When I was a freshman in Medical School, fortune smiled on me again. One of the freshman students in my dorm and I decided to go to Harvard Square where we heard there was going to be an Viet-Nam antiwar protest.
The demonstration took place one or two days after an Earth Day demonstration on the Boston Common, which we had also attended. You would think we would have better things to do with our time, but our sincere dislike for Richard Nixon and our sense of moral outrage about Viet Nam continued to seem to get the better of us. We wanted to be a part of it all. We just wanted to help.
The scenario at Harvard Square was eerily similar to the one at Duke, except for the fact that it took place at night, and the authorities were extremely well prepared for potential violence.
In addition, the National Guard had been mobilized and was actually sent in to assist the local police. At Duke, the guard never had to show up.
The odd thing about it all was that the whole thing seemed to have a carnival atmosphere about it, and many of us casually joked with guard members as we walked by. But the tension was still palpable, and as more demonstrators began to show up the radical elements began to polarize the situation by hurling nasty epithets at the police and guard members.
Not a few unpleasant but predictable epithets got hurled back.
- Hippie, freak, Commie bastard.
The one thing I was particularly bothered by was the obvious fact that the authorities had spotters and armed individuals on the roofs of some of the buildings. They held the high ground. They had the weapons. They had the obvious upper hand. They were also undoubtedly photographing faces in the crowd. Everything was peaceful until some idiot decided to set a newspaper kiosk on fire at which point some people then started to throw rocks through store windows which was the only cue needed to prompt the police and the troops into the action needed to clear out the Square. They were pissed off, not inclined to put up with any more bullshit and acted both swiftly and efficiently.
I knew I was in the wrong place at the wrong time when I saw the police suit up with gas masks, Kevlar armor, riot helmets, Billy clubs, full riot shields, side arms, and worst of all then they brought out the dogs.
My friend and I wasted no time getting out of Dodge when the police formed complete shoulder to shoulder regimental lines across the streets that fanned out from the square and being accompanied by their German Shepherds, formed flying wedges that pushed everyone outward from the middle, as if the streets were spokes on a wheel.
I found myself running across one of the Charles River bridges as fast as I could possibly go while all the time wondering if I was about to be bitten on the ass by some snarling police pet. It was so frightening I never even turned around while the stupidly naïve part of my brain did not even think for one single moment that the police would actually ever open fire.
You would have thought I had learned my lesson at Duke. Police do not cotton well to civil violence or civil disobedience and even though most of us who protested thought we were exercising a right to free speech and public gathering, illegal trespass and destruction of private property takes all bets off the table.
The Harvard Square “riot” took place on September 15th in 1970.
On September 20th Richard Nixon announced the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. This escalation of the war smoldered for a while and then triggered a particularly nasty student riot at Kent State in Ohio that occurred during the first week in May.
The governor sent in the National Guard after a building was burned down by the more radical elements on campus or perhaps even by outside professional communist agitators.
Two mistakes were made at Kent State. One was not arming the guard with plastic bullets. The second was that by not having brought in the local police, who knew the lay of the land, the guard accidentally pushed the main body of protestors up against a fence. The guard was armed, but not with a map of the battleground.
Unlike at Harvard Square or at Duke, the protestors were then trapped and cornered; and there is not a single living animal on earth that reacts well to being trapped or cornered. The situation rapidly deteriorated into chaos. Also apparently some members of the guard either feeling extremely personally threatened themselves, or in simply fully expressing their hatred for anti-war demonstrators, lost control and opened fire.
Four students died that day.
So did America.
Armband distributed at the 1970 Duke protest after the Kent State murders
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
They’re finally in our town.
This summer I hear the drummin.’
Four dead in Ohio
(Four Dead in Ohio: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)