Rough Draft of OSU RIOTS

Story after "the jump."

It was what one could call tough love.

Two months after leaving the presidency of The Ohio State University, Karen Holbrook shared some choice words about her former employer. In a taped interview with Florida Gulf Coast University she said:

“I went to Ohio State and had no idea there was a culture of rioting. Any good excuse gets some of the people on the street and they think it’s fun to flip cars and really have absolute drunken orgies. I don’t want to be at a place that has this kind of culture as a norm.”

She added, “When you win a game, you riot. When you lose a game, you riot. When spring comes, you riot. African-American Heritage Festival weekend, you riot.”

Holbrook later backed away from her statements, saying that all of the good words she had for OSU in the interview were ignored. She even withdrew her application from Florida Gulf Coast University’s consideration.

Bo Haney, an OSU student living on Chittenden Ave. during Holbrook’s tenure, doesn’t see why she didn’t stick with her statement.  He says OSU did have a riot culture at that time, that there was a string of riots and that the biggest one was in 2002. He saw it while walking home after a football game against the Michigan Wolverines.

“I saw a humongous fire, the entire street was full of people, a party, no acts of violence but I did see someone get hit by a car. Then after a half hour or so of that the Columbus police came in riot gear, walking shoulder to shoulder, shooting tear gas and knee-knockers at the students,” Haney said.

As Haney is quick to mention, “There wasn’t any political motivation behind it, these were just drunk people reacting.”

However, it was weirdly reminiscent of a scene OSU had been through before, 32 years previously - when the parents of the partiers were the same age of the students. But instead of football victories and too much Natural Light, the scene was caused by the war on Vietnam and a dedicated group of activists.

The Spring of 1970.

Nowadays Paul Cook is a Professor of History at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio and a doctoral candidate in the history department at OSU. But in 1970 academia wanted nothing to do with him – he was suspended from OSU for inciting riots.

Like seven students in 2002, Cook spent part of his undergraduate career in limbo as punishment for disrupting the normally amiable college experience. Unlike those seven students Cook’s disruption had a clear message behind it.

As Co-President of the black student organization, Afro-Am, Cook developed a slate of demands designed to establish a Black Studies department and a visible black presence on campus in the student body, staff and faculty.

“Our role was to democratize the campus, to open it up to some of the so-called democratic values it claimed to support,” Cook said.

After organizing members in Afro-Am during the fall of 1969, Cook and members of his group met several times with university administrators to discuss the adoption of their demands.

They were met, as Cook says, with hostility.

In the spring of 1970 activist groups on campus like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the student mobilization organization, and several women’s rights groups approached Cook and Afro-Am with the idea of building a coalition to create a stronger student voice.

Cook said there were two main things behind these groups’ desires: unpopular wars in Southeast Asia and a lack of student control in administrative and academic policies.

“You put those things together and you have the potential for an explosive coalition -which of course did happen,” Cook said.

Afro-Am consented to being in the coalition on the condition that they led it.

Over the course of late April and May, when the coalition was routinely agitating against the university and staging demonstrations, a few pivotal events occurred outside Columbus. On April 30th, Richard Nixon announced that U.S forces in Vietnam had spilled over into Cambodia. On May 4th, four students were shot dead by the National Guard at nearby Kent State University.

This caused things to get a little out of control on the oval.

There had already been mass rallies of thousands of students and activist tactics like setting off fire alarms, painting political slogans, marching through classrooms, barricading doors and roads had become a common subject in The Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper.

But now the state government was losing patience.

To supplement the Columbus and OSU police, the National Guard were called in by Governor James A. Rhodes. Rhodes felt strongly about the protestors who were demonstrating across Ohio’s college campuses.

"They're worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes," Rhodes said. "They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”

With the National Guard on the case in Columbus, things became more violent. A Lantern article from May 1st, 1970 – early in the National Guard’s stay - with the headline “Violence, Gas, Fire Bombs” already listed the following figures: 12 gunshot wounds, 400 arrested and 131 injuries.

And though Cook saw friends stabbed with bayonets, hit with projectiles and suffocated with tear gas through the course of that turbulent month, the university eventually capitulated to some of the coalition’s demands: A Black Studies Division was enacted, the Office of Affirmative Action and Office of Minority Affairs were both established, an University Senate including students began sessions, and in 1975 an Office of Women’s Studies came into being.

And in a final silver lining, the man who took such a hard line against the protestors, Governor Rhodes, lost his bid for the U.S Senate that fall.

But it was not all rewards. Cook was suspended for a year and was among a group of activists sued by OSU students for shutting down their classrooms.

But Cook is far from apologetic. He believes Afro-Am represented a burning and historic issue. Quoting Frederick Douglass he insists, “power concedes nothing without demand.”

The Fall of 2009

As the 40th anniversary of the April/May protests approach, OSU and its student body seem strikingly different than the times Paul Cook lived in. Even the willingness to “flip cars and really have absolute drunken orgies” as Holbrook would put it, seems to have receded. Though perhaps it just lays dormant, waiting for the right game.

One thing is for sure – current campus activists find it much harder to gain any traction with the student body.

Lindsay Gibson, a fourth year in Sociology and Women’s Studies, and Stephanie Diebold, a recent graduate, are both members of WARR, Women and Allies Rising in Resistance.

Each year WARR picks an issue to campaign on. Last year it was to end the fees being charged to victims of sex crimes at the OSU Medical Center. It was successful in establishing a fund through the University. This year they are agitating for mandatory consent classes for incoming freshmen.

While Gibson and Diebold maintain that they are still able to accomplish their goals, their organizations are a stark departure from the thousands of students demonstrating on the oval in 1970.

“The meetings are 8 to 15 people but sometimes more than that. For events we want to get 20 to 30 people but we usually get 10 to 15,” said Diebold.

Gibson added, “I see people with radical ideas but you can’t even get those people to come out. We were asked if we could get people out to protest the Whole Foods’ CEO coming and I was being realistic and said I thought maybe we could get five to ten people.”

When the conversation turns to what is different now compared to Cook’s time, conjecture flies but nothing seems certain. “Privilege,” says Gibson. The desire to get out of school and on with one’s life, says Diebold. Cook even offered a suggestion – the transient nature of college populations.

But none of these suggestions seem to hold as they could all be equally applied to the Vietnam generation. Even the absence of a draft and the further splintering of political groups seem to miss the whole story.

“If I knew the answer to that question that would be awesome,” Gibson said.

One thing hasn’t changed – a reluctant administration.

“Gordon Gee and his administrators are not receptive to what we have to say. They are not concerned with our concerns and that’s what makes it hard,” Gibson said.

And what, if anything, could Ohio State students be expected to riot about now?

Diebold is flummoxed at the question.

“An issue people would riot or protest about in Columbus besides football and beer? God, I don’t know. I wish I did know,” she said.


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