Thirty years ago this month ... Three Days in May
The May 1972 protests in Gainesville
The busy intersection of 13th Street and University Avenue is an unlikely place to think of protest and political confrontation. Most people who find themselves at these four corners, just off the University of Florida campus, view this area as a means to a destination, and not a destination itself. Indeed, the intersection, voted third worst in a recent Gainesville Sun poll, is one that pedestrians are eager to leave behind them as quickly as they can.
But thirty years ago this month it was the site of a confrontation between the .largely campus-based movement against the war in Vietnam and the police, which threatened to tear apart the Gainesville community during nearly three days in May 1972.
"It was three days of sheer hell," summed up Scott Camil, a witness to the bloody events that still haunt this intersection, and the larger community around it. "But it was a time when we learned to stand up for what was right."
Prelude to Pandemonium
That hell, and its aftermath that affect society even three decades later, was the climax and the result of an anti-war protest that began peacefully on a sunny afternoon of May 8, 1972. The setting was the Plaza of the Americas, a park-like expanse in front of the University of Florida's main libraries. Long a gathering place for sunbathers, religious groups, and political causes, it had already been a focus for opposition to the Vietnam War. Ironically, that opposition had grown even as the number of troops in Vietnam had decreased steadily from a high in 1968 of 536,100. And one of the leading voices preaching that opposition in Gainesville belonged to a pilgrim in that unholy war. Camil, a 20-month veteran of Vietnam's bloodiest battlefields, had become disillusioned with the war. Scenes of massive slaughter, and deceptive U.S. tactics used to hide atrocities and deceive the American people, turned Camil against the war effort.
"What we were doing-the massive killing, raping, and looting-it's not what America's all about," said Camil.
And so the day after Nixon made the bombing campaign public, Camil spoke in the Plaza. As head of the North Florida Chapter of Vietnam Veterans against the War, he had plenty to say about the latest chapter in the Vietnam saga. Camil addressed about 1,000 of his fellow UF students, citing sobering statistics on the results of the American war effort.
"They've dropped 763,000 tons of bombs in Indochina only since '71," Camil reminded them. "That's equal to 38 Hiroshimas," referring to the first nuclear bomb dropped on Japan.
And though the bombing in Vietnam began under Lyndon Johnson, Camil clearly placed most of the blame on Johnson's successor, noting that the majority of the bombs were unleashed since 1969, when Nixon took office. That barrage had failed to stop North Vietnam or its Viet Cong guerilla allies, Camil said, and had only accelerated the body count.
"It's a conservative estimate that there are one million dead in Indochina since '61," he recalled.
Nixon's next move even further enflamed the students. On May 7th, Nixon announced on national television that the United States would mine Haiphong Harbor, outside the main port used by North Vietnam. This announcement caused an even bigger furor than the bombing. Protests were held at hundreds of college campuses, including UF.
But while the president's decisions galvanized student opposition, only a mile away the prevailing mood was a world apart from the campus. A poll by the area newspaper The Gainesville Sun, taken at the city post office, found a majority of visitors supported Nixon's policy. This opinion was nearly unanimous, despite a cross section of black and white, male and female, and age groups ranging from the 20s to retirement age interviewed. One man, who said he was a veteran, even expressed contempt for the student protesters and accused them of unintentionally prolonging the war.
"If students quit dodging the draft and demonstrating, the war in Vietnam would have been over much quicker," he claimed.
That kind of view doesn't surprise Camil. "There were some people who didn't think we had the right to even verbally express our opposition to the war."
But express it they did. Back at the corners of University Avenue and 13th Street, the same Gainesville Sun poll found the exact opposite sentiment. Nearly all of the pedestrians approached expressed extreme disapproval of the bombing and mining. Only two people agreed with the policy. Neither of them were students.
The actions of the Nixon administration aggravated the bitterness students already felt by the beginning of May. Many protesters had already planned to gather in remembrance of a dubious anniversary. Two years earlier, students across the country had rallied against the invasion of Vietnam's neighbor, neutral Cambodia. Though supporters of the was claimed the action was justified, because Viet Cong supply routes passed through that country, many students believed the incursion violated international law. These views contrasted sharply with those of many college administrations, who called in the National Guard to preserve order (and suppress free speech, some claimed). Such a feared confrontation occurred at Ohio's Kent State University, when students throwing rocks were fired on by National Guard troops. Four students had died that day, including one who ironically was a bystander on his way to an ROTC class.
The bitterness over the student deaths had never healed, and as the two-year anniversary of that grim day approached, students already seethed over the continuing war in Vietnam and what they viewed as the brutal suppression of their opposition to it. And when Nixon announced the intensified bombing and mining of North Vietnam, students at UF decided to take a stand-by literally sitting on the job.
Twenty students marched across campus on the afternoon of May 9. At 1:30 p.m. they reached Tigert Hall, the administration building, and began a sit-in outside the offices of University President Steven C. O' Connell. Campus police, who previously had observed protests but taken no action against them, decided to take a harder stand. They demanded that students leave the area, as they had blocked several yards of 13th Street and were disrupting traffic. Student Body President Sam Taylor also asked them to move, but most of the protesters were unwilling to give up their vigil.
The police and the protesters faced each other across a wide political chasm, while History Professor Michael Gannon encouraged restraint on both sides. More police arrived, from the Gainesville police department and from the Alachua County Sheriff's office. More students congregated also, though. The two groups stared across at each other, each side waiting for the other to make the first move.
And in an historic irony, it was the police-the very group sent to preserve order and prevent a confrontation-that made the first aggressive move. The first volley in a battle that plunged Gainesville into hours of mayhem and changed the community forever. Police turned water cannons on the protesters, hoping that would encourage them to disperse. The demonstrators didn't give in to the pressure, literally or figuratively, and still refused to move. Finally, police threw tear gas into the crowd, which had the desired effect. The students scattered desperately to escape the effects of the gas.
The first confrontation was over, with only four arrests and no serious injuries. During a brief respite, University police received reinforcements. Eighty state troopers came to support local police, along with a group of volunteers from neighboring Marion County. It was becoming a volatile mix, one that threatened to break out of control. Bringing all those forces into Gainesville only aggravated an already tense situation, however, said Camil.
"They weren't trained on how to handle college students," Camil said. "They didn't know how to deal with long hairs."
By 6:30 p.m., the situation turned explosive again. Police threw more tear gas into the crowd, which by then had again occupied the block of 13th Street from Tigert Hall to University Avenue. They arrested those who refused to move. And a rumor spread that another ingredient would be added to the violent mix. Police and reporters covering the disturbance wondered if a National Guard unit from Camp Blanding, about an hour away, would be called in. Gainesville Police Chief Freeman admitted he'd contacted the Guard, but received no response. An hour later, a voice on a squad car radio announced that the Guard would be called "only as a last resort." That last resort never came, despite it taking police until midnight to fully clear the streets.
"We have things pretty well under control," announced Freeman.
So far, that control had carried a heavy price. But most people felt the police had acted with control and restraint. Professor Gannon agreed with that opinion, saying that with a few exceptions, "police were pretty well-behaved."
It was a sentiment he would soon regret expressing.
After midnight on May 9, an uneasy quiet descended upon Gainesville, while the community wondered what the next day would bring.
It didn't have to wait long. After only a few hours, students again gathered on campus. They returned to the safe haven of the Plaza, once more a rallying point for the discontented. Not satisfied with an on-campus vigil, the students once again took it to the street, in what everyone thought would be a repeat performance of the previous day's drama. Once again, they blocked the street in front of Tigert Hall. Inside, the local powers that be consulted on how to deal with the crisis. Mayor Jones spoke to University President O' Connell, City Manager B. Harold Farmer, and Student Body President Sam Taylor. Outside the protective walls of Tigert Hall, the crowd grew increasingly tense, becoming verbally hostile to drivers who tried to make it past the crowd.
As they did the day before, police arrived to try breaking up the crowd. At 1:55 p.m., UF police Lt. R.D. Ward arrived on motorcycle. Taylor approached the students, and pleaded with them to move, before the police made any more moves.
"We can all be martyrs, but going to jail is no big thing," Taylor warned them. "When you get out, the war will still be on."
"Yeah, but we'll get the national publicity we want," countered a protester. Most of the crowd gave Taylor an equally negative reaction.
Ward also asked students to leave the streets, claiming that they were forcing a confrontation. The group welcomed his comments about as much as it had Taylor's.
At about 2:15, Gannon arrived, with fellow History Professor David Chalmers. In spite of their efforts, the rising tension escalated into action. In a repeat performance, police doused protesters with massive water hoses, and hurled tear gas into the crowd. The crowd dispersed across campus, but this time chose to regroup. They gathered at the corner of West University Avenue and 13th Street. By 4:30 p.m., more than a thousand demonstrators packed the intersection, bringing traffic at the busy crossroads to a standstill. They put up a barricade, a makeshift fortress wall against an army of dozens of police that included units from almost every north Florida county. Students even claimed they saw a vehicle from Suwanee County, a claim that Suwanee Sheriff Buddy Phillips vehemently denied (though the next day Mayor Jones promised that no more of the non-existent police from Suwanee County would be brought in).
The stalemate broke as one police officer, Captain Ken Brown, approached students. It appeared as if he planned to negotiate with them. Just as he stepped forward, and the protesters wondered what he would do, Brown's colleagues suddenly rushed the barricade. The uneasy truce shattered that instant - and at the same time birthed a new sense of distrust that lingers even today. The police began to strike demonstrators, knocking many of them to the ground. Witnesses reported officers severely beat several students, even after they tried to leave. A Gainesville Sun writer, David Reddick, reported that police dragged a young man by his hair toward a makeshift "prison" bus, and repeatedly hit a young woman who said she was pregnant with billy clubs, then also forcefully dragged her to that bus. Reddick himself didn't escape unscathed, according to his account. He recalled that an officer placed a knee against his back, and a highway patrolman hit him in the groin.
This time, said many of the demonstrators later, the police weren't satisfied just to make arrests and end the protest.
"The police were out looking for an opportunity to kick ass," Camil charged. "They purposefully wanted to teach people a lesson."
If it was a lesson, it wasn't limited to the demonstrators themselves. Several people not involved in the protests nonetheless found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Police hurled tear gas into several nearby apartments and restaurants, including Krystals. Several patrons in that restaurant had to take cover, Camil recalled- including some that had been supportive of police efforts.
"They ended up harassing people in the community that were just trying to eat their dinner," Camil said.
And several witnesses claimed the police went out their way- literally- to find people to arrest. Several officers were seen walking up some of the surrounding streets, which were (and still are) mostly residential areas. Several people reported that the police knocked down residents who came out of their apartments just to see what were happening, and were then arrested for unlawful assembly.
Some of the most blatant acts of brutality were allegedly committed by those not even in uniform. Witnesses claimed several undercover police assaulted protesters, kicking them and repeatedly hitting them with billy clubs.
"They just went crazy," Camil said.
Even a man of the cloth didn't escape the heavy hand of the law that day. Gannon, an ordained minster, was arrested as he knelt to help an injured student. He was released later that evening. "They couldn't find anything to hold him on," said Camil.
By 9:05 p.m., the intersection of 13th Street and University Avenue was cleared. The battle was far from over, though, as the front lines merely shifted back. The retreating protesters made a second stand, blocking an area on 13th Street and Fourth Avenue (a few hundred yards from 13th and University). There they found police motorcycles, inexplicably left unattended, despite an obvious potential as targets of student frustration. And while some of the protesters urged their companions to leave the vehicles alone, others lashed out at the inanimate symbols of authority, breaking the motorcycles' antennas.
They didn't have time to do much else, as the police (perhaps the very drivers of those vehicles) quickly caught up to the demonstrators. The mayhem that began at 13th and University began again. A reporter attested that a policeman struck a young woman repeatedly, without telling her she was being placed under arrest. Moments later, he collapsed, apparently wounded himself.
Several journalists covering the disturbances found themselves targets of the attacks. Five were arrested that night, including Reg Crowder, a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, and Gary Nelson of WDVA. Television reporter George Perdue claimed that police tried to ruin his filming of the incident.
Despite those attempts, word of the violence did indeed spread far past Gainesville. The protests, and the police response, made front-page headlines in every major Florida newspaper. Troubling photographs of unarmed protesters beaten assailed the eyes of readers throughout the Southeast, and even beyond. The national evening news programs featured detailed accounts of the controversial police measures in Gainesville, despite similar scenes occurring on numerous other campuses throughout the United States.
By about 12:30 a.m., the crowd was finally subdued. The campus that the massive police force had come to protect had suffered little physical damage. Only one building, in fact, was apparently touched: Peabody Hall sustained $7,000 damage in a fire, that police listed as caused by arson.
The cost in human damage was considerably higher. Fifty-four people were injured that night, including 18 police officers. Nearby Alachua General Hospital treated six demonstrators and six officers. Police arrested 336 people that night, 169 of them UF students. The remaining 167 were mostly students from San Fe Junior College, Gainesville High and Buchholz High, and several journalists covering the disturbances who found themselves targets of the attacks.
Authorities immediately defended the actions of police officers. The next morning, Gainesville Chief Freeman denounced accusations of police brutality. He adamantly disputed claims by Sun reporter Reddick that police had beaten him and demonstrators.
"It's the most vindictive piece of journalism I've ever read," he said, calling Reddick's charges "complete fabrication."
And two days later, the State Governer's Council on Criminal Justice sided with the police as well. It voted 15-3 that the officers involved "acted with much restraint and performed in an efficient and exemplary manner."
And Florida Assistant Attorney General Reeves Bowen also supported the police actions. He claimed there were "no exceptions" to the unlawful assembly clause. Other state officials agreed, and said that police could use any means necessary to remove protesters-even if this caused injury or death.
"This made it illegal to oppose authority, even if what it's doing is illegal," said Camil.
The Shifting Tide
Yet if the goal of the comments by state authority, and the police actions they supported, was to crush the anti-war movement in Gainesville to oblivion, it failed miserably. The heavy hand of law enforcement did indeed end those particular demonstrations, but the images of excessive force gave the peace movement the credibility even as the authorities tried to deny it. Condemnation of the police was nearly unanimous in the media. The Gainesville Sun ran a stinging editorial of the brutal response, as did The St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, and Miami Herald.
There was definitely a shift in local public opinion, too. While some people continued to support the police response, many members of the community felt the police had gone too far, even if they agreed with the initial goal of keeping the streets cleared. A poll at a local shopping center confirmed this change of opinion. While some community residents supported the police actions, most felt the police had used excessive force- even though they agreed with the initial goal of getting the streets cleared.
"There was definitely a change in the atmosphere toward the anti-war movement," Camil recalled. "A lot more people became sympathetic toward the protesters. Respect for the system, on the other hand, definitely went down."
Nor did that system end the protests against the war. On Thursday morning, May 11, nearly 1000 demonstrators gathered for a now-familiar ritual at the Plaza. Three hundred protesters later gathered in front of Tigert Hall. This time they stayed off the street. Inside the administration building, UF President O'Connell, Mayor Jones, and UF faculty once again met, this time with student protesters and leaders. The meeting lasted until 4:00 p.m. When it ended, all attending urged calm and restraint on both sides.
"Let's cool it," insisted O'Connell.
For the first time in three days, both parties seemed to hear that message. Demonstrators and police watched each other carefully, but kept their distance.
Back at UF, the mayor spoke to students about the events of the last three days. He received heavy doses of praise and heckling, but won the support of students when he assured them that no more police from outside the county would be brought back in. He even promised that the unit from Suwanee County would not return-the unit that county's sheriff had insisted hadn't been there to begin with.
Some of the other protesters' demands were never met. State officials refused to prosecute police officers accused of brutality-charges difficult enough to prove when officers had covered their badges and license plates. Florida Governor Rubin Askew approved the action, citing the concerns of police that they'd be the targets of retaliation if they could be identified. The students said they suspected the real reason for the action was to prevent individual officers from being charged. Some state politicians showed little sympathy for protesters, either in Gainesville or in other campuses (while most of the attention was focused on the confrontations in Gainesville, students at Florida State University and Tampa's University of South Florida had also held protests, with similar results). One representative from Tampa even went so far as to say that students who expressed support for North Vietnam should be disciplined-an approach strongly rebuffed by state officials in Tallahassee.
But while state officials defended the actions of police, the Gainesville community was not so forgiving. The juries sequestered at the few trials actually held quickly acquitted the students.
"They felt the cure was worse than the crime," Camil explained. "They wanted to send a message that they weren't going to put up with that kind of police behavior."
In fact, one of the few lasting casualties of this police action, ironically, was one of its own law-enforcement units. The Region Two Narcotics unit was disbanded by the Governor shortly after the May '72 protests, allegedly for overstepping its authority in the crackdown on demonstrators.
The Gainesville protests had an impact beyond even north Florida. Many people believe the anti-war movement gained more popular, though not unanimous, support in the general community. Some, like Camil, are convinced that the movement helped hasten the war's end.
"Both the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese acknowledge the anti-war movement helped end the conflict," Camil stated. This, of course, is the polar oppositive opinion of some, like Camil's fellow unidentified veteran, who just as emphatically insisted the protest movement extended the war.
The Lasting Legacy
While the impact of the protest movement continues to be debated, the war itself, hated by so many of the students, finally ended on January 27, 1973- after months of intense bombing that continued despite the protests. Not long after, the President, who had so long accused student protesters of flouting law and order, was caught covering up his own administration's violations of the law. After Nixon's resignation in 1974, the spirit of protest subsided. Some of the authority figures quietly remained in Gainesville: Lu Hindrey continued as sheriff well into the 1980s, Jones retired and became a practicing attorney, a position he still holds.
The sight of demonstrators and confrontation at the corners of University and 13th gave way to the disco-crazed fans in tie dyes and bell bottoms of the late 70s, through the conservative 80s and students passing those corners on the way to new opportunities to embrace the very establishment shunned by their predecessors a generation earlier.
Not that the 80s were completely absent of protest. In the middle of the decade, from a vantage point at the above-mentioned intersection, one could easily see and hear vigils against the apartheid regime in South Africa in April 1985, held at Tigert Hall (renamed by protesters as "Mandela Hall", after the imprisoned leader of South African dissidents Nelson Mandela, who a decade later would be South Africa's president).
And now through the '90s, rap music and body piercings and all, those now familiar corners just off campus have witnessed a new spirit of unity, fueled by a tragedy unimaginable before September 11. But even now, in the midst of a military crusade that receives widespread praise, and an administration that preaches strength and conformity as the only keys to victory against terrorists, there are voices that speak of other doors, of different choruses that sing of hope.
Several groups in Gainesville, including the Community Coalition Against War and Terrorism, are speaking out against the policies of President Bush, saying they are the wrong way to stop future attacks like those in New York City and Washington, DC.
Now, as they did three decades ago, government leaders decry protests against military action, claiming such actions undermine national morale. Attorney General John Ashcroft even went so far as to say that those who question our campaign against terrorism are unpatriotic and border on treason. It's an echo of claims made in May 1972 by then-Senator Bob Dole that talk of disagreement was "downright dangerous. It could cost lives."
Camil disagrees with those sentiments as strongly today as he did thirty years ago.
"It's awfully arrogant for politicians to think we don't have the right to question them," he said. "Now, more than ever, the citizen has to be informed and active."
Wartime conditions are no time for people to give up their rights, Camil said. That's precisely what he fears is happening now. The government is restricting information on the war effort, has detained thousands of people of Middle Eastern origin without charges, and has been trying to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed during the Nixon abuses to keep a check on the activities of government-all in the name of "national security" and "patriotism." It's a claim that Camil dismisses as bogus and dangerous, an effort by government to commit immoral acts, and then hide its responsibility by focusing the public on nationalist fears.
"You shouldn't be able to wrap the flag around the dirty things you do," said Camil.
But standing up against blind obedience to government is precisely the best lesson learned from the May 1972 Gainesville demonstrations. It's a legacy he's proud to remember, and one he hopes that others will remember and embrace as well. "It's a lesson that we keep having to learn," he noted. Now, more than ever, he feels that it's important to exercise that legacy, to keep government in check and remind it that the people are in charge, as the demonstrators did three decades ago at a busy intersection.
"We took control back into our hands," he said of those protests, so long ago, and yet still so near in many hearts. "We legitimized the power of the people. We showed that we should never be afraid to stand up for our rights."
Search | Archives | Calendar | Directory | About / Subscriptions |