Part Two, The National Attitude
How could volunteer citizen-soldiers deliberately shoot thirteen American college students on the campus of their university? If you did not live through the upheavals of the 1960s, you cannot imagine how divided our country had become by 1970.
Beginning in 1963, “baby boomers” reached college age and by 1967, they flooded every grade level making the college population a significant part of American society. They were unlike the smaller, docile classes of “Depression born” or “War babies.” These boomers made demands for radical changes that these institutions had not experienced before and were ill equipped to understand.
It began with freedom of expression and racial equality. Dress codes, appearance codes, types of organizations permitted on campus and acceptable behavior were challenged.
Even though the Supreme Court had declared segregation and “separate but equal” null and void in 1954, it had taken ten years for an effective Civil Rights Act to be passed and for segregated colleges in the South and “lily white” mainstream universities in the North to open their doors to black students. Once they gained admission, African Americans also demanded a greater voice, a greater presence, and the creation of programs that focused on issues important to them. Other issues followed pertaining to sexual liberation and gender equality.
But the greatest anger and protests were reserved for that “damn war” in Viet Nam. Protests erupted on colleges across the nation from Berkley to Columbia. Administrators reacted by attempting to crush them and restore order, first with campus guards, then by summoning local police, then escalating to include state police and finally, national guard troops. Radical students countered with their own escalated upheavals. They seized offices and buildings daring police and troops to come and get them. Some of the riots ended peacefully after demands over real or imagined injustices were met. Others ended in assaults using tear gas, Billy clubs and brutality. Hate was the winner.
I graduated in 1965 when most college campuses remained as dormant and politically uninteresting as they had been since World War II. “Better dead than Red” and the question of defending the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, a divided Berlin, Cuba and the missile showdown with the USSR were major debatable issues. Only President John Kennedy’s assassination darkened our days, but that was a national tragedy that united us in sorrow.
I was five years out of college in 1970, married with a six-month old daughter. We lived in Middle Village, Queens, a mostly conservative, Irish-Italian-Catholic and Jewish community of attached one-family brick houses. I worked as a cargo surveyor for an independent firm based on Park Row across from City Hall Park. My biggest concern was how to make ends meet on one salary now that my wife had stopped teaching after the birth of our daughter.
I had also joined the New York National Guard in 1965 to avoid the draft. My unit was based in an armory in Hempstead, Long Island. My commitment to serve for six years. However, my outfit had been federalized because of a mail strike and, in return for this short spell on active duty, my commitment was reduced by one year. Even though my military obligation ended in 1970, I still related to the shootings in Ohio.
Fortunately, our unit had never been activated to deal with student or racial unrest, but following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, we underwent riot-control training.
Because Hempstead was a town with a sizable African-American population, local politicians wanted to keep this training quiet. Instead of practicing in the open equipment area behind the armory, we were trucked to a Naval Reserve site in trendy Sands Point on the so called “Gold Coast” of Long Island for training. We constructed streets and intersections using sticks and tape. One third of the fellows stripped to their tee shirts and played the rioters. The rest of us, in full gear including gas masks, fixed bayonets to our M1 rifles formed “V” shaped skirmish lines and marched in a slow cadence toward the rioters.
Perhaps it was because we were one unit. Perhaps we didn’t know what to do and there were no professional policemen to guide us, but we were unsuccessful in moving the rioters who simply sat down. Tempers flared as officers and sergeants became impatient. One lieutenant struck a “rioter” in the face with the butt of a rifle to get him to move. Rather than having the desired effect, the “rioters” became enraged and the lieutenant had to be removed before a real mutiny ensued.
Two other things struck me that day. The first involved our location, the Naval Reserve Center fronted onto Middle Neck Road, the main thoroughfare that cut through Sands Point. It was a gorgeous sunny day and young male and female Sands Point residents parked their Corvettes, Thunderbirds and Mustang convertibles along the road. Having these preppy, pretty, wealthy children observe us as they relaxed on the hoods of their cars with their backs against the windshields made a weird experience weirder.
The second was troubling. On one occasion, I found myself at the point of the V. Wearing a gas mask limited my field of vision preventing me from seeing the soldier on either side of me, not even their protruding rifles and bayonets. This gave me the nagging feeling of being all alone. To my horror, I realized I would have been petrified if this were the real thing!
It was unfathomable to consider that if this were a real riot, those in command would issue live ammunition to ill trained and undisciplined troops like us.
We returned to the trucks for the ride back to the armory. As our two and one-half ton trucks headed south on Port Washington Boulevard, residents looked at us quizzically wondering what this troop movement was all about.
Part Three, Black Friday
New York City
Violent demonstrations spread throughout the land as radio and television broadcast the news about the shootings. The news on Wednesday included stories of students leaving their schools to take their rage into the hearts of the cities; their aim, to block traffic and disrupt business. Faculty members and administrators gave students tacit approval to boycott classes for the remainder of the week.
On Thursday, May 7th, thousands of students from New York City and suburban colleges joined two massive protests, one at Battery Park, the other on Wall Street. They ultimately merged at the Sub Treasury Building at the corner of Wall, Broad and Nassau Streets, the heart of the financial district. Plans were made to escalate the protests on Friday, blocking highways, bridges and tunnels.
Mayor Lindsay ordered the flag on City Hall and all other municipal buildings lowered to half-staff. He asked the school chancellor to close all city schools on Friday, May 8th, declaring it: “A Day of Reflection.”
The student protestors had captured the sympathy of the press and city government. Newspapers, television and radio depicted the story of student outrage. Lindsay chose municipal guilt and mourning.
Friday morning, I followed my usual routine, walking south along Park Row from the Chambers Street subway station and past City Hall. I sensed an ominous difference. Construction workers had gathered at City Hall Park. They loitered there talking, smoking and drinking coffee. “Funny,” I thought. “Shouldn’t they be at work?”
When I reached the office, I mentioned this to my boss, Don Lamont.
He replied, “You know John, I came from the PATH Station and I saw the same thing by the World Trade Center construction site. I didn’t see anyone working. Instead the men were milling around at ground level.”
“Don, do you mind if I don’t go on any surveys today? I have a funny feeling this is related to the scheduled protests and I want to go out on the street to see what happens.”
“Okay, but for God’s sake, don’t get hurt.” I promised him I would be careful as I left the office.