Confronted at Cox
Words. Words. More words. Words about Vietnam, about the injustice of the war. Words about what the war revealed concerning America's institutions.
For those opposed to the war, finally this morning there had been the opportunity for action. And the action had been successful, too. A sit-in had forced Marine recruiters to leave the campus.
But now this afternoon, it was back to words. There was a vague sense that words were not enough, a sense that some additional action should be taken. But what would it be?
that you are about to read is true.
It was Thursday, February 20, 1969. Three recruiters for the United States Marine Corps had scheduled a visit to Oberlin College in northern Ohio. At Peters Hall, a 19th-century stone classroom and office building, they planned to meet with 13 students concerning possible officer training. But among Oberlin's 2400 students were some vocal opponents of the war in Vietnam who had disrupted previous recruiting visits before. The night before, a meeting of about 300 students and a few faculty members had agreed to disrupt this one with a sit-in at Peters.
On Thursday, about 50 of them blocked the office door. When they wouldn't move, the deans took their names for future disciplinary action. And when they still wouldn't move, Dean of Students George Langeler had to ask the recruiters to leave campus.
Pikser, the president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), used a bullhorn to address the group. He thanked them for their presence; it showed, he said, that they knew that even though the recruiters had left, there were still things that were wrong.
"Now, first I'd like to ask you all to kindly sit down," he began. "We have one short flick that I think you're all going to dig watching." There were scattered groans from the audience; that morning they had already seen the film Hanoi-13, and they weren't in the mood for yet another movie. Pikser assured them that it would last only eight minutes. "And after the flick, we'll have some more raps, and we'll tell you about maybe something we can do this afternoon." To that, there were scattered replies of "Yeah!"
Hedges talked next, and he was able to dispense with the bullhorn.
"We're not in Vietnam for some, some ideological pretend reason," he began. "We're in there because there are interests in there that the people who make decisions in this country have.
"Now, the nature of the way this country works is such that there have to be people to fit into every strata of that society. There have to be people in Vietnam at just about the very lowest level to work and turn out stuff that we're going to use and consume and sell in America, and they get nothing from it. There have to be people in the black ghetto who have to do s--- jobs and take all the worst stuff there is in America to make it work out at that level. And there have to be people in colleges, like us, to go into these middle-position jobs, professional jobs, and make that work."
Hedges continued, "The administration of this college is an arm of that same system, and works to function in that system to produce people to take those middle jobs just as the cops work in the ghetto to make sure that those people stay down, and the Marines work in Vietnam to make sure those people stay down."
Many might disagree with this muddled Marxism, but there was more of it to come.
Hedges introduced SDS representative Howard Emmer from Kent State, who had met in Budapest with representatives of North Vietnam and the NLF (the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Viet Cong guerillas). Emmer repeated much of what they had told him, although he had to cut his remarks to less than nine minutes.
"There was a feeling," he said of his meetings in Budapest, "that we are part of the same struggle, that the Vietnamese and the Americans, although we fight in different ways because our situations are different, we're all fighting U.S. imperialism."
"The United States is interested in using those countries to fulfill the military and the economic needs of our country." He went on, "Imperialism comes from a society that's a class society, because ruling leaders . . . need to exploit poorer people and need to use us as middle-class people, in the slots that they want to put us in to fulfill certain functions. So that imperialism is only needed because of the class society that we live in, and it flows out of that.
"So how does that relate to us, again? What that says is maybe the struggle is longer and is broader than just protesting."
Emmer concluded, "When we understand how hard it's going to be, how long it's going to be, then that (a peace sign) changes to that (a clenched fist) and we start fighting."
(For a complete transcript of Emmer's talk, click here.)
Another student said, "Speak up, Rhonda!"
Another said, "Relax, Rhonda!" That drew a laugh.
"I can't stay, because this place is strangling me," Rhonda continued. "It's insidious, and it scares me. It's turned me into a kind of person that I know I don't want to be."
"It will turn me into a teacher who can say I'm teaching whatever's in my book, and never admit to myself I'm forming people's minds.
"It will turn me into a mother who's going to do the things that my parents did to me, accidentally, unconsciously."
Emotionally, she told the crowd, "I really wish I could stay here and take the kind of s--- you have to take, in terms of the food you eat here and the kind of rooms you have to live in to live here, and do something. But I can't. So I'm going to go someplace that, you know, will be safe like Oberlin but maybe won't strangle me."
She seemed to become less coherent as she went on. "It does go to the root of the society, and there's something so real along with all of it. You know? Why do you have to wear shoes in a classroom? Wowwww. You know, I mean, man, that's evil! And people are scared to say it's evil, but it is. I mean, you know, no one wants to say evil, because, you know, that's not rational. But G--d---, it is evil, and it, and, and, and, it's what made evil exis you know? That's the inherent evil in original sin."
Rhonda concluded, "I think it's time we stopped lying to ourselves and saying 'Recruiters matter, let's, you know, wear a black armband.'
"G--d--- it! We're what's sacred and we've got to do something about it now, before we kill our own life!"
She sat down to strong applause, perhaps as much from empathy as from understanding.
"I think everybody, including the film, has said pretty much the same thing in their own way," Jeremy Pikser summed up. "The problems of this college, and the problems of this society, did not get solved today because recruiters went away." He began to build toward his next step. "We have to let the administration know that we're onto what they are. That they're not just people setting up classroom schedules. That they have a role in the society. And it's a role that we don't dig, that we're going to try and do something about in the future to change."
Pikser paused just a couple of seconds for a breath. What he was about to suggest could have momentous consequences, if it turned out wrong.
"Because of this," he said, "I think it's essential that that linkage, that linkup, be made with the administration."
His voice began to grow louder as the call to action approached. "For that reason, myself and group of other people have talked about this before and we hope everybody will come with us are going to go over to the Administration Building now! We're not going to seize it; we're not going to hold it; we're going to go over to it!"
Pikser was being careful to avoid suggesting a takeover of the building. Such tactics had led to long standoffs at such campuses as Berkeley and Columbia. In fact, they're still being tried today; about 30 Harvard students occupied their administration building for three weeks in the spring of 2001 in an effort to win better wages for the university's janitors. But Pikser's plans included no occupation, merely a sign-posting.
"We're going to tack up this sign, which is almost comical but which we think outlines basically were we think this place is at."
A female student called out, "Read it!" Pikser did. "It says:"
His reading, punctuated with shouts of "Yeah!" from the crowd, was followed by applause. He encouraged the crowd, "Come with us! We're going to put this up, and then when we come back we're going to come back we're going to rap about this some more amongst ourselves, not with speakers. We might show some more films if you want to see it. And at 4:30, Our Revolutionary Youth Culture That Says No To Doris Day is going to have a rock band here, and we're all going to dig it!"
The Cox Administration Building was not far away; in fact, just next door, a small building situated between Peters Hall and Finney Chapel on the west side of Oberlin's Tappan Square. But the 200 students who marched from one building to the other required a chant for their short march. And the one they chose was unique.
Traditionally, when a group of people chants, their slogan expresses their desires. Peace now! Four more years! Ban the bomb!
But the slogan chosen for this day was an ironic one. It expressed not the chanters' desires but rather the opposing desires. They attributed these desires to the imperialists, who wanted collegians to study and work hard and get ahead in the world so that they could be efficient cogs in the military-industrial machine. Thus the slogan was not the students' own imperative but rather the imperative that they were trying to escape:
WORK! STUDY! GET AHEAD! KILL!
The irony would be lost on Oberlin College President Robert Carr, who was at work in his second-floor office in the Administration Building. Or perhaps he merely considered the violent language inappropriate. At any rate, Carr would interpret the chant in the traditional way. People who shout "kill" are inciting their comrades to murder, are they not?
The students approached the door of the building. WORK! STUDY! GET AHEAD! KILL! they shouted.
A reporter for college radio station WOBC nervously noted, "They're going to go inside here."
Inside the central hall of the Administration Building, up the staircase toward the second floor, the chant echoed louder off the walls. WORK! STUDY! GET AHEAD! KILL!
President Carr came out of his office to meet the protesters, but their chant drowned out his words. WORK! STUDY! GET AHEAD! KILL!
"If you want me to respond . . ." he could be heard saying. "Stop this nonsense . . ." But the chant continued. Finally he spoke boldly, and the chant stopped at once.
"And you people have the gall to talk about the immorality of the war in Vietnam," he scolded the mob of would-be killers on his staircase. "Shame on you as immoralists!"
The crowd responded in a variety of displeased ways. "Lackey!" shouted one student.
Pikser was the leader of the group. Carr addressed him rather formally. "What do you wish here?"
"We have a statement I'd like to present," Pikser replied, starting to unfold the sign.
"Present the statement, and I will take it," said Carr, holding out his hand.
But Pikser taped the sign to the wall. "We've come to post this public notice," he announced, "that we understand the true "
Carr angrily tore down the sign. "We don't post notices on the walls of the Administration Building," he said, his voice shaking. He added in a condescending tone, "And you should know that." The crowd booed.
The president continued, "Anybody who marches into this building yelling 'Work, study, and kill' is beneath contempt! And a Bill Hedges who claims that he is morally opposed to the war in Vietnam is exposed as a fraud, and I would like to be quoted as that!"
One of the students replied boldly, "I think we know who the real fraud is here!"
Another asked, "Why don't you read that, President Carr?"
"Because I heard your message," he answered, "and I got it. Work, study, and kill."
"That's not what " a student began, but his explanation was obscured by the yells of others. The confrontation was threatening to turn into a shouting match. This could get out of hand.
Pikser acted quickly. "All right, we're moving back to Peters now," he called out. "Moving back " The WOBC reporter didn't have to be told twice. He immediately switched off his tape recorder.
But that was not the end of it. The students didn't move back to Peters. When the tape began recording again, Bill Hedges was explaining the situation and the warning that had been given.
"If we don't leave within ten minutes, we're all automatically suspended," he said. "Now as I understand it, this building is a college building, and as such is open to every single individual of this community."
The crowd was in a mood to stand up for its rights. "Yeah!"
"This building does not close for a long time," Hedges noted; "I don't think it closes in ten minutes."
One student urged, "Tell him we want to talk to him some more, and what we have to talk about is more important than ten minutes."
Hedges went on, "So can we for those of you in back who want to come in, who think this building belongs to you as much as it does to President Carr, why don't the people in front make room for them?"
After the applause died down, one student asked another, "Did you want to say something?" "Well . . . yes," he replied, to light laughter.
But then suddenly the protesters began shushing each other to keep quiet. Student Senate President Bob Shapiro was saying something like, "This is not blocking the stairs. Can't call it coercion for blocking the stairs." Students called out that the stairs were not blocked. "If people want to move up and down the stairs, they are free to do so." "We've got a beautiful aisle, Bob."
And then President Carr was there to see for himself whether he was being prevented from coming and going.
The chant started again, WORK! STUDY! GET AHEAD! KILL!
The president asked a student whom she wanted to kill. She should have replied "No one." We want to kill no one. It is the masters of war who want us to kill at their bidding. But the student looked into the president's eyes, and her very human instinct was to allay his fears. Her answer was not strident and political. It was quiet, almost tender.
So the chant stopped when the president asked, "Who are you going to kill? I'm just curious."
Her reply: "Not you."
"Who is it you're going to kill?"
"No, we're talking about the future, sir. When we get out of college, where do we go from here."
"You're going to kill people, is that it?"
"No," she stammered, "that's what, that's the intention of being here "
President Carr was stammering himself. "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're opening yourselves to grave misunderstanding when you talk about work, study, and kill."
Barbara Ashley interjected, "Well, that's why we came, because we really want to talk to you about what we "
Another student offered, "If you'd read our statement "
"I've been talking," said Carr a little wistfully, "trying to talk with you for weeks and months."
"Well, here we are," answered Ashley. "We want to."
Carr continued, "Friday night at the "
Ashley was still feeling slighted. "You ripped our demands!"
A male student interrupted, "You insulted us directly." Carr looked at him incredulously. The student mumbled, "It seems to me." Carr finally let out an exasperated sigh.
The president walked down the stairs, then back up, to confirm that access was not being blocked. Some students shouted, "Clear an aisle!"
Pikser began to address the crowd. "We came here "
"Shouting 'work, study, and kill,'" Carr interjected.
" to present, to present our paper which showed we knew what this place was about. We've done that. Now we have a lot to talk about. We can talk about it here, or we can talk about it at Peters."
"Open campus!" shouted a hard-liner. "Talk about it here!"
"The question of the matter," Pikser continued, "is if we're going to come here, and if we're told to leave, then we have to decide why did we come here in the first place, and is our action the type of action that we are going to let them make it into? In other words, we did not come here to take this building.
"Now I'm not going to tell anybody to leave who wants to stay. But I don't think that we should allow ourselves to be bullied into the position of having a fight when we didn't come to have one." The crowd applauded.
"If you want to have one, if you want to stay, I'll stay with you. But I'm not going to necessarily say that we have to do it at this time. This semester isn't over, and there are other times when we might come back under different circumstances."
Hedges concurred. "People have to realize that the power is with us. Now, we've come here to emphasize the fact that we see something wrong with this institution. At the present time, we do not have the power to change it en masse or change it, or we only change little parts of it. But as we develop our movement, we will come back again and again. And finally, when we have the power, we'll make this institution what we feel it should be!"
After the applause, Pikser called for a voice vote, stay or go. But Ashley interrupted, "Wait, Jeremy. There is a reason that we came to the Administration Building at Oberlin College and that we're not sitting in Peters right now."
"What's the reason?" someone prompted.
"The reason has to do with the whole structure of this school with the whole arbitrary judicial procedure and everything else that we've been talking about here at Oberlin, and then it expands out into our powerless, namby-pamby position in the society that we live in and to the fact that we're taking all this s--- "
"Except for you?" a student interrupted. "Are you namby-pamby?"
"What's your position?" another asked.
"Aw, come on!" said a third, and several chimed in at once.
Ashley regained the floor. "So what I want to say is that I absolutely agree that we should not take this place over right now. I don't think, you know, Carr's worthy of it."
Whether she noticed him or not, Carr was right there.
"But I think that we I really feel that maybe we should stay "
The president interrupted her. "As long as it's clear that people can come and go without interference, you can stay as long as you want to. And my challenge to you was only at a moment when you were clearly blocking the stairs."
That removed the threat of suspension, which changed the situation somewhat. "All right, then," Pikser said to the students. "Do you want to stay and talk, or do you want to go back to Peters and talk? Okay, let's hear Stay's and let's hear Go's. Stay's?"
The vote was inconclusive. "Point of order! Point of order!" someone shouted. This was not getting resolved as quickly as the leaders would have liked.
It was pointed out that not all the protesters were actually inside the Administration Building. Many were standing outside and couldn't get in. That inspired an idea: "We can move it outside, in front, where everybody can be."
"Yeah!" the crowd responded.
"All right, let's move it out there, right on the steps." And so they did. And so the occupation of the building, if that was what it was, ended peacefully.
Later in the afternoon, the student newspaper reported, a copy of the sign which the group had brought to Mr. Carr appeared in the president's office window. The sign, which graced the east window of the office, was placed there by Mr. Carr himself.