Madison in the sixties – The Battle of Dow, Oct. 17-18, 1967
Because it made the incendiary gel Napalm B for use in Vietnam, the Dow Chemical Company had been a target of the Students for Democratic Society ever since the Michigan SDS launched a protest against the Michigan-based company in August 1966.
A two-day protest against Dow recruiting on the Madison campus six months later had led to the first mass arrests on campus and a tense occupation of administrative offices – with university leadership still inside.
Now Dow was coming back to continue its recruiting efforts, and a broad coalition called the Ad Hoc Committee to Protest Dow Chemical have planned a 2-part protest. It’s part of a national anti-Dow effort leading up to that Saturday’s March on the Pentagon.
On Tuesday, Oct. 17, plans call for a rally and picket outside the Commerce Building, but no obstruction. But on Wednesday the 18th, protesters are going to break university rules and physically block other students from interviewing with the company. “We must move from protest to resistance,” their leaflet declares. “We must stop what we oppose.”
They know they’re going to get arrested. Maybe even face campus discipline. But nobody expects violence.
Tuesday goes according to plan. That night, an endorsement of the Wednesday action by the guerilla theater group San Francisco Mime Troupe, which by coincidence had been booked into the union theater by the radical poetry journal Quixote. True to form, the group leads the occupation procession up Bascom Hill the next morning with instruments and spectacle.
By eleven o’clock, more than 200 active obstructors, and about as many supporters/observers, fill the first-floor hallway in Commerce. The crowd chants and sings, noise bouncing off the tile and glass, a cacophony of protest.
A young woman tries to get through to get to an interview; protesters physically stop her. Others also try, all without success. Campus police try to arrest three protesters; but when the crowd intervenes and blocks their effort, UW police chief Ralph Hanson has his men stand down and step away.
On the plaza, pickets and speeches attract a crowd of more than a thousand. Veteran civil rights and peace activist Vicki Gabriner, snakes through the crowd in white-face and leggings. In sarcastic tribute to the regents’ idealistic statement of academic freedom from 1894, she bears a sign proclaiming herself “Miss Sifting and Winnowing.”
Campus top cop Hanson fails in several attempts to clear the building; finally, he asks Chancellor William Sewell for permission to call for city police.
Only two months in office, Sewell is the day’s tragic figure. A noted sociologist, he was personally against the war, and as a faculty member earlier that year had voted against allowing Dow onto campus. But in his new post, he feels obliged to enforce the rule against obstruction, which the faculty had just reaffirmed. He tells Hanson to make the call; about 25 policemen with protective helmets and riot sticks respond.
Most are Madison natives from the east side, and many simmer with class and political resentment against the privileged and pampered college students.
Then everything goes wrong. The riot squad is restless, untrained, with a confused mission and a command structure that break downs almost immediately.
Their initial foray into the foyer at about 1:30 p.m. is repulsed; it’s unclear whether the crowd surge that pushes the police out is intentional or an involuntary reflex.
The city Police regroup and charge back in. But Hanson, who is supposed to be in charge, has been pushed out of the building, and is no longer there to restrain them.
Outnumbered by about ten to one, police flail away with their 2-foot wooden nightsticks, which rise and fall with frightening frequency. The thwack of wood on skull sounds like a bouncing basketball, or a watermelon hit by a baseball bat.
Some students fight back, kicking and spitting. Fear and panic and pain turn to hysteria as chaos engulfs the corridor.
They’re not arresting students; they’re beating them and throwing them out into the Commerce courtyard. Among those sent to the emergency room, history grad student Paul Soglin.
Police clear the building in 13 minutes, but haven’t yet won the day.
On the plaza and hill, students are surging, scuffling, crying “seig heil!” The growing crowd grows more and more combative. Bricks and bottles fly, and several hit their mark.
Into the maelstrom, the 1:15 class gets out, packing the hill with another mass of students not initially involved– but about to become so, as Madison police chief Wilbur Emery calls for the tear gas. It’s a bad call; the wind whips the gas every which way, striking – and radicalizing – many unintended targets.
Sewell watches it all from his Bascom Hall office, aghast, traumatized. He knows what the debacle is doing to his reputation and the university’s.
Reinforcements arrive, and police finally take control. By four thirty it’s all over.
48 students and six non-students are treated at the emergency room, mainly for scalp lacerations; 18 policemen suffer injuries ranging from black eyes and broken bones to serious facial fractures and a permanently damaged larynx.
Police are embarrassed at the beating they’ve taken, and chief Emery resolves to respond more forcefully next time. Still, officers take pride in what they’d been through; they call the cops who stormed Commerce “the Dirty 30,” and some even wear uniform patches with that moniker.
The university suspends 13, pending further proceedings; ten are charged with disorderly conduct. After an agonizing 4-hour debate, the faculty defeat a motion to condemn police brutality and instead adopt a motion endorsing Sewell’s actions.
Students are outraged, feeling betrayed. Three thousand meet on library mall that night and form the committee on student rights, which Soglin chairs. They hold a short student strike on Friday and a mournful march to the Capitol on Saturday, where a Special Senate committee would soon start an investigation.
Everyone takes their own lesson from Dow.
Radicalized students now see the university as protecting the military. Protest leaders Bob Cohen and Evan Stark see their campus careers end. University administrators see a need for a new, harder line. The state’s most powerful politicians, and many of its people, see the university as out of control. The police and the students see each other as threats.
The summer of love is over.
Image courtesy University of Wisconsin – Madison Archives