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"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"
For all you non-Franco philes the quote above attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr translates to “the more things change the more they stay the same”. One of the few benefits of advanced age is pattern recognition. You start to see the same movies play only with different actors, but the stories remain the same. Human nature being what it is, it combines a painfully slow process of adaptation prodded by the recurring nightmares of upheaval that move the process of change along.
Looking at the past week had me looking back to 1970. I was a Jr. @ THE Ohio State University majoring in Poli Sci, which like all of the so called “behavioral sciences” was the definition of an oxymoron. Politics as science? Please! My interest in all of this was more immediate…there was a war going on and I was on the line…and the question was would this war be my war. Being passionately political, I was vehemently anti-war but like many of my peers I had no idea of what to do with my convictions.
Ohio State was hardly the hotbed of liberalism. While a student body of 55,000 was bound to have a lively mix, we were home to one of the largest ROTC presences in the US. The City of Columbus was even far more conservative than the University. President Nixon was already jousting with the growing anti-war movements on campus and summed up the feelings of the locals, casting us as a bunch of spoiled, long haired brats.
One late April morning while walking to class, I saw this huge massing of State and City police on the West Campus (the Olentangy River divided East and West Campus and the very Conservative Agricultural Campus was West). I had no idea why they were there until I remembered that a Student Demonstration had been called that day by the three biggest political groups on Campus representing Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and the Anti War activists. Even though I wasn’t the police were clearly taking this seriously.
Later that day after the rally, which was a bit sparsely attended, considering it’s scope of grievances, the kids marched around the perimeter road where the classroom buildings were housed chanting and asking for students to come out to join them. When they got to the South Campus Gate on Neal Avenue they were met by a huge police presence. For a while nothing happened. Then a few males, closed the Neal Avenue gates outside of which the police had been massed in force. At that moment, the closure of the gates was the act of disobedience that prompted the police into action. The scenes on the news this week were much the same…clubs flailing, tear gas exploding and people on the ground. And like this week, all hell broke loose.
The following day was a dance of confrontation between students and police and since the police had the weapons it was not a fair fight. The student recourse was to act out with destructive behavior to anything and everything. The next day the National Guard was called in. I remember being with a small group of students being interviewed by an ABC News reporter and thinking, “holy shit, this is something big!”. That day 4 kids at Kent State were killed and the next morning we were all sent home. For many in the Class of ‘70 , like the Class ‘20 there would be no graduation ceremonies.
So what did we learn? Well the post mortem revealed that the provocative act of closing the gates was the work of undercover police. The long simmering social divisions of the time only needed a spark to explode and the blue collar local and State police presences were only too happy to have an excuse to crack some heads even if they had to invent one. To be sure there were more than a few students who took the opportunity to act out in ways that both then and now were deplorable, but the “riot” was more a police riot than a student riot. It was an outlet for pent up aggression that had found what seemed to be a justifiable outlet.
In time, the war ended and both the women’s and civil right’s movements were able to claim some measures of progress but did any of what happened on Campus really contribute to those bits of progress? And even they did, given how far we still have to go to right centuries of wrongs, especially as it relates to the racism did any of it really matter? Even if I’m charitable I find it hard to believe that it did, particularly when I see how the politics of my peer age group represents itself today.
I suppose my point is that the outward acts of protest and the violent reactions to them are not answers but only at best opportunities for reflection and hopefully changes in attitude and behavior. Despite the sad legacy of the ‘70s where I feel so much sound and fury amounted to so little, I remain hopeful that what is happening now will really lead to a much deeper level of personal examination and with it the willingness to act to heal what is sadly now a very broken nation.