Thursday, April 30, 2015

45 years ago today: Ohio State University and the Six-Hour War

  Above: back in the days when we stood up to armed state. But not without a terrible cost.

A lot is being written about Kent State, and rightly so. Forty-five years ago, the Spring of 1970 was the boiling point of a decade-long revolution that made the nation tremble. It bubbled over at Kent State University on that horrible afternoon of May 4, when the military turned their guns on unarmed students and opened fire. A volley of 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killed four students and wounded nine others. 

I started at Ohio State ten years later, part of an entirely new generation and a new era. Even so, the Kent shootings were still a hot topic on college campuses, and an unhealed wound. But what I heard over and over, from those who witnessed what went down, was that Kent was a tragic anomaly. The anti-war protests there were relatively small and far less violent compared to those at Ohio State University.  OSU had twice the number of students as Kent and was in the middle of Columbus, a major city, not in an easily sealed off college town. It is also the state capital, which made it an ideal location for mass protests. It was rumored that Ohio State in Spring 1970 was a war zone, involving over 10,000 protestors facing off against 5,000 armed troops. It was the largest and most violent campus protest in the nation. But I could never get the details of what occurred in the Spring of 1970 at OSU, just hints of something called... "The Six-Hour War." 

Curiosity piqued, I researched the events, like any good journalism major would. Several profs were on campus in 1970 and regaled me with tales of that explosive week. The problem was, the school paper, The Lantern, which I worked for, suspended publication  for several weeks when the university was closed in 1970 due to the riots. It was a university publication, made on campus and printed at a university printing plant. No paper, no documentation. The Lantern archives yielded some of the story, but not all. There were accounts of tensions building, and then just as the shit hit the fan, a blank. It's the classic move by the authorities, one repeated throughout history: muzzle the press and control the peasants. Oh sure, there was a daily paper in Columbus, the dreadful Columbus Dispatch, but it was a rightwing rag run by an entrenched One-percent clan (still is, in fact).  Its coverage was heavily slanted, to say the least. And local tv news in 1970 was just as stupid and low-quality as tv news is now. 

I discovered the documentation I needed in, of all places, the 1970 yearbook. Usually, these things are full of typical collegiate fluff: Greek Week parades and stiff group photos of the Engineering Club  etc. The remarkable 1970 edition, however,  featured a lengthy section detailing what happened in Spring 1970, full of photos that couldn't run in the shuttered Lantern. This is supplemented by archival copies of the Ohio State Alumni News, a monthly publication that reported on the riots and the aftermath as the events unfolded.

It's a fascinating episode of largely forgotten history. 


Political  forces come to a violent head in early 1970. The previous Fall, the details of the My Lai Massacre shocked the nation to its core. On the heels of this unprecedented war crime by American troops, the Nixon White House orders the elimination of student deferments and the first draft lottery, held in December 1969. Just like that, tens of thousands of college students are in danger of being drafted and shipped off to Vietnam, as soon as their current deferments expire. Tensions on the Ohio State campus rise to a dangerous high. The university, the largest in the state by far, with 50,000 students, is a powder keg.

There are other forces at work, too. The emerging Black Power Movement is very active at OSU, as are also other groups who want academic reform of the stodgy scholarly norm. The old guard that runs the university is unsympathetic to both. As winter turns to spring and the weather warms, students take to the streets to demand change.

March 13: It begins with a Black Power protest on Ohio State's vast campus green, the Oval. Several hundred rally for the establishment of a Black Studies Department. They march to the nearby Administration Building to present a list of demands. OSU President  Fawcett refuses to see them. Enraged, the protestors, upwards of 100, storm the building, smash windows and ransack the offices. The Highway Patrol rushes to campus (above) and clears the building.

April 13: 1,700 students march from campus down High St., the major north-south artery through the city, to the Statehouse downtown, to protest rising tuition. The governor at the time is a hardline Republican, James Rhodes, the man who will, in a few short weeks, order the National Guard to crush protests at Kent State University. Rhodes, running for a US Senate nomination, wants to play to his Republican base and show these unruly students just who is in charge. It is a calamitous blunder that will result in a bloodbath. But the march in Columbus this day is peaceful, with no opposition from police. In fact, Columbus cops stop traffic to allow the march to pass!

April 20: There is a massive student walkout to protest for academic reform and against tuition hikes. 

April 24: OSU President Fawcett lashes out publicly at student protestors, and declares they "represent less than 1 percent of the student body." This does not got over well. The stage is set for...


April 29: At noon, 2,000 students rally on the Oval (above). 

President Fawcett panics and summons the Highway Patrol to break up the protest and secure the campus. Ohio State, at that time (and in my time) is its own municipality, with its own police force. Columbus Police have no arresting power on campus, only on the surrounding perimeter, which is the City of Columbus. The small campus police force is completely outmatched, especially in 1970 when it wasn't militarized, as it is today. The only legal option available to the university president is to call in the State Highway Patrol.... or the National Guard. The Patrol wades into the Oval crowd swinging billy clubs, cracking skulls and arresting anyone who refuses to immediately disperse. The crowd scatters.

3:30 pm: As the Patrol is breaking up the Oval rally (above), 3,000 students mass at the Neil Ave. entrance to campus, several blocks away (below). 

Suddenly, undercover agents of undetermined pedigree materialize (above) and try to drag away student leaders. Campuses are rife with undercover operatives: FBI, CIA, Military Intelligence, various state law enforcement agencies, all trying to infiltrate and/or get the goods on student protest organizations. As the undercover cops make their move, much to their surprise and chagrin, the crowd explodes in a riot, and the cops suddenly find themselves surrounded by an angry mob, who free the student leaders and pummel the cops. The Highway Patrol races across campus to their rescue and are met with a barrage of rocks, bottle and bricks, pulled from campus walkways. The Patrol fires tear gas into the crowd (below). 

4 to 8 pm: There are running skirmishes around campus. Ohio State is huge. The main part of campus is a mile from north to south, and is home to 50,000 students.  The Patrol races about campus. But when it chases off one group, three more materialize on the other side of the university. Protestors hurl rocks and bricks from campus windows. The protest quickly grows in size and intensity. Clouds of tear gas waft down campus streets. Protestors storm Derby Hall and Denny Hall, break furniture and hurl it at Patrolmen who pass beneath building windows.

A group of 1,000 attempt to storm the Administration Building but are repelled by the Highway Patrol.

Then the Columbus cops (above) join the fun! They can't come on campus, but they're itching to teach these student punks a lesson. They patrol the sidewalk on High St. bordering campus (above) hoping to catch any protestors that flee across the university boundary.  For reasons unknown, they march in force up 15th Ave., the residential Frat Row, and inexplicably fire large volleys of tear gas at the frat houses and apartments that line the street. Residents flee the gas which now fills their rooms and mass in great numbers on High Street (below), the 2-mile long commercial district of shops, bars and eateries that borders campus' eastern edge. 

At 6:30 pm the university administration abandons the Administration Building and is escorted  by Patrolmen to West Campus, a mile away from Main Campus, where they set up an emergency HQ.

Meanwhile back on High St., traffic is snarled by the crowd, and Columbus cops move in (above) to arrest and club students, deciding this is an illegal protest, rather than peaceful residents with simply no where else to go. The situation quickly becomes the riot the bungling cops were intent on preventing! They get to crack heads after all, but it quickly proves to be more than they counted on. The cops are soon surrounded by the swelling crowd of several thousand now-angry students and are cut off from retreat. Reinforcements from all over the city speed to their aid. Every cop in Columbus rushes to the University District.

8:30 pm: Columbus cops again march up 15th Ave. The retreating students shower them with rocks and bottles. Several molotov cocktails are thrown.

9 pm: The mayor issues an immediate curfew.

11:30 pm: Gov. Rhodes, ever the law-and-order tough guy, sends in the National Guard (below), bayonets drawn, to secure the university. Students retreat to their dorms and apartments. An uneasy calm settles over campus.

The tally for the day: 300 arrests, 32 police injured, and an undetermined number of students injured.

THREE students are shot by persons unknown! Perhaps the cops, perhaps intelligence operatives, but more likely rightwing thugs opposed to student activists  Several gun-touting locals were seen cruising  the streets of the dense student neighborhoods bordering campus. This was reported by local media, but received little notice in the national press.

The university immediately suspends all the students who were arrested.

Not sure why it became known as the Six-hour War, since it really was more like an 11-hour War. 

Then... the shit really hit the fan.


Up until now, the protests mainly concerned academic beefs and the violence was a reaction to ill-thought-out strongarm strategy by the cops. A peaceful gathering turned into a large-scale riot, thanks to the bungling thugs in the Highway Patrol and the Columbus Police. All that was about to change.

April 30: President Nixon admits publicly that the US has secretly invaded Cambodia. Instead of ratcheting down the war, as he had promised to do, Nixon is escalating it!

Colleges across the country explode in anti-war anger. Every university in Ohio roils with large protests. It truly feels like society is on the brink of collapse. 

10 am: The Oval fills with 4,000 student protestors, by far the largest demonstration yet, but is peaceful, with only speeches and chanting. Then the Guard, fearing another outbreak of violence, opens fire with tear gas (below) and, once again, incites the violence its commanders want to prevent!  The battle is on! Large groups of students shower Guard units around campus with rocks and bricks. Windows and cars are smashed. Fires are set. 

1:30 pm: The Lantern reports a student is wounded in the leg and hand by "sniper fire." It's again likely that an outside party is responsible.

1:45: The Guard retreats off The Oval.

7:20: An explosion and fire in Brown Hall causes extensive damage. It is a bomb planted by parties unknown.

Improvized gas mask (above)

The Guard moves onto High St. (above), firing more gas. Great clouds of it hang over campus. 

Skirmishes continue until sundown. 

And, of course, when in doubt, arrest (above) the news photographers! 

May 1: Nixon infamously calls anti-war protestors "bums." The next few days see random skirmishes, but campus is relatively quiet. 

The administration and police are more concerned about "outside agitators," particularly the dread possibility of "black militants." Virtually every campus administration in the country has similar fears. The Students for a Democratic Society had a strong presence at Ohio State, but SDS had torn itself in two is a smoldering ruin by Spring 1970. A friend of mine from Ohio State reports that his mother, in 1970 a 38-year-old grad student, was involved with the Ohio State SDS. She helped fund their activities by passing bad checks at various Columbus banks. She looked like an average, upstanding housewife, so she was able to fool "the Man!" SDS has a safe house on 17th Ave., a half mile from campus in a hardscrabble lower-class neighborhood, that they use as an HQ. The cops never discover it.

"We know at least four of the black militants operating on campus are from California," warns Columbus police chief Dwight Joseph. "They are professional infiltrators." Paranoia about outside agitators was also a major theme at Kent State.

Black student leaders accuse the Guard and Highway Patrol of targeting black men in student protests.

May 2: The Ohio State ROTC holds its annual Spring march on the intramural fields, thumbing its institutional nose at campus unrest. Naturally, it's a debacle as several thousand student protestors swarm the event (above) and ruin it. 

May 4: News of the Kent State shootings sends students at virtually every college campus in the country into a rage. A nationwide student strike is called and OSU protestors shut down the university, blocking building entrances and campus roads. Fights break out all over campus when some students try to break the blockade and go to class. A dozen fires are set. Dozens of false alarms are called in to confuse the police. The Guard rushes to and fro trying to drive off protestors and are met with heavy volleys of rocks and bricks. Clouds of tear gas seep into buildings and drive out the few staff that dared show up for work. Lord Hall is firebombed, causing extensive damage.

May 5: Skirmishes continue throughout the day.

May 6: Many university employees refuse to report to work, fearing for their safety. Guard and students engage in pitched battles all over campus. Guard attempts to keep the large crowd, many thousands, confined to the Oval. Regular attempts are made to break the Guard lines. One succeeds and students pelt Adminstration Building with rocks and bricks, smashing the windows. Guard eventually drives them off. 

Campus records are removed under armed guard and taken to a secure, off-campus storage facility.

5:30 pm: After three days of escalating riots, and with no end in sight to the violence, President Fawcett closes the university.   Several large protests break out around campus in response to this decision. Students are given but 12 hours to leave campus and the surrounding student areas of Columbus. Anyone remaining in the closure zone will be arrested. 

7 pm: The Oval is deserted. Students pack up and flee town before the 9 pm curfew.

449 other universities close in response to violent protests in the weeks following Kent State, including every state university in Ohio. Close to 500 others shut down when students walk out en masse. Many do not re-open that year. It is the only nationwide student strike in US history and it brings higher education to a total halt. 

Ohio State is closed for two weeks (below).

May 9: 100,000 protestors descend on Washington DC. Nixon is whisked to Camp David for his own safety. Troops fill the White House, in case it is stormed.

May 14: At Jackson State University in Mississippi, two students are killed and 12 wounded by police during an anti-war protest, when the cops open fire on a girls dormitory.

May 19: Two weeks later, Ohio State re-opens with a massive presence from the Highway Patrol. The university is a virtual police state. Students who elect to return have to show university ID at checkpoints (below)  just to move around campus. A curfew remains in place. No outsiders are permitted on the grounds. Columbus cops stalk through surrounding neighborhoods in full riot gear.

May 20: Several top school administrators are hospitalized with exhaustion.

May 21: Violence breaks out again as a large student protest turns into a riot on High St. There is another round of window smashing, on campus and in High St. stores and bars. Mershon Auditorium is ransacked. Rhodes again orders in the Guard (above), this time 5,000 strong. Here they surround the Administration Building, bayonets out. 

President Fawcett bans any further student gatherings.

Above: Blood-n-guts football Coach Woody Hayes, whose preference would have been to arrest everyone, make them drop and give him 20, and then ship them all to Vietnam, scolds the protestors. He is ignored and mocked by some, admired by others for wading into the fray (it's football-factory Ohio State, after all!)

A group of black students attempts to tear down the US Flag flying over the door of the Adminstration Building. A group of white students attempts to protect it. A brawl breaks out between the groups. Two are severely beaten.

5 pm: Protestors again swarm onto High St. and smash store windows. Police and Highway Patrol march down the street and clear it.

6:30 pm: Rhodes again sends in the Guard to restore order.

President Fawcett calls the protestors "hoodlums."

May 25: Nearly 10,000 students rally on the Oval, defying the university edict and the Guard. Ohio State announces, while this rally is taking place, that tuition for the now-ruined Spring semester will be waived. Ohio State is declared a Free University  This gesture, coupled with the very real fear of what happened at Kent State repeating here, eases tensions. The rally, miraculously, remains peaceful.

May 28: Campus is again quiet. The Guard pulls out.

June 11: The school year ends and students depart for home. 

Later that day, Ohio State trustees vote to raise tuition.

Final tally: over 700 students arrested, four students shot, an undetermined number of students, police and Guardsman injured and treated at area hospitals, at least three students severely injured, a man badly burned when the firebomb he was making accidentally exploded, two campus buildings bombed, over 50 arsons, widespread damage to stores along High St. on two separate occasions, the Administration Building, Mershon Auditorium, Derby and Denny Halls sacked and extensively damaged, windows shattered all over campus and campus brick walkways destroyed. The state and city spent $1.5 million on riot control. That would be nearly $10 million in today's dollars. That's just for the manpower. Factor in damage to university buildings and property, damage to houses, apartments and cars, lost wages, damage to High St. stores and eateries, and the lost business they incurred, and the true cost easily triples.

When students return to campuses in the Fall, the air has gone out of the student anti-war movement. For most, protesting has become dangerous business. Too dangerous. The slaughter at Kent State is a sobering gut check for many. Smaller, peaceful anti-war protests still take place, with some huge marches on Washington, but the mass rioting and street fighting is over.

The country is exhausted, tired of Vietnam and tired of the turmoil. The war, however, groans on for five more years before the last chopper out of Saigon.

By the time I got to Ohio State in 1978, all this seemed like ancient history. The only campus protest during my four years was patriotic students who rallied on the Oval  to protest the taking of the Iranian hostages and burn the Ayatollah in effigy. The only riot occurred when drunken morons swarmed onto High St. following a Buckeyes victory over Michigan.

The only lasting impact of the 1970 riots is that the picturesque brick walkways that bisected campus had all been paved over with asphalt to prevent students from prying up bricks to use as weapons!

Times had changed.