WALK THE LINE

5 May

WALK THE LINE

Louise Annarino

May 4, 1970

 

Walking the line is not the same as toeing the line, nor following the party line. Walking the line is a solitary function, calling for balance, effective pacing, trusting self, and imagining success. President Obama, as every political leader before him has had to  walk the line every day: balancing the diverse interests of Americans to maintain unity of purpose to move the country forward, making friends abroad while protecting our civilians at home and our military abroad, promoting civil rights while keeping the peace in our communities. I think about what it means to walk the line today, as I recall the civil discord on college campuses during the Spring of 1970;when lines were crossed and lives were lost.

 

On May 4, 1970, I was sitting on the Oval at Ohio State University (OSU) with a few thousand protesters.We had to sit in groups of 4 to avoid arrest (an order under martial law that only groups fewer than 5 could gather anywhere on campus)when a young man began running from group to group. He started at the library end of the campus Oval. As he ran we could see people collapsing, pulling their hair, clinging to one another; but, we were still too far away to hear anything. We had to sit and wait. When finally we heard his message we understood. A group scream was emerging in bits and pieces from every soul on that Oval. I am still screaming for those killed at Kent State University (KSU)(for full account see http://www.kentstate1970.org/ )on May 4; and, for those killed on May 15 at Jackson State University. (for full account see

http://www.may41970.com/Jackson%20State/jackson_state_may_1970.htm ).

 

The events of Spring 1970 started years earlier. Students who had been protesting a variety of interests suddenly recognized their interconnected, common interests and a common enemy, when The United States escalated the Viet-Nam War and invaded Cambodia. Fore several years students had been engaging in protests, sit-down and  hunger strikes,and marches to draw attention to racism, sexism, repression, student rights,campus safety, ecology concerns,and The War. It is hard to imagine any institution of higher education left untouched by the voices of dissenters seeking change.

 

For example, at Ohio State rapes and other crimes against women and minorities had been hidden behind a veil. In 1968 through 1969, students had repeated hunger strikes to demand the university install safety phones and lighting across campus, to openly disclose the dates-times-locations of crimes against women and minority students. Groups of students organized fair housing investigations to root out discrimination against African-American students seeking off-campus housing, submitting a list of those landlords discriminating to the university which approved all off-campus housing, and which itself owned over 1/3rd of the off-campus units. Other groups of students responded to Rachel Carson’s SILENT SPRING by pressing for environmental protections such as energy efficiency, recycling programs, food safety and responsible use of chemicals on campus. The draft, the lottery, the elimination of student exemption and the escalation of the war increased campus tension.

 

In February 1970, the presidents of OSU Afro-Am and of the student body of OSU asked for a meeting with the President of Ohio State to discuss a list of 21 requests prepared by African-American students. The president refused to meet with these student leaders or accept the list for his perusal, and the board of trustees likewise refused to do so. The list or requests became a list of demands, and a student strike was called. African-American and white students, male and female students,ecology proponents, anti-war students, and LGBT students found their common problem: a patriarchal institution which enforced “in loco parentis”and believed students should be seen and not heard; a government who sent 18 year olds to die and fight a people with whom they had no argument but would not allow them to drink beer or vote; and institutions which would deny the most basic civil rights, personal safety, and equal treatment to fellow students who by now viewed themselves as a community apart from the larger society.

 

The strike grew larger. Students took over the Oval just as the 99% occupy parks and cities today. Faculty joined in, holding classes on the Oval and working the strike and its issues into their curricula, holding teach-ins as well as sit-ins.A massive march from the Oval to the on-campus home of President Novice Fawcett was planned for the next day when I got a call from a hometown friend who asked to meet me at the state fairgrounds. When we met, I discovered he was billeted at the fairgrounds with other members of the National Guard, who were prepared to attack students who marched on the president’s home. He warned me to stay away from the march so I would not be endangered. Instead I approached the house from the rear to simply be a witness, where I was met by soldiers armed with M-16s who looked as frightened as I felt. It was the first, but not the last time I would have rifles shoved in my gut, ready to shoot on command.

 

The day after the first march, the commanding officer of the Guard asked to speak to students from our podium on the Oval, following Woody Hayes who gave us a pep talk and encouraged us to maintain a peaceful protest as we had so far done. The Guard commander assured us his troops were young men our own age who felt much like we did and meant us no harm, and would remain armed but without bullets in their rifles. He was cheered. The next day, Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes declared martial law, and removed and replaced the Guard commander by a new commander who assured us his men were armed and would not hesitate to shoot us. It seemed unthinkable.

 

We soon had reason to believe him.The movement grew in proportion to the unprovoked beatings, nearly daily pepper and tear gas attacks, and numerous arrests for simply being on the Oval. Even the frat boys joined in when state troopers gassed and shot into fraternity houses along fraternity row, chasing striking students from the Oval into surrounding neighborhoods.

 

Then, Cambodia was invaded and a powder keg was set aflame in the minds of students who had tried every peaceful method to be heard. The students at OSU, Kent and across the country became louder, more verbally combative, and tore up brick walkways for weapons instead of running away from billy club and gas attacks. Gas canisters and bullets flew into dormitories and crowds. Every night campus ministers took our activity fee collections to bail students out of jail, fearing we would be arrested if we went to the jail ourselves.

 

On May 4, 1970 shocked cries were heard across the country, “They killed 4 of us!”. We had become one family;our brothers and sisters had been killed and maimed. We knew their names: Alison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, Jeffrey Glenn Miller,and William K. Schroeder. At OSU, we later learned, more than 30 students had been treated for gunshot wounds, some paralyzed as some students were at Kent State. Newspapers were not printing such stories. We only discovered such stories during “public hearings” on campuses over the summer, when few students were present on campus to hear or to give testimony. The E.R. doctors had carefully created and maintained the shooting record on our behalf.

 

On May 15, 1970, a small group of Jackson State students rioted upon hearing a rumor that the brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Fayette, Mississippi Mayor Charles Evers and his wife had been shot and killed. 21 year old pre-law junior Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, and 17 year old James Earl Green were killed. Injured by gunfire, including one student simply sitting in a dormitory lobby, were: Fonzie Coleman, Redd Wilson, Jr.,Leroy Kentner, Vernon Steve Weakley, Gloria Mayhorn,Patricia Ann Sanders, Willie Woodard, Andrea Reese, Stella Spinks, Climmie Johnson, Tuwaine Davis, and Lonzie Thompson. Police and state troopers picked up their spent shell casings before they called the first ambulance to the scene.

 

Campuses, including Ohio State, were shut down, classes suspended, and every student sent home. The momentum which had been building across the country was stopped by attacking,wounding and even killing participants; and shutting down a place for students to gather. The same strategy is seen today in the institutional response to the 99%, Egyptian, and Syrian protesters. When the threat to institutions becomes acute, the response can cross the line.

 

For years afterward, students crossed to the other side of a street whenever they saw a police officer approaching, hid in doorways when a helicopter flew overhead, shivered when they saw a National Guard jeep or truck, tensed when they heard a police siren in the distance, moved away slowly when a dog approached.

 

With the election of President Obama we hoped those days were behind us, but the backlash against an African-American president indicates it has not. The forces which treated students, women, African-Americans and people of color,and LGBT community as less deserving of their citizenship rights are still at-large funding campaigns of hate and division. We are stronger and wiser than they are. We will not let them cross the line. We will hold the line by holding on to one another. Give me your hand!

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