Political protests continue as Oswego State tradition since Vietnam

Protests from long ago
Oswegonian Archives

Occupy Oswego is not the first time in the college’s history that protests have taken place. Throughout 1969 and 1970, student-led protests which rallied thousands of people were common occurrences at Oswego State.

Students displeased with the United States involvement in the Vietnam War participated in what is considered the most radical time period on-campus, according to Jeff Rea, who works for the Oswego State Office of Public Affairs and was a student at Oswego State during the protests.

“For many students during this era it was the most radical it got for most of us,” Rea said. “Many students were well aware of the national anti-war movement and were swept up in the era for the right reasons.”

Many students believed the U.S. was involved in an “unwinnable” war that was never officially declared by Congress, School of Communications Dean Fritz Messere said. He was also a student at Oswego State during this time. President Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968, promised an end to the war that many labeled as his “secret plan” because it was never publicly stated.

In 1969, student uproars occurred across the country as a response to Nixon’s announcement of the U.S. invasion in Cambodia. Nixon’s intention of invading Cambodia was to remove the Viet-Cong supply line, Messere said.

Students across the country felt the U.S. government lied to them, according to Paul Roodin, the director of the Office of Experience-Based Education at Oswego State and a professor during the protests.

“It was an era of student activism,” said Roodin,. “Students weren’t violent but wanted to have their voices heard.”

The first student-led protest of the era took place at Oswego State on October 15, 1969, and was fully supported by former Oswego State President James Perdue.

Activities on campus included a morning rally in the quad, speakers, workshops and a march from campus to the post office. There was a turnout of around 2,500 students, faculty and townspeople, who peacefully marched in silence to commemorate the lives of American soldiers who died in Vietnam.

“There was an empowering feeling of coming together with mass amounts of students for a good cause,” Rea said. “It was a revelation about the power of an ideal to motivate people to an action.”

Many students protested in opposition to the draft because students could be drafted immediately after they finished their undergraduate degrees. Many students chose to enroll in graduate school to avoid being drafted, Roodin said.

“The Army was waiting for you after college,” Roodin said.

In May 1970, there was a student strike on the Oswego State campus, in response to the National Guard shooting at Kent State University.

The altercation at Kent State consisted of 67 rounds of ammunition being fired in just 13 seconds, resulting in the deaths of four student protesters, while also leaving nine wounded.

The Oswegonian reported on May, 4, 1970 that students “voted to go on strike to protest the war in Southeast Asia, university complicity with the war machine, and the repercussion and holding of political prisoners.”

During the strike, there were frequent workshops run by professors and students that anyone could attend. These became known as “teach-ins” and focused on educating students about the conditions that led up to the war, Messere said.

Students boycotted attending classes during the strike. While classes continued, many professors gave students the option of picketing and allowed students to protest in favor of something they felt passionate about, Roodin said.

“President Perdue ultimately made the decision those students who didn’t wish to continue classes for the rest of the semester could either take a pass-fail grade, their current grade, or drop the class without penalty,” Messere said. “This was because the school was receiving frequent bomb threats everyday as a way to disrupt the academic calendar.”

On May 6, 1970, protests on-campus became arguably the most tense when student protesters took over Culkin Hall. Student protesters ran chains through the handles of the entrance doors and locked them, said Jeff Durstewitz, a freshman at the time and part of the Culkin Hall protest.

Students only unchained the doors to let Culkin Hall workers exit the building, Durstewitz said. Culkin Hall occupiers participated in low-mayhem activities while inside, such as ripping papers and making long-distance calls, Durstewitz said.

Administrations tried not to escalate the conflict by getting any law enforcement involved. They waited until students were ready to depart and go somewhere else, said Sherwood Dunham, the vice president of academic affairs at the time.

Occupiers did not cause any serious damage and no one was hurt as a result, said Robert Schell, the student affairs administrator at the time. Afterward, students volunteered to clean up all damages and debris, Schell said.

“Students during this time had a good sense they were living history and realized they could make a difference,” Rea said.