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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 scroll back to the first installment.)

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 two 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

  •  And if you can't wait for installments (3+ / 0-)

    9-19, you might head over to Fire on the Mountain, where the whole thing is chainlinked forward, starting here. Plus that version has lots of nice grafix.

  •  It sparked the Movement for a New Congress (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lao hong han, Spirit of Life

    started by professor Gary Orfield and students at Princeton, an attempt to get anti-war candidates elected to counter Nixon.

    This was soon followed by the creation of the National Coalition for a Responsible Congress

    Professor Gary Orfield of Princeton said the Movement for a New Congress has already established organizers at 406 campuses and is computerizing the names of students willing to do volunteer work in Congressional campaigns over the summer and into the fall. Researchers are busy putting together detailed files on incumbent congressmen and potential peace candidates who could challenge them, he said. In a number of districts—mostly on the eastern seaboard—incumbent congressmen who were previously prowar have shifted their positions after learning that his group would work against them, Orfield said.
    Princeton changed its academic calendar to give students and others two weeks before the elections to work on campaigns, as did some other colleges.

    Resist much, obey little. ~~Edward Abbey, via Walt Whitman

    by willyr on Mon May 06, 2013 at 06:05:31 AM PDT

    •  During the Iraq war, one student reflected on MNC (3+ / 0-)

      and the way things have (and have not) changed since:

       I once tried to stop the Vietnam War. The quaint offices of the Movement for a New Congress were buried in forgotten storage space in Palmer Lab. For six months following the upheaval of May 1970, a group of us acted as an organizational resource supporting antiwar congressional candidates around the country. This was not a spectacular success: Congress never said a word, Richard Nixon won by a landslide in 1972, then vanished in turn himself. Before leaving, he got rid of the politically incendiary draft and so defused the campuses. The 30-year-old umbilical connection between American 18-year-olds and their military was supplanted by the All-Volunteer Army.

      But in 1970, everyone knew his draft lottery number. Emotions on campus ran high against a national administration that offered no pertinent justification to those it used as its instruments, and put in harm’s way. Kent State, crying out in the heart of Mid-America, typified the country in the Vietnam era the same way D-Day did in World War II. If anyone left Princeton early to volunteer for the Vietnam War effort, I never heard about him.

      War and Pizza

      Resist much, obey little. ~~Edward Abbey, via Walt Whitman

      by willyr on Mon May 06, 2013 at 06:22:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Those who used the college draft exemption to (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lao hong han

        avoid service merely paved the way for poor white, black and Latino working class youth to have to serve or go underground-emigrate.

        I was only 10 years old in 1970, so am damned glad I did not face that moral dilemma. Had I been of draft age, I'd like to think I would have either enlisted to take the place of a working class son or have gone to jail for draft evasion. There really is little middle ground in my imagination for the choices young men faced.

    •  thanks, willy! i have at least 5-6 more of these (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      willyr, Spirit of Life

      planned (or at least imagined), including ones on troops and vets, the impact on congress and electoral politics, the changes in campus policy over the following years, and an overall estimation of what was gained and what wasn't..

      •  Gregg Lange, author of War and Pizza, linked above (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lao hong han, Spirit of Life


        Princeton has no Vietnam memorial book to display proudly. In contrast, inconspicuously located next to the Chapel is a jarring sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, originally created by George Segal as a memorial to be placed at Kent State. It was too effective a symbol ever to be installed there, so it resides with us.

        It’s difficult to sit watching – live! – the televised (Good? Bad?) Iraq war with a piece of designer pizza in Frist and consider these things. You’d like to think the immeasurable suffering of the 20th century – its impact even on places so intentionally removed as Princeton – would have given us wisdom as well as knowledge. Watching the watchers of the giant TV wall, however, leaves doubts. You’d like to think brilliant 20-year-olds would grasp the import of government acting in their name with the bodies of their contemporaries as pawns; but even a Princetonian poll done in wartime reflected fragmented and somehow pallid opinions. A few students demonstrated on Palmer Square in favor of the war; a few more demonstrated against it. The Class of ’03 submitted its theses. No class members will be drafted, probably ever. How many will try to reform the government, or volunteer to defend the nation? How many will remain embedded with Iraq only via satellite?

        Resist much, obey little. ~~Edward Abbey, via Walt Whitman

        by willyr on Mon May 06, 2013 at 07:03:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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