May ’70: 3. May Day & Bobby Seale

(4PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Me, I don’t have much memory of Nixon’s April 30, 1970 speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia. It could have been because nothing the bastard did would have surprised me by that point, but more likely it’s just that I was already on my way to New Haven to see about Bobby.

That would be Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, who was facing trial in the case of some Connecticut Panthers accused of murdering a member they thought was a police informant. A national call had gone out for a May Day demonstration to defend Bobby, and thousands of young radicals from around the country and especially the Northeast were en route. We had a couple of dozen from NYU’s Uptown campus with us.

Lemme step back here to set a little context. NYU today is a bigtime, self-promoting academic powerhouse whose relentless pursuit of lower Manhattan real estate for expansion has earned them the hatred of all clear-thinking New Yorkers. Back then, NYU was a bit cheesier, with a campus in Greenwich Village and a satellite one in the Bronx. (The Uptown campus was abandoned by the racist NYU administration later in the 1970s when it found the West Bronx was becoming, let’s say, too colorful, and is now the home of Bronx Community College).

We had a pretty good SDS chapter at NYU Uptown and saw no reason to change anything just because the national organization had imploded the previous summer. (In fact, at one point we decided the chapter head, Lon E. Thud, must be National Secretary of SDS-nobody else was doing it, after all). NYU had given me a “compulsory leave of absence for academic reasons” at the end of the previous school year, a tactical mistake on their part. I was still a registered student and, as such, could not be excluded from the campus.

We began the school year with an orientation week packet and program we had put a lot of time into prepping and followed up with extensive dorm canvassing, picking up some fine new members. One of our fall activities was selling the Black Panther, the BPP’s weekly paper, to build support for the revolutionary group–a dynamic model of revolutionary organization, hugely popular in the Black community and under concerted and deadly attack by local police forces and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

In the early months, we could barely sell a dozen papers. The problem wasn’t their militant program or their guns. We were meeting particular resistance on a disproportionately Jewish campus. “Aren’t they anti-Semitic?”  folks would ask, citing the BPP’s early support of the Palestinian struggle and Fatah.

But patient education and organizing would combine with the increasing radicalization of the times to create a more favorable climate. By mid-winter SDS took a contingent of over 100 from the Uptown campus to join a march from Manhattan to the Queens House of Detention in support of the Panther 21 (more political prisoners, victims of frame-up charges, whose long court case and trial, the most expensive in NY history, eventually resulted in complete exoneration).

When the call came to rally on May Day in New Haven to Free Bobby! (a slogan which had somehow mysteriously appeared writ large across various Uptown campus buildings), a couple dozen of the most active radicals at the school headed up there, to join 15,000 other protesters crashing in Yale dorms and rallying on the New Haven Green.

Friday, May 1 was a very tense day, which foreshadowed the month to come in its combination of repression and concession. The governor had persuaded Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, to airlift 4,000 Army paratroops and Marines from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune for deployment in New Haven! Meanwhile, Connecticut National Guard troops in APCs and tanks were stationed around the city.

At the same time Yale University head Kingman Brewster, facing a substantial groundswell of support for Seale within his elite student body, famously set himself against the establishment, declaring at a mass faculty meeting, to the horror of many alumni:

I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of Black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.

Significantly, that faculty meeting was dealing with the threat of a student strike at Yale, endorsed at a 1500 student rally where a Panther spokesman declared “That Panther and that Bulldog gonna move together!” In a pre-emptive strike, the profs voted to suspend business as usual. Faculty members didn’t have to hold classes, and no students would be penalized academically for not attending.

Finally, Brewster had decided to open the campus to the protestors, so as to avoid making Yale an easy target for us. Meanwhile, he negotiated with established organizers and leaders from New Haven’s Black community and the upstart Panther chapter there to ensure that dangerous violence wouldn’t break out. Even New Haven’s police chief fought for authority over the military contingent, and they were kept out of sight for the most part.

It was still a close thing on May Day. The afternoon rally was, as rallies tend to be, peaceful and long and boring, even with the occasional whiff of tear gas. In the evening, there were running skirmishes in the campus area, some clearly the work of provocateurs, and tear gas aplenty. We were ready to rumble, but the tactical and political leadership, headed by the Panthers, directed us to keep things cool. New Haven didn’t blow.

Nothing I’ve read mentions the most important thing to come out of the rally. We voted to respond to Nixon’s Cambodia invasion with a national student strike (which, though we didn’t yet grasp it, was already underway). And we laid out three main demands for the strike:

US Out Of Southeast Asia

End Campus Complicity With The War Machine

Free Bobby Seale & All Political Prisoners

With no widely-recognized national student organization to provide direction to the forces already set in motion, this call did a lot to lay down the political terms on which the events of May ’70 would take place. Campus after campus took them up. Indeed, the three demands were just what the doctor ordered–very broad, revolutionary in fact, but still specific, and representing mass sentiment among a whole layer in every part of the country and every section of the people, millions who had been thrown into motion by the ferment of the ’60s.

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  1. I remember the band Elephant’s Memory playing, forget most of the speakers, Jerry Rubin. maybe Abbie Hoffman, writer Jean Genet.

    I remember hearing the Beatles “Paper back Writer coming over the PA and how that seemed to lighten the mood a little.

    I remember being at an outside meeting on campus, of a hundred or so, discussing options as to what kind of actions to take. I had a camera and was told not to take pictures as there was concern of government agents being present and photographing everyone there.

    I was sixteen and I felt like I was a real “radical”, and I guess I was in attitude, but more just another teenager trying to find an identity in the turbulent times, Kent State was just days away.

  2. yet so remote.  It was a time when many were united by a common cause and stood shoulder to shoulder to voice their opposition to our seriously misguided invasion of Southeast Asia.

    Despite the multiple causes for even greater concern, one wonders where the young people of today are?  By which means (or combination of strategies) has the voice of the masses been mostly stilled?  It is yet another measure of how much this once better (albeit far from great) nation has fallen from grace.

    Cindy Sheehan was roundly vilified for asking George W. Bush to answer the question, regarding her son’s death in Iraq, “What is the Noble Cause that you keep talking about?”

    Where are those asking the same question about our country’s ill-fated adventure into Southeast Asia?  Where are those who lost children, siblings, parents, spouses and friends to that war, asking the same question of those apologists for the suicide mission that prematurely claimed the lives of 58,236 young people?  

    Unlike today’s combination of those serving multiple deployments in the military and highly paid private mercenaries, many at that time were unwilling, but heeded the call to “service” when they were drafted.

    The figure of 58,236 grossly underestimates the tragedy, not including the many whose lives were cut short due to exposure to Agent Orange, including a friend of mine from many years ago, who had been happily married to another friend. There were also the millions in Southeast Asia whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then there were/are the countless walking dead, those whose lives were irreparably damaged, never to be the person they might have become otherwise.

    Yes, the question should be asked of all Vietnam defenders and apologists, “What, indeed, was the noble cause?”

    • dennis on May 3, 2010 at 2:32 am
      Author

    and not drop in this cut, protesting his earlier incarceration as a result of the police riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention?

  3. The burning of raft cards over a war in a country which is now an investment opporuntity.

    The burn your bras baby feminist movement which only means you now need two people in a household to maintain a reasonable standard of living and media still treats women like marketable pieces of meat.

    The drug war we lost to designer happy pills of the ask your doctor for choice.

    To the students of today so impressed with Facebook and technocrap yet completely incompetent in real practical life.  

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