Given the recent student-led climate strikes that occurred on September 20th around the world and locally, it is perhaps timely to remember another student strike that happened nearly 50 years ago right here at Cal State University, Fullerton.
In the Spring semester of 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War and growing student movements across the country, a minor revolution happened locally involving thousands of student protestors, riot police, violence, the takeover of two college buildings, and much resistance against policies that young people found intolerable.
Thankfully, the story of this entire episode is preserved for posterity in two books: How to Kill a College by Cy Epstein (a professor who witnessed and participated in the events), and The People vs. Ronald Reagan, a photo book created by students who took pictures of the events. The following report and photos are primarily from these sources.
The Reagan Hecklers
The revolution began with two words, that most common of English expletives. Because this is a family paper, I won’t write it out, but the first word begins with an “F” and the second with a “Y”.
The year was 1970 and Ronald Reagan was governor of California. On Monday, February 9, the first day of the Spring semester, governor Reagan came to speak to a crowd of about 5,000 students in the CSUF gym.
Many students were unhappy with Reagan, not just because of his association with the conservative establishment, but for a more practical reason—Reagan was proposing to cut the budget of higher education and start charging tuition. This was in direct contradiction to the original vision and plan for the CSU system, which was established as tuition-free public education. Many folks of the “baby boom” generation who attended CSUF paid virtually no tuition. Reagan, and those who came after him, sought to change that.
And so, when Reagan began his speech, he was almost immediately interrupted by a loud and clear student voice from the audience—the aforementioned expletive.
The gipper continued his speech, which was occasionally interrupted by more student voices, shouting more expletives.
At the conclusion of his speech, Reagan bellowed his response to the student hecklers into the microphone, “Shut up!”
Free Bruce and Dave!
The following week, two students, David McKowiak and Bruce Church, were charged by the Dean of Students with “disrupting an academic convocation.” That evening, Bruce and (later) Dave were arrested by the Fullerton Police from their homes and booked in the Fullerton jail. They were charged with having violated a brand new California law: “disturbing the peace and quiet by loud and unusual noise…and by the use of vulgar, profane, and indecent language in the presence of women and children.”
Two days later, about 35 students of the newly-formed Student Mobilization Committee confronted CSUF President Langsdorf in his office. Langsdorf defended the university and the police’s actions.
That Friday, students organized a rally in the quad that drew around 2,000, on behalf of Bruce and Dave. After the rally, about 40 students conducted a “sit-in” protest in Langsdorf’s office.
The following Wednesday, another rally outside the Library drew another 2,000 students, who denounced the charges against Bruce and Dave. After the rally, 500-600 students flooded the officers of the administration building for another “sit in.” They taped butcher paper to the walls and wrote slogans like “Free Bruce and Dave!” and “Time for the Revolution.”
Around 11pm that night, with students still occupying the building, the Fullerton Police Tac Squad arrived, and the students fled. According to Epstein: “The police marched the length of the corridor, batons chest high, and came to a halt at the other end. Then, vivid in their black uniforms and plastic face shields, they stood at attention for 20 minutes in the empty neon-lighted, paper-littered hallway.”
The next day, Langsdorf again defended the college and the police’s actions before an assembly of about 5,000 students. Immediately after, hundreds of students re-occupied the administration building in protest. Later that evening, CSUF’s Chief Security officer Russell Keely arrived with copies of an administrative restraining order against the students. Out on bail, Bruce Church approached Keely and poured a half gallon of milk down the front of his shirt, soaking the restraining orders.
Again, the Fullerton Tac Squad arrived to shut down the sit in: “Again, they were armed for students with shotguns and rifles…The squad went through a routine of bringing their weapons from rest to dead level; this sent squeals of terror and delight through the students…[who] screamed and ran like hell.”
Clashes with Police
The college “administrative hearing” against Bruce and Dave was scheduled for March 3. To deal with the growing number of student protestors, “the Fullerton police had arranged to borrow about 225 officers from other jurisdictions…a helicopter was also borrowed for the occasion,” Epstein writes.
Shortly after the hearing began in the Humanities Building, students flooded into the chambers and eventually shut down the proceedings. As the hearing officers were escorted out of the building, around 100 police officers made a formation behind the building. Captain King of the FPD read a “dispersal order” through a bullhorn. The students moved toward the quad and were met by hundreds more who were just getting out of their classes. Police started to make arrests, and there followed a series of violent clashes:
“What began as individual scuffles…snowballed into mass choreography…Some of the officers battered savagely with their batons, contributing to the cries or acts of outrage from the students…Several people in the crowd had picked up clods of dirt or pebbles and were pelting the police. It was reported that two students, jumping in and out among the others, threw oranges at the police,” Epstein writes.
Professor Stu Silvers, the faculty advisor to the CSUF Students for a Democratic Society attempted to intervene on behalf of the students by speaking with Captain King and Vice President Don Shields. Instead, officers beat and arrested Silvers. This prompted more clashes and arrests.
Another professor, Hans Leder, got a bullhorn and encouraged the students to sit down, attempting to pacify the situation.
“Perhaps they won’t kick us out of the quad if it’s a classroom,” Leder said, and proceeded to give an impromptu lecture on such topics as “The Possibility of the Police Baton as a Phallic Symbol.”
Eventually, with the students calmed (and entertained) by Leder, the police backed down and left campus, to wild student cheers.
In total, 19 people were arrested that day.
The “Fullerton 19”
When the “Fullerton 19” were released on bail from the Fullerton jail, they were greeted and applauded by a group of friends, family, and supporters.
Not everyone shared these feelings. Local newspapers and television had reported on the clash between students and police, and there followed a flurry of letters to newspapers, the college, as well as Professors Silvers and Epstein (who had also been arrested): “These ranged from praise for having called the police to scoldings for letting ’sick people’ and commies teach and learn at Cal State, to vigilante warnings that further action will be taken if the president ‘does not clean up this mess,’” Epstein explains,
This was the height of the Cold War in conservative Orange County, after all.
If nothing else, the response to the events revealed a great political divide between the older, more conservative generation, and the new, more progressive, generation of students.
A student-produced newsletter called “What’s Going On?” summed up many of the students’ point of view:
“We have been accused of many things. Some students and citizens have indignantly charged us with disruption. But there is something odd about that, for we too are angry about disruption. We are angry about the disruption of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese by the bombs, napalm, and guns of this country. We are angry at the daily disruption of the lives of black and brown peoples in America, north and south. Are we inconsistent, then, when we heckle a representative of that establishment responsible for wreaking such havoc through the world?”
Each of the “Fullerton 19” were charged with 4-7 violations of the California penal code. No charges were filed against the police.
The college “judiciary hearing” against Bruce and Dave happened on March 19. Dave boycotted the hearing. Both students were found guilty of disrupting Reagan’s speech, but were later cleared by an appellate board.
Strike for Peace
The protests to free Bruce and Dave helped to forge an alliance of students who continued to organize events and protests throughout the semester.
Then there was the Kent State and Jackson State Massacres, in which National Guardsmen shot and killed unarmed students protesting Nixon’s recent invasion of Cambodia, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
After Kent State, 500 colleges and universities across the country were temporarily shut down, including CSUF.
In response, about 500 students occupied the Music, Speech, and Drama building, protesting the Vietnam War, Reagan’s policies, and Kent State. Outside the building, a large sign was placed declaring a “Strike for Peace!”
Inside, the ticket booth and foyer were converted into communications and information centers, where students were able to keep up with what was happening on other campuses. The rehearsal room became The People’s Kitchen, the “green room” became The People’s Lounge, classrooms became People’s Bedrooms, and the showers became The People’s Showers.
Inside the theater, student organizers formed committees and discussed plans of action, organized events and even rock concerts. The theater became a place of lively, sometimes angry debate between students, professors, and community members.
Perhaps wanting to avoid another violent clash, President Langsdorf (at first) allowed the students to remain in the building. He issued a memo stating, “While I do not personally believe a student strike is a useful method of influencing national policy, it can be a peaceful expression of dissent appropriate to the American tradition. No one will force students to attend classes if they choose not to do so, and I would urge that no one be penalized academically solely for acting in accordance with his conscience.”
The conservative Register newspaper did its part to portray the students strikers as dangerous delinquents, running headlines like “Student Radicals on Pot.” This is not to say that pot and other drugs were not consumed during the strike–they were, Epstein explains. This was 1970, after all.
Ten days into the strike, with the university having re-opened, president Langsdorf convinced the students to re-locate to a semi-permanent building in another part of campus for a “peace headquarters.”
Local State Assemblymember John Briggs (who would later become infamous for authoring the 1978 Briggs Initiative which sought to force public schools in California to fire teachers who were gay) sought to make political hay of the student unrest by demanding that President Langsdorf remove the striking students from campus altogether.
On the last day of the semester, in the same gym where governor Reagan’s speech had sparked all the unrest of that Spring, Briggs organized a meeting of a newly-formed group called the Society Over Sedition (SOS). Briggs gave a speech denouncing the student strikers and even President Langsdorf for being too soft on them.
“Dr. Langsdorf knows that this is a radical, revolutionary strike group, an organized conspiracy extending throughout the United States to foment revolution in this country, shut down out colleges, and overthrow our government,” Briggs declared. His supporters cheered. Students booed.
Late that night, someone threw what was evidently a molotov cocktail at the new “peace headquarters.” Students fled. The fire gutted the building. The strike was over, for the time being.
Epstein, who actually did time in the Orange County jail for his actions in support of the student strikers, offers some concluding thoughts on the whole ordeal:
“Intellectual vitality has contributed to the unrest on the campus. It is a skeptical generation, a questioning generation, one that balks at an order but responds to a reason. We would like to rest comfortably in the notion that the students are the unknowing dupes of professional manipulators; after all, isn’t youth easily led? I have found, on the contrary, that students have trouble manipulating even one another…
“We are not dealing with an alien country longing to destroy us. We are dealing with our own youth, raised in the I’m from Missouri tradition which is part of our democratic heritage. ‘I’m a voter, show me why I should vote for you. I’m a student; show me why I should give up a fight.’ Even if the students were bent on destruction alone, repression is no answer. The pages of history are studded with the spiritual and material death of repressive regimes.”
In retrospect, the student strikers were generally correct in their assessment of the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia, the repression of protest, and the disastrous economic impact of ever-rising tuition.
Perhaps, in our current context of extreme political/generational polarization, the best approach is to listen to the voices of the youth. They are, after all, our future.
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