Minneapolis, MN, USA
In the spring of 1970, as a freshman student at the University of Iowa, I was involved in or witnessed several large antiwar demonstrations on the University of Iowa campus.
First a little 20-20 hindsight:
I characterize them as antiwar demonstrations to only provide a frame of reference. Yes many that attended these events were against the war…myself included. Many were also there because it was a nice spring evening after a long Iowa winter. Yes everyone called it an anti-war demonstration. It was also part rite of spring and a coming of age. Unlike today, where the media prepares children at an early age not be shocked by anything, we were constantly surprised by what we could do and who we could be. And depending on who you were or thought you should be, it was all very exhilarating, frightening, fascinating, annoying or even nothing at all.
But no matter what you thought at the time, the experience these events provided are far too complex to be so simply categorized. And perhaps too complex for some of us to ever make sense. I know a lot of people who just shut it out and went back to classes. I guess we all did eventually.
Popular culture wants the antiwar movement to teach us one or two pithy lesson…with something about hippies and love power thrown in. But there is no one lesson. This period taught thousands, millions of individual lessons…lessons that can take us years to really understand. Perhaps that’s the ultimate pity. That we didn’t experience it together, but each experienced it individually. As a result, what really happened on so many campuses across America in those days has been glossed over, homogenized, and reduced to part of a mini-series about hairstyles and clothes.
That said, a personal lesson from that warm Spring night in 1970 suddenly came clear when I first began reading, hearing and thinking of the strange path of Kathleen Soliah, the recently arrested fugitive from the 1970s.
Here’s what happened, long long ago:
After a previous night of terrible violence by both students and police (that’s another story), the Iowa Highway Patrol had arrived en masse to restore order. Their cars were neatly parked in the library parking lot across the river from where I stood outside Hillcrest Dormitory, my home that year, along with some friends and countless other onlookers. The dorm also just happened to be the place where the action culminated that night.
Hillcrest was a large, dark red building sitting on the river bluffs, separated from the rest of campus by a busy street and the Iowa River. From high on the bluff I watched. I’d had my moments on the front line the night before, now I was content to watch other students below make various attempts to stop traffic on the street below…you know…to stop the war and stuff. They’d dragged out snow fences, boxes, what ever they could find. Some joker in an older, bright blue Chevy Impala decided to make it his business to smash through the barricade as the students jumped laughing out of the way. You half expected to see Confederate flag license plates on his car.
About this time the Patrol, in full riot gear was forming up on a bridge that spanned the Iowa River. They assembled at the far end of the bridge in a rectangular formation and prepared to cross over. The other side of the bridge joined a road that crossed the busy street and went up the bluff to Hillcrest and other dorms.
Somebody got the bright idea to reinforce the barricade with some chunks of concrete they’d found down on the riverbank. Then they diabolically covered the concrete with the more harmless looking snow fence. Sure enough, blue Impala returned. You could hear him gunning his car of in the distance, and then he was near and headed toward the barricade. But some sort of innate, redneck instinct must have warned the guy and at the last minute, just as the street met the bridge, he turned onto the bridge and escaped death. Of course he then found himself plowing through the rectangle of Highway Patrolmen who smashed his windows and dented his car as he drove through their ranks. He headed off into the night with several Patrol cars in hot pursuit.
The Patrol reformed and began to march slowly across the bridge. None of the students started running, not this time, or at least not yet. The cops met a front line of students who would not step aside. I don’t remember many sounds that night, but I can still hear the sound of the pepper gas sprayer being fired up and the ugly whining sound it made. The lead Patrolman sprayed the students directly in the face and soon enveloped them in thick clouds of the irritant. The water-soaked kerchiefs worn by some of the students provided little protection and they soon fell to the ground in convulsions and were dragged away.
As the bulk of the formation emerged through the clouds of spray, someone near me noticed a section of concrete culvert…that’s a six feet long by four foot diameter section of round pipe used to construct drain sewers. Undoubtedly inspired by the concrete and snow fence trap, he or she, I don’t remember them specifically, had the bright idea of using it as a defensive weapon. Several other onlookers quickly grasped the possibilities and began attempting to pivot the pipe so it could be rolled down the hill. They couldn’t do it and called for help. Caught up in the moment I ran over to help and together we began to inch the pipe toward the street. I remember my camera getting in the way as I struggled along with the others.
I felt a hand and my shoulder and was pulled around to face an angry looking fellow student.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded to know.
I had no answer, so he told us, “You could kill somebody.”
He was just one guy, a pretty big one I admit, but really just some jerk spoiling our great idea. I still had no reply and so, like my fellow pipe rollers, I sullenly slipped away into the crowd and rejoined my friend, who stared at me thoughtfully for a moment, but didn’t say a word.
The Patrol then fired tear gas up into the hills causing the bulk of observers to begin to bolt. Our façade of strength broken, the Patrol broke into a run and charged up the hill. Like most people we retreated into the dormitory and made our way to our rooms. It wasn’t much of a refuge, since the night before other cops had come into the dorm and fired tear gas down the hallways. Wet towels wedged under the door helped a bit, but our eyes still burned.
The next day they stationed Patrolmen on each floor to guard us. Though they started out in full riot gear, we quickly made friends with them (a bowl of popcorn is the international peace food) and after a while they asked if they could store their gear in one of our rooms. While they strolled down the hallway we took some great pictures of each other posing while wearing their gear and pretending to hit each other on the head. Wish I still had that picture.
Things settled down after that and the campus returned to more quiet pursuits.
Here’s the lesson:
Years passed. It wasn’t until the whole thing with Kathleen Soliah came up that I thought about that incident again. Everyone is young and stupid at sometime. If that guy (and I still think he’s a jerk), hadn’t stopped us, we might have rolled that culvert down the hill and maybe killed somebody. Then, instead of just spending a few uncomfortable nights in tear-gassed dorm, we might have gone to jail, or on the run or who knows what? At some point Soliah, or at least the way I imagine her, wasn’t lucky enough to have some jerk come up from behind and remind her not to be stupid…before she went too far.