Political Awakening, 1970
It was a Saturday in 1970, and I had laundry to do. I was a 19-year-old flower child living in a 1940s-era redbrick apartment building with some counterculture friends I knew from high school. I truly believed—and on good days occasionally still do—that Love is all you need. I had political opinions; I just didn’t think they mattered—especially since the voting age was 21.
Because that May 2nd was a beautiful spring day, my roommates and I decided to combine the laundry with a trip to College Park. College Park, Maryland, may not have housed the closest Laundromat, but the town was the only “cool” place in the northeastern suburbs of D.C. On both sides of Route 1, next to the University of Maryland, were shops and restaurants catering to the college–age crowd. Across the street from the main entrance to the University was the college bookstore: the closest thing we had to a modern Barnes & Noble. I hadn’t yet decided that I wanted a college degree, but I loved books. My main goal up until then had been to get away from home and get an office job that would support my simple lifestyle, and in that I had succeeded.
A couple of friends had dropped by on their way to College Park, so we all decided to go together. We loaded the laundry baskets into the trunk of Pedro’s car—probably the wreck he had driven us to Woodstock in the previous year—and took off. None of us, I should add, were news-followers. I didn’t even own a TV set, and if we ever listened to the radio, it was just the alternative rock station. Ray was going through a major Bob Dylan phase, so Dylan’s latest album dominated the stereo, alternating with the Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road.
When we got to College Park, we couldn’t get into the main town area. Four blocks from the university, and three blocks shy of the Laundromat, the streets were blocked by national guardsmen and young people who were chanting, “The streets belong to the people! The streets belong to the people!” and “U.S. out of Cambodia!”
“Cool!” some of us said. “But WHAT is going on???” Pedro wove through the back streets and found a parking lot a couple of blocks from the action. The laundry was forgotten. We began walking toward Route 1, asking people for information. It turned out that the Nixon administration had just expanded the war from Vietnam into Cambodia. “How did we not know that,” a student asked us? “Hadn’t we heard President Dick’s speech?” Protests erupted around the country. And there we were, in the middle of our first antiwar protest.
We wandered the crowd curiously, eventually making our way up to the large greensward in front of the University chapel, near a few of the dorms facing Route 1. We ran into Blake’s brother Grady and our friend Hugh and a couple of others, including Hugh’s neighbor Mitch, who seemed slightly boozed up. Mitch liked trouble. If I had been more political, I might have been clued in to some of his delusions by the fact that he dressed and grew his hair and beard to look just like Che Guevara. He urged us all to join hands to stay together. After we’d done that, though, he started surging toward the National Guard lines, screaming something about “Pigs!” to them.
Grady dragged him back. “Are you crazy!?“
“Let’s throw something at them!” Mitch said, and began looking on the ground for projectiles.
“No way!” I said. “If you’re going to do that, get far away from us!”
People regularly told Mitch to go away, but he wasn’t always easy to get rid of. The rest of us dropped hands, and Miriam and I began backing away from Mitch as Hugh wrested a soda can away from him.
It seemed like things were getting out of hand. We heard that some people had started throwing rocks. “Let’s go into the bookstore,” Miriam said. “This is getting scary.” Our original group—Ray, Pedro, Miriam, Blake, and I—broke off and slowly made our way across the street, through the surging crowd to the Maryland Book Exchange to get out of the ruckus. They weren’t letting anyone in, though, and there was a town policeman standing at the entrance. We had a few words with him, but it became clear that he had no interest in giving people shelter, and that the law was there, among other things, to protect the businesses from rioters. That would have never occurred to us. As far as I know, it didn’t occur to any of the protesters—none of the businesses were damaged that day. The policeman told us to go back to our dorms or to our homes. This was getting increasingly hard to do—there were lines of guardsmen everywhere, blocking passageways, while supposedly trying to get people out of the street. We just thought of it as “the street”—the main drag in College Park. (This was, in those days, merely a traffic-clogged three-lane business route with a traffic light every two blocks!) We later read that the guardsmen had been told that because it was Route 1, even though it was a stop-and-go business route, it was considered a national highway: thus blocking traffic caused a potential national security emergency! So they had been told to clear the street, but their methods seemed puzzlingly ineffective, and it was not at all clear to us that that was what they were trying to do. In fact, they just seemed to be forming moving body-barricades in different locations that pushed people up and down the street at random.
Avoiding one of the merry lines of guardsmen, and their inevitable clot of crushed and herded protesters, we crossed the side street where, next to another business, I saw something I will never forget. A lone male student was on the ground with five burly guardsmen around him, kicking him and hitting him with what I thought were billy-clubs but later learned were electric cow prods. He was crying, bruised and bleeding, and was trying to get up, but every time he did, they pushed him back down again. A photographer was taking pictures. In shock, we stood there a minute and wondered what we could or should do, until a guardsman ordered us to move on. We rushed back toward the street, having seen more than enough, and determined to get back to the car. On our way across Route 1, we passed an open paddy wagon at the far curb. There were three crying sorority sisters locked in the open-grill back. They were dressed for a party, beautifully made up, wearing high heels and with their hair in updos. Debutantes in a zoo! There were no police or guardsmen evident.
“Are you okay?” Ray asked gallantly. “Why did they lock you up?”
“We had to get from our dorm to the sorority party,” one of the girls answered. “We looked out the window and saw what was going on, and we were afraid, so we went up to the officer right outside the dorm and asked him if we could have an escort. He said yes, but then on the way, he shoved us in here and left! He arrested us just for leaving our dorm!”
“My parents are going to kill me!” the girl in yellow chiffon sobbed. Pedro, who had recently come out of the closet, told her how beautiful he thought her dress was. She sniffed and thanked him.
But again, what could we do? Unlike us, it was pretty clear that these preppie chicks had never bent a rule in their lives. “Maybe they had a quota of people to arrest?” Blake asked. How brave of them to arrest these dangerous beauties!
Ray and Blake tried to find a way to pry or pen-knife the lock on the grill open, but of course it was useless. It was so absurd! (Ray, who was enrolled in university classes, said it was “absolutely Kafkaesque!” but I didn’t yet know what that meant since most of my reading was confined to science fiction and fantasy.) Just then, the bulk of the crowd was chased the other way, and the two policemen assigned to the van became visible again as they turned and yelled at us. We ran off into a crowd that was surging toward the greensward. “Back to the car!” Pedro shouted, leading the way.
A second wave of protesters washed up from the street behind us, and these had the guardsmen hot on their tails. It felt like an unpleasant version of being overtaken by a large breaker in the surf. We were pushed, pulled, shoved this way and that, and all of the sudden I felt a tremendous whack and, at the same time, an electric shock radiating up and down my arm. That did it! With a combined sense of horror and indignation, I stopped and turned on the guardsman who had hit me. “We’re just trying to get out of here!” I yelled at him. “We’re trying to get back to our car, but we can’t get through, everything’s so . . .” He raised his club a second time and two pairs of hands pulled me out of the way as my friends dragged me quickly off. These guardsmen seemed to be going crazy. They supposedly wanted the crowd to break up, but they wouldn’t let it break up. As we’d witnessed, different groups of them were just chasing the crowd back and forth in front of them, from north to south and back again—and now here we were finally on the grass, heading west on the campus, where they presumably wanted us, and they were still charging and hitting.
We heard screams and someone down by the street yelled, “pepper gas!” We ran in the only direction we could, up the grassy hill towards the large university chapel on top. “What’s pepper gas?” I asked as we raced toward the white-steepled redbrick building. I had giddy memories of my aunt and uncle getting married there when I was about 5. “Let’s go in!” I yelled. “They can’t follow us in there.” I don’t know why I thought that. I must have seen movies where people took sanctuary in churches. At that moment, I certainly felt like a fugitive.
“It’s probably locked,” Ray said. But to our surprise, it wasn’t. As the main crowd parted and ran around both sides of the chapel, I raced up the steps, opened the door and went in. It was empty, cool, semi-dark, and blissfully quiet. My friends were right behind me. A few minutes later, another half dozen or so people ran in breathlessly, having seen us discover that the door was unlocked. Then another group, and another.
“We’re safe,” we reassured ourselves. “They won’t hurt us in a church. They wouldn’t dare.”
Then the door flew open and a canister of pepper gas came rolling down the aisle between the pews. My eyes began stinging fiercely. Tears streamed down our faces as, wracked with coughing, we pulled our shirts up over our mouths and noses. My throat felt as if it was on fire and my lungs were burning, making it hard to breathe. We all rushed down the aisle, away from the gas, around behind the altar area, where we found steps leading to the pitch-black basement. Someone found the light switch and turned it on. Still coughing and damp-eyed, we raced past empty meeting rooms and Sunday school classrooms, and found an emergency exit in the back of the church. We ran out, relieved that the building had not been surrounded. Sprinting across campus and then the back streets, we eventually made it back to the car.
The following day, I actually bought a newspaper. There had been a riot in D.C., too. (My future husband came out of a Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley concert to discover bricks sailing through the air and sirens blaring.) But next to the newspaper story of the College Park riot was a large photo of the young man we saw being beaten by National Guardsmen. He was trying to get up but was being pushed back by the hands of a couple guards, just as we had seen. The caption read: “Guardsmen try to help up a protester who has fallen.”
Really? The Washington Post?? The Nixon Administration had constantly complained about the Post‘s “radical left-wing bias.” It was supposed to be a bastion of liberalism during the Vietnam War and, indeed, the paper would eventually break the Watergate scandal that brought down that administration. Yet there they were, describing the national guardsmen as helpful citizens just trying to keep the peace against a bunch of rowdy college students and “outside agitators.” (In those days, this was always a synonym for “communist-funded infiltrators.” My dad certainly believed the protests were funded by the Soviet Union; but then, he even believed the Beatles were a communist plot.)
Wow. If you couldn’t trust The Washington Post, who could you trust? I sat down and drafted an angry letter to the editor—my first—about what I’d seen. They never printed it.
On May 4th, the day after that story appeared, four students at a protest on the Kent State College campus in Ohio were shot in the back by National Guardsmen. Many others were bayoneted or tear-gassed. Our friend Ian, Hugh’s brother, was a student radio announcer at nearby Hiram College, and he was able to interview a couple of shocked and grieving student witnesses. He was told that someone in the crowd had thrown a bottle—one empty beer bottle was the provocation—but it had not been thrown by the boys and girls who got killed. I guess the guardsmen have to live with that. I guess the overzealous drunk who threw the bottle does too. Just another 19-year-old idiot like Mitch who thought it was a game.
The kids thought it was a game; the guardsmen thought it was Vietnam. A pretty major reality disconnect.
The following August, when I was in New Mexico with Blake, there was a TV news story that apparently didn’t make the national news. Eleven students at a protest on an Albuquerque campus had been bayoneted by the National Guard during that same week in May. When we got back home, certainly no one we spoke to on the East Coast had heard about it, but maybe that’s just because Kent State and our own local riots had dominated the news.
That year, many Americans learned that it is necessary to be both skeptical and vigilant against abuses of power. The newspapers came up with a term for that, too: the Credibility Gap. You can’t believe everything you read in the papers or see on TV, even in the media you trust. And many important stories never see the light of day, even now in the Internet age.
About the Author
Denise Thompson-Slaughter is a writer and editor living in Western New York State. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Elemental, her first book of poetry, was published by Plain View Press in 2010. Her day job is as managing editor of Reviews in American History, currently based at the University of Rochester. She lives with her college-professor husband, two challenging teenage children, diabetic dog, and bulimic cat.