Rising Conflict: January-April 1970


 In January 1970, Northeastern received local attention for two major anti-War events on campus. The first took place on January 27, when the University had invited recruiters from General Electric to come to campus for two days to conduct interviews with over 300 students.  Some students demanded the company not be allowed on campus, arguing that GE’s ongoing national labor dispute was tied to the War. These demands were rejected by Knowles and the administration on the principle of free speech. In the week leading up to the protest, anti-War sympathizers spread leaflets across campus asserting the University had sided with the company during its fourteen week strike and denouncing its complicity in the War. Some attested that several activists distributing leaflets were thrown off campus by campus police. 

The University attempted to go to court and obtain an injunction against six student protest leaders in an attempt to disrupt demonstration plans. In a move that showed solidarity with the SDS, the Student Council held an emergency meeting to stop the injunction and presented a statement to Knowles and the executive committee. Council President Robert Weisman, Vice-President Frank Gerry, and Secretary Mike Putnam criticized the administration for neglecting to consult the elected student body, thereby violating a prior agreement with the Council. The statement asserted that by seeking an injunction, the administration had “placed the university in a position in which the likelihood of violent confrontation may well now be inevitable" (Dorfsman 1969). Ultimately the order was served against only two of the six students originally targeted.
On January 26, demonstrators voted to hold a non-obstructive picket line at 9:45 a.m. the following morning at the recruitment site. The Boston Globe reported more than 225 picketers participated, consisting of mostly SDS and SMC students but also about a dozen United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers from the GE Ashland plant. Protestors were opposed by an equal number of counter-demonstrators across the street, who cheered students who crossed the picket line. Interviewee turnout was lower than expected and resulted in the cancellation of a planned second day of interviews. 
Only two days later, a more hostile incident would leave Northeastern students questioning the role and risk of violence in the growing peace movement. The student-sponsored Distinguished Speakers Series, designed to facilitate dialog between progressives and conservatives, had invited S. I. Hayakawa to speak on campus on January 29. Boosted by the momentum of the GE demonstration, anti-War sympathizers were eager to challenge the controversial President of San Francisco State University, who had previously demonstrated hostility towards student protesters, other SDS chapters, and the Black Panthers. The Student Council and SDS agreed on silent bubble blowing during the event as a peaceful means of protest, while Knowles anticipated a more boisterous demonstration and sought a heightened police presence. 
Students gathered on the quad on the day of the event. When rocks were thrown, police reacted violently. Witnesses state students were beaten and dragged across the quad, with police pursuing them down Huntington Avenue and St. Stephen’s Street. Some took refuge in the women’s dorms or St. Anne’s Church. Five students required hospitalization, and several dozen were bailed out of jail with the help of faculty. The 1973 Cauldron summarized: “Whether the carnage and chaos in the Quad was due to police brutality, left-wing subversive agitators, or frayed human nerves on both sides, no one will ever know for certain. But when the dust cleared 31 students had been arrested; 15 policemen and an unknown number of students had been injured by flying rocks, bottles, bricks, and fists; and the campus had suffered $5,000 in damages" (65).  Nineteen students would end up being charged, most of whom were eventually acquitted. 
The following day, students again gathered on the Quad and demanded a response from Knowles. The President consented to granting legal counsel and medical care for students, and promised to conduct an investigation into the incident under pressure from the Student Council. A number of students called for strike. Those in favor cited the administration’s complicity in the Hayakawa violence, continued resistance to the anti-ROTC and anti-War movement, enduring institutional racism, and other sustained efforts to subvert student power and social reform. Ultimately, academic activities continued as normal, despite minor protests and bomb scares over the next few months. Students would have new reason to strike later that spring.


As spring progressed, students grew increasingly restless and angry, disillusioned with an enduring War and persistent social injustice despite years of activist organizing. In April, a referendum counting 2,125 Northeastern students found that seventy-four percent favored immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, compared to only ten percent in 1968. On April 15, Northeastern students participated in a third nationwide Moratorium day, joining between 50,000 - 100,000 people on the Boston Common in the largest anti-War gathering in the country. Organized by the SMC and the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign (VMC), the day’s theme was the cost of War in anticipation of tax day, and included marches, vigils, teach-ins, and speeches by national activists and local politicians seeking support for anti-War legislature. Northeastern students held a teach-in at the Quad throughout the morning, followed by an on-campus rally and march to the Common. The press reported an angrier crowd than in the 1969 moratoriums, though the official Boston rally was largely nonviolent. Some controversy arose when Black Panther Douglas Miranda called activists to “kill the pigs”, illustrating a larger, national debate between progressives regarding the role of violence in protest. 
After the rally, the November Action Coalition organized a march from the Common to Harvard Square in large part to protest the trial of Bobby Seale in New Haven. When they arrived around 7:30 pm, protestors began smashing windows, lighting fires in trash bins, and breaking into Harvard Yard. Police reacted by readying 2,000 police from every town within 25 miles of Cambridge, and later 2,000 members of the National Guard at the Commonwealth Armory. The Boston Globe called the mobilization “one of the fastest and most expansive police emergency operations in Greater Boston history” to what it deemed “the most extreme disorder in Cambridge history" (Burke and Smith 1970). Witnesses said protesters threw rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails at police cars and banks, while police beat people indiscriminately. An estimated 3,000-6,000 people were involved in the incident at its height. By the time the riot ended around midnight, over 200 would need to be treated for injuries by Harvard Health Services.
While it is unclear if any Northeastern students were involved in the incident, the event served as a reminder that tensions were escalating and police were willing to use violence on protestors both on and off campus. Perhaps no other incident during the Vietnam War would illustrate this reality as clearly as the events that took place at Kent State University not three weeks later.