Madison in the Sixties – February, 1967. Dow 1, the Skirmish – part one
A two- day action by Madison Students for a Democratic Society against campus recruiting by the napalm-making Dow Chemical company makes local history and creates the conditions for Madison’s pivotal political event of the decade.
On Tuesday morning, February 21, about 150 students meet at Lincoln Terrace; SDS president Hank Haslach leads a group of about forty to the Chemistry Building, and 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. As designed by non-SDS member Cohen, 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 the buildings. Sergeant Brown of UW Protection and Security confronts Haslach, claiming the signs are dangerous; the men have a verbal confrontation that escalates until Brown puts Haslach up against the wall and under arrest for disorderly conduct. At about the same time, the same thing is happening at Commerce— Cohen is also arrested and forcibly removed. The first antiwar protesters arrested on campus, Haslach and Cohen, are quickly released on bail, while the picketing and leafleting in each building continues.
In Commerce, police try to arrest Zwicker when he won’t put down his placard but back off when he drops to the floor and is covered by a handful of other protesters. They all get up and continue picketing, with placards, Zwicker participating, until early afternoon, when they regroup and decide to hold an obstructive sit- in the next day. University Community Action representative John Coatsworth considers the action counterproductive for the antiwar movement and tries to arrange a forum featuring all parties, but the Dow recruiters decline.
Wednesday, February 22, is Madison’s most momentous Washington’s birthday since the first City Hall opened on the holiday in 1858, 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 sit in at several administrators’ 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 (CDA) slip out of Bascom and head back to Engineering, where they force their way past Engineering professor James Marks and noisily occupy various offices and hallways. Although they don’t actually prevent any Dow interviews, they are certainly disrupting normal office operations. Professor Marks— the liberal former west side alderman who’s in charge of the building— calls for the campus police. At about 4:45 p.m., they arrest eleven protesters for sitting in— including Zwicker, Bourtai Scudder, and Lea Zeldin— 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 Hall, the sit- in becomes a blockade, as about 350 protesters block the hallways while Cohen and others engage Harrington, Chancellor Robben Fleming, and Dean Joseph Kauffman in the dean’s office for close to three hours. The group demands that charges against the seventeen be dropped and that Dow and the CIA be banned from campus before they’ll let the two men leave; Fleming rejects all demands and warns that anyone who prevents him from leaving will face assault charges. None of the administrators feel as if they’re held captive; they are choosing to stay and talk. But it’s hot and smoky and increasingly tense as they go back and forth over the competing moral imperatives of peace, free speech, public responsibility, and individual choice, until someone accuses Fleming of “duplicity,” and he walks out. The group agrees to take a break at 7:45 p.m. and meet again in the building’s auditorium in about an hour.
When they all get back together Fleming announces that in the interval he’s written a personal check for $1,155 for bail for eleven of the arrestees; to Haslach’s disgust, the six hundred 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, antiwar protesters open a new front with the unveiling of the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union (WDRU) through publication in the Daily Cardinal of a full- page “we won’t go” ad. Haslach, Zwicker, Coatsworth, Stu Ewen, Jim Rowen, and John Cumbler are among the forty- seven signatories who declare their refusal to be conscripted, and call on others to do likewise. It’s a legally and academically risky thing to do and becomes a mark of distinction for those on the list. In one of the first signs of feminism in the predominantly sexist antiwar movement, another “We Won’t Go” ad in May will include about fifty women, including Rowen’s wife, Susan McGovern, daughter of dove Senator George McGovern.
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, 833 faculty vote overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution reaffirming the administrative rule 11.02, adopted four months earlier after the disruptive heckling of Sen. Edward Kennedy at the Stock Pavilion in October— 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 doubts “very much” that he will ever have to ask the governor to send the National Guard.10
But the action isn’t over.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing listener-supported WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo of protesters occupying the Bascom Hall office of UW President Fred Harvey Harrington courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Image S17026