in a Mexican Prison, but, given the other folks in there, we got every edition of every Underground Press in the U.S. I have to tell you, we were, to a person, majorly excited and optimistic.

    But when my second set of pot down time started in 1985 we were down to the final few "White Punks on Dope" versus way too many of every one else.

    And now all of the hot shot economists come out and declare all of that wasted law enforcement effort to have been the wasted effort that it always so obviously was.


    What happened?

    There can be no protection locally if we're content to ignore the fact that there are no controls globally.

    by oldpotsmuggler on Tue May 06, 2014 at 06:09:45 PM PDT

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