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Prompted By Strikes

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Originally published on December 21, 2017, for the prompt That Night.

A companion piece to Khati's story entitled 1969.

When I started college in September 1968, I was fresh from the McCarthy presidential campaign and still somewhat idealistic, yet also radicalized as a result of being tear-gassed in the streets of Chicago. I went to SDS meetings that fall, but I was still wearing McCarthy campaign buttons every day. I had dozens of different buttons, in every imaginable color, so I could coordinate my button with my outfit. That might have been one reason the SDS guys didn’t make me feel terribly welcome. Another reason might have been that they were male chauvinists. Anyway, I stopped going to their meetings after a while, and got involved with other activities instead.

For that reason, I was not in on the decision to occupy University Hall as a tactic in the fight to get ROTC kicked off campus. I was out of the loop, and did not know ahead of time that it was going to happen. At noon on Wednesday, April 9, 1969, I went to my Nat Sci 5 class as usual. I hated that class and regretted ever having decided to take it. If my freshman adviser had been halfway decent, he would have told me to take a different class to satisfy my Nat Sci requirement. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t. However, I did have a lot of friends who were also in that class, which made going to the lectures fun, because we all sat together in the enormous lecture hall where the class was given. I don’t remember who told me that students from SDS were occupying University Hall, but of course as soon as I found out, I decided to join them.

Much of that day is a blur to me now. Did I leave to get meals and come back? I think I may have, but I have read that the doors were chained shut, so I don’t know. The details escape me. What I do remember best is that night. We stayed in the building all night. It was kind of exciting to be in there, just a bunch of college kids, no grown-ups. The deans and administrative staff had all been forcibly ejected at the beginning of the takeover, before I got there. So there we were, more than one hundred of us. We went through all the files with impunity. I would love to say that I discovered something momentous in those file cabinets, but I don’t think any of it was all that interesting. I do remember people looking up what their PRLs were — Projected Rank List numbers, which were assigned to students when they were admitted, and were a prediction of how well the Admissions Office (or someone) thought they were going to do academically. I didn’t look for mine, I guess it didn’t matter to me what my PRL was.

At some time in the early hours of the morning, Harvard President Nathan Pusey decided to bring in the police. They arrived at dawn to arrest everyone in University Hall and cart them off to jail. This was a shockingly bad decision on his part, and ended up radicalizing a lot of moderate students who hadn’t necessarily approved of the occupation to begin with. It led to the student body voting to go out on strike.

Here is one of the posters that the students at the Design School created after the strike was called.** I still have a t-shirt with this silkscreened on the back as well, although sadly the t-shirt doesn’t fit me any more.

But before that all happened, around 3 or 4 a.m. on the night of the occupation, I learned that a guy I had a crush on was out on the steps of University Hall, with a bunch of other students who were not radical enough to go in, but wanted to show their support for the students inside. So I went out to the steps to talk (flirt?) with him for a while. We spent an hour or so together, sitting on the steps, and I was reluctant to leave him to go back inside. I tried to talk him into coming inside with me, but he didn’t want to. Then, just as it was getting light, the Cambridge police showed up and stormed up the steps right past us and into the building. They started pulling people out of the building and arresting them. They had billy clubs and mace, and they were beating people up. It was terrifying. Since I was outside, I didn’t get arrested or beaten or maced. All because of this boy I liked.

I went back to Comstock, took a little nap, and went to breakfast. By that time, the word had traveled up to Radcliffe about the bust. Everyone was surprised to see me, and wanted to know why I hadn’t been arrested. I was the dorm radical, what was the story? I was a little bit embarrassed to admit the truth of why I wasn’t arrested. But I think they all knew I liked this boy, so it actually made sense to them.

As to the aftermath of that night, ROTC was kicked off campus as a result of the strike that followed the bust, so it was a success for SDS. I went out with the guy from the steps a few times, but he wasn’t as interested in me as I was in him. So I would have to say it was a more productive night politically than socially. But unforgettable nevertheless.

**P.S. In case you have trouble reading the poster, here’s what it says:

Strike for the eight demands.
Strike because you hate cops.
Strike because your roommate was clubbed.
Strike to stop expansion.
Strike to seize control of your life.
Strike to become more human.
Strike to return Paine Hall scholarships.
Strike because there’s no poetry in your lectures.
Strike because classes are a bore.
Strike for power.
Strike to smash the corporation.
Strike to make yourself free.
Strike to abolish ROTC.
Strike because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wow, Suzy, right in the thick of things, but saved by a crush? You really were (and remain) dedicated to your causes (for which I admire you), but I love the fact that you escaped mace and arrest because of a flirtation. Nevertheless, you witnessed history and the effects of social change (one that I even heard about back in Michigan at the time). Bravo.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, I feel like I not only witnessed but participated in history that year and the next (when we went out on strike again, after Nixon invaded Cambodia). We thought we were changing the world, and maybe we even did, for a time.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A great recital, Suzy. I have my own story as to the University Hall takeover. However, since I was part of a group of even more moderate students who only came into the Yard — and not inside the building or even onto its steps — early that next morning, upon hearing that a police raid might be imminent, I can’t post it in response to a prompt entitled “That Night.” What I particularly like is how well you acknowledged and captured the disparate aspects of the takeover. The political, to be sure, but also the social and the simply collegiate mischief aspects. And, as always, you picked the perfect song title for your story — especially given Lennon’s own ironical treatment of “revolution” in the song.

    • Suzy says:

      John, there’s actually a button at the bottom of the story that says “Write a story in response” so you COULD write your University Hall story on this prompt. And if you came into the Yard before the bust, it must have still been nighttime anyway.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Yes; I recall a bunch of us going into the Yard with flashlights. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was that let us all know that something was about to happen that early — it sure wasn’t an IM or tweet. My main recollection was seeing the cops come pouring in from the gate near the Mass Ave. overpass, all in riot gear and many on horseback. I thought I was watching Ben Hur again and, amid all the fear, saying some smart ass remark like, “Where are the chariots?”

  4. John Zussman says:

    Like John, I was one of those moderates. As a freshman, I lived in the Yard (Thayer North), and someone came around knocking on every door alerting us that the cops were assembling. I went around and climbed to my friend Stuart’s room on the 4th floor of Thayer South, where we looked down at the cops quick-marching into the Yard as if from a ringside skybox. We watched in horror as the crowd taunted them, only to scatter in terror as the cops repeatedly broke ranks to attack them with billy clubs. From our vantage point, the battles looked like Xs and Os in a football playbook. The carnage was ugly but ironically served the SDS’s purposes in radicalizing much of the campus, including not only me but my conservative roommate. (I’ve written about him elsewhere in a story called “The Conservative.”) Suzy, thanks for the terrific story of an event that none of us will ever forget.

    • Suzy says:

      Great to get your perspective on this, John. As you may have seen, I posted the link to this story on our class fb page, and I’m hoping more people will write about that night, either there or here.

  5. I was a soph, living in one of Harvard’s Houses rather than in the Yard. My recollection is that I climbed over one of the walls surrounding the Yard to get in. I was deeply ambivalent about the building takeover as a tactic, although I mostly supported the demands. With several hundred others, I spent the night mostly not sleeping in Memorial Church. As dawn approached, we received word that a massing of police, from many different police forces, had been spotted just outside the Yard. We woke up, and like numbers of others, I positioned myself on the steps of University Hall, part of what we thought was a protective cordon around those occupying the building. Without necessarily agreeing with the occupation tactic, I and many others felt this was a matter to be resolved within the University, and not by the outsider police. Rather naive, but there it was. And unfortunately, I was not the fellow who aroused Suzy’s interest. Had I been so lucky, I would have taken better advantage of that opportunity.

    In any case, with the progression of a beautiful rosy-hued dawn (the occasion called forth Homeric descriptions), the masses of police made their way into the Yard and positioned themselves for an assault. What we then termed “paddy wagons” pulled up in front of University Hall to receive those ejected from the building. Those of us on the steps were tossed out of the way as the police made their way forcefully into the building. Several of us were clubbed for good measure; I particularly remember police going after some of the more diminutive women participants, including the girlfriend of one of my buddies. The protesting students were thrown into the police wagons and carted off, and eventually the police withdrew from the scene.

    As a somewhat privileged middle class kid, this was my first personal encounter with such violence, and it had a lasting impact on me, and on many of my classmates. We were, in the words of the day, “radicalized”, stripped of any notion that “civilized” discourse could resolve such matters, and newly cognizant that constituted authority, even at so genteel a place as Harvard, would fall back on violent means if challenged. That realization has stayed with me over the decades.

  6. What a chronicle of a momentous night! I had graduated Harvard two years earlier but the occupation of University Hall made news around the world! Most significant, as I recall, was the contradiction that arose from the elite colleges going out on strike. For some, it seemed ironic; others watched the strike from afar and thought that, if these kids who ‘had it made’ were going out on strike, there must be something about the connection that Mario Savio had so spectacularly established during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement — that the universities were factories and the students were laborers in the great hegemonic blob of industry, military, science, and education.

    Suzy, I thought you captured the confusion that always occupied a central place in those actions. And you captured that formative axiom ‘the personal is political’ in such an authentic fashion. I loved your good-natured but efficient dismissal of SDS’s sexism in your opening paragraphs. Bravo for that. You’ve also engendered some intriguing comments, always an indicator of a good story well-told. Gracias. You brought me there!

  7. bwilson says:

    Thanks Suzy. The same fellow who pounded on John’s door also made it up the middle entry of Holworthy to the top floor and pounded on our door that fateful morning. From a deep sleep, as the pounding got louder, I was certain I heard: “The British are coming, the British are coming”! This gradually morphed into “the cops are coming, the cops are coming”. Could that have been a glimpse into a former lifetime in Boston? As I awakened, I went to the window and saw the whole scene unfolding, difficult to watch, as a moderate committed to peace and non-violence.

    Thanks again Suzy, I hope can we count on you to keep stirring it up!

  8. Kit says:

    I would have been one of the students outside. And my memory is that students outside were also chased by police with clubs, though I don’t know how many were actually caught. What struck me most about the stupidity of Pusey’s decision was that the Yard the police entered was where the Freshmen (not women, but I was there anyway) lived. Talk about a quick way to radicalize a bunch of naïve eighteen-year-olds! Thanks for capturing that night so well!

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    Suzy, we both submitted stories about the 1969 Harvard bust and strike–at least they more or less corroborate what happened, if from slightly different perspectives. As some of the commenters from 2018 noted, it was a radicalizing experience that had lasting impact on those who were there. When the word “strike” is mentioned, the one in 1969 still comes up first for me, despite competition from other work-related strikes over the years.

  10. John Shutkin says:

    I loved this story then and I love it now, even as just a Retro lurker these days. Ditto Khati’s story. Part of this is pure nostalgia, I must admit, but, as you point out, there were political, cultural and social aspects to the strike as well that are worth recalling and learning from.

    Two quick vignettes. First, I knew my father, a pragmatic moderate, would have a strong reaction to me being in the Yard when the cops stormed into it. Sure enough, when I excitedly called and told him about it later that day, his first words were, “What the hell were you doing there when…” Fortunately, I was prepared for that very question. I reminded him that he had enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor, not because of any overwhelming patriotic feelings (he was a young doctor planning on his residency in 1941), but, because, as he put it, “I knew something big was going to happen and I didn’t want it to happen without me.” I said that I had real reservations about occupying University Hall, but had come into the Yard early that morning for the exact same reason as he had had for enlisting. He paused for a moment and then replied, “Good answer.”

    Second, about fifteen years after I graduated, I met President Pusey at a fancy academic reception in New York. To make small talk, I mentioned that I had graduated from Harvard when he was president there. He then asked what class and I answered ’71. Like my father, he, too, paused — presumably to do the quick math — and then said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that; that was a very difficult time on campus.” Being somewhat generous of spirit, I replied, “Oh yes; I know it was a very difficult time for the administration” — as my then-wife was herself a college president at the time, I could almost empathize with him. “But,” I added, “as a student, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to have been there.” That was a real conversation-killer, but so be it.

    (And, for the record, and as others have noted, Pusey could not have made a stupider, more counter-productive move than to send the cops in.)

  11. Suzy, glad you reposted your great Harvard strike story as I wasn’t a Retro-er first time you did.

    In 1968 I was two years out of grad school and teaching when protesting Columbia students held a dean hostage and occupied campus buildings. But I still had friends and former classmates at Columbia plus a young undergrad cousin who was in the thick of it and they kept me posted.

    Months later I was on my own teachers strike picket line!

  12. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Suzy. I did not read it the first time around, but I certainly identified with everything you wrote, including the crush on a guy being a motivator to get involved.

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