Getting the Dow Chemical Company to stop making the incendiary gel Napalm B for use in Vietnam became a priority for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when the Ann Arbor chapter launched a protest campaign against the Michigan- based company in August 1966. Six months later, the Madison SDS steps up.
Tuesday morning, February 21. About 150 students meet at Lincoln Terrace outside Bascom Hall; SDS president Hank Haslach leads a group of about forty to the Chemistry Building, SDS vice president Robert Zwicker and Bob Cohen take the rest to the Commerce Building. They’ve got placards of photos from Ramparts Magazine of Vietnamese children with horrifying napalm burns, to confront the students interviewing with Dow about the work of their prospective employer. The plan is to stand inside with signs aloft but not obstruct the interviews. Disrupt some minds, perhaps, but not university operations.
But there’s some confusion, and a bit of university misinformation, over whether their signs are allowed inside. Sergeant Brown of UW Protection and Security stops Haslach, claiming the signs are dangerous; their verbal confrontation escalates until the P&S man puts the SDS man up against the wall and under arrest for disorderly conduct. At about the same time, the same thing is happening at Commerce, where Cohen is also arrested and forcibly removed. The first political protesters arrested on campus this decade, Haslach and Cohen are quickly released on bail, while the picketing and leafleting in each building continues. Late afternoon, the group decides to hold an obstructive sit- in the next day.
Wednesday, February 22, a most momentous Washington’s birthday, with the first mass arrests on campus and a tense occupation of administrative offices— with administrators inside. The day starts with protesters marching to the Engineering Building, where UW police chief Ralph Hanson falsely claims that the Dow recruiters have left; the protesters march back up to Bascom Hall, where they occupy several offices, including that of President Fred Harvey Harrington (who’s not there). After almost an hour, about twenty members of the Committee for Direct Action slip out of Bascom and head back to Engineering, where they force their way past professor James Marks and noisily occupy various offices and hallways. Although they don’t actually prevent any Dow interviews, they’re disrupting normal office operations, and Prof. Marks calls for the campus police. At about 4:45 p.m., they arrest eleven protesters for sitting in and six more who throw themselves under squad cars in a futile attempt to foil the arrests.
When word of the arrests gets back to Bascom, the sit- in becomes a blockade, about 350 students blocking hallways while Cohen and others engage Harrington, Chancellor Robben Fleming, and Dean Joseph Kauffman in the dean’s office for nearly three hours. Protesters say they won’t let the administrators leave until charges against the 17 are dropped and Dow and the CIA banned from campus; Fleming rejects all demands and warns that anyone who prevents him from leaving will face assault charges. It’s hot and smoky and increasingly tense, and when someone accuses Fleming of “duplicity,” he walks out. They take a break.
Back together in the building auditorium an hour later, Fleming announces that he’s written a personal check for $1,155 for bail for eleven of the arrestees; to Haslach’s disgust, hundreds of student protesters erupt in cheers. The seventeen defendants, all represented by attorneys Percy Julian Jr. and Edward Ben Elson, all plead innocent and are set for trial. Fleming later tells Harrington he never got the bail money back.
Thursday morning, a new front in the antiwar effort opens when the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union (WDRU) announces itself through a full- page ad in the Daily Cardinal blaring “We won’t go”. Forty-seven young men declaring their refusal to be conscripted, and calling on others to do likewise. It’s legally and academically risky and becomes a mark of distinction to have signed.
Later that morning, a group of about sixty conducts a peaceful, nonobstructive sit- in for several hours near the Dow interview room in Agriculture Hall. But the powers that be focus on the disruption instead.
That afternoon, the faculty considers a resolution reaffirming the rule — passed after the disruptive heckling of Sen. Edward Kennedy at the Stock Pavilion in 1966 — that students can protest and petition only “by lawful means which do not disrupt the operations” of university facilities. Fleming warns before the vote that “if we reach a showdown, the restoration of order cannot be accomplished without the importation of a substantial outside force,” but he says he “very much” doubts that he will ever have to ask the governor to send the National Guard. The faculty overwhelmingly adopts the resolution – knowing that another anti-Dow protest could bring Madison police to campus.
That night, the city council unanimously adopts a resolution calling the demonstrations “irresponsible and reprehensible” and calling on the university to take “stringent measures” against the demonstrators. The council also wants an investigation into whether the two adult women arrested – Bourtai Scudder, a thirty-five-year-old divorcee, and Lea Zeldin, a thirty-seven-year-old widow — are receiving public assistance from Dane County for their families. “If some of the demonstrators learned the facts about these female pied pipers,” says west side alderman William Bradford Smith, “they wouldn’t be so eager to follow them.”
There’s a more serious backlash coming from the top of State Street. Governor Warren Knowles says the action was “far beyond the area of reasonable conduct” and calls on the university to “lay down some strict disciplinary rules” and enforce them. And the cochairmen of the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee explicitly threatens to cut the university’s budget over the episode. “Let’s be honest,” says Senator Walter Hollandale (R- Rosendale). “If you feel unkindly toward them, they won’t get as much money.”
There’s even backlash from fellow students. Friday morning, February 24, an “appalled” Daily Cardinal attacks the SDS for “denying student rights and freedoms” and engaging in “gross language and incoherent, emotional babbling. The protesters have defeated their cause by their action.”
That afternoon, a group of about eight hundred protests the protesters through subzero weather at a Bascom Hill rally called by the newly formed “We Want No Berkeley Here” committee, organized out of the Kronshage dorm. Then they pack the Bascom Hall auditorium, by invitation, giving Fleming another standing ovation: “This is the first time I haven’t felt lonely in a crowd in days,” he says to cheers and applause, and declares, “No minority can dictate its views to the university.”
Photo UW-Madison Archives, Image S00130