Anti-war Demonstrations University of Iowa 1971

Photo Credit – The Daily Iowan, May 13, 1971.

Anti-war sentiment ran strong among my cohort of university students. Many felt like I did: we opposed the war yet as new students were hesitant to publicly protest. Spring 1971 was my first year experiencing student anti-war demonstrations at the University of Iowa. To hear then-university president Willard Boyd tell it, anti-war demonstrations were non-existent that year, receiving no mention in his autobiography, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier. Boyd had a specific narrative to tell about the demonstrations. The period from Kent State on May 4, 1970, until May 1972 encompassed most of the anti-war activity at the University of Iowa campus, he wrote.

During the 1971 demonstrations, he held a meeting in the student lounge at the Quadrangle dormitory where I lived. I attended and Boyd seemed engaged and reasonably open minded about balancing needs for free expression by students, law and order in the community, and controlling how events evolved through policy. D.C. Spriestersbach, dean of the Graduate College in the 1970s, presented a timeline of campus turbulence from 1965 through 1972 in his memoir The Way it Was: The University of Iowa 1964-1989. Because of his position, his narrative, like Boyd’s, is tilted toward the administration’s view of the protests. It is familiar yet it was not the whole story.

While in high school I participated in an anti-war demonstration outside the Davenport Armory after Kent State, and in a student strike of classes. I kept to myself in Iowa City. I was inexperienced at living away from home.

Feb. 10, 1971 was a day of student meetings about the Vietnam War at the Iowa Memorial Union. There was an all-day teach-in attended by more than 1,500 people. A variety of speakers made presentations about war itself, and the history of Vietnam War specifically. About 500 people met that evening to draft demands of the State Board of Regents and develop a plan of action to protest expansion of the war. The next day, Student Senate President Robert Beller read the demands at a meeting of the board of regents, saying in part, “We will act to stop university involvement in the war effort and university contribution to the domestic oppression related to the war-unemployment. Therefore, we demand that (1) The University of Iowa end complicity with the war – abolish ROTC, war research and war recruiters. (2) The university end all layoffs of campus workers.”

The next day there was a demonstration at the Iowa Memorial Union attracting about 50 people. The group walked from the union toward the Rec Building where a group of ROTC students was conducting drills. Finding the door locked upon their arrival, they next went to the University Field House where they ransacked the ROTC offices. They left the Field House and milled about near the Rienow, Quadrangle and Hillcrest dormitories, then crossed the Iowa River to the Student Union to see if they could gather more protesters. They then went to Campus Security and to the U.S. Post Office where the Johnson County Draft Office was located. The crowd had dwindled by that point.

A large-scale demonstration and celebration had been planned for May 1, yet there was no place on campus large enough to accommodate the number of people expected to attend. President Boyd granted permission for the event to be held at the Macbride field campus near Lake Macbride. The Daily Iowan estimated 12,000 people attended the non-stop day of speeches and musical acts. I attended and it was more rock festival than anti-war demonstration. Alternative activities and a 10 p.m. demonstration on campus were planned for those who couldn’t make it to the field campus for the main event.

While anti-war demonstrations began in April, violence began on Wednesday, May 5. Here is the description from Spriestersbach’s book:

Anti-War Violence Strikes City – Scattered Arrests Follow Three Hours of Trashing. A handful of people were arrested Wednesday night (May 5) after a crowd of anti-war demonstrators estimated at an average of between 400-500 people ranged through Iowa City for four hours breaking windows and blocking traffic. About 100 law enforcement officers, including Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputies, the Iowa Highway Patrol and the Iowa City and Coralville Police Departments, dressed in riot gear, charged down Clinton Street and into the Pentacrest to break up the crowd shortly before midnight.

On Friday, May 7, someone set off an explosion near the Iowa City Civic Center with two or three sticks of dynamite causing thousands of dollars of damage. Monday, May 10, for the first time during the demonstrations, law enforcement used teargas to disperse an anti-war demonstration at the University of Iowa Pentacrest. Also, that day, about 40 people conducted a sit-in at President Boyd’s office. Law enforcement made the decision to clear the streets of all people by the end of the day, according to the Daily Iowan. Each of these events was violent, so I stayed in my dorm room when not in class or at the dining hall.

On Tuesday, May 11, there were more demonstrations. Law enforcement called in members of the Scott County Sheriff’s posse to assist. I stayed away from demonstrations that included violence and vandalism, although that evening changed my mind.

After nightfall I walked from the Quadrangle downhill to Grand Avenue to see what was going on. A student had built a crude catapult to take to the roof of Hillcrest dormitory and send rocks flying down on law enforcement officers as they came up the hill toward the dorms. As a former engineering student, I cast a skeptical eye on the contraption. Descending the hill, I found officers had closed the intersection with Riverside Drive and were assembling there. There was construction halfway up the hill to the Field House on Grand Avenue and some students moved concrete culverts around and started them rolling down the hill toward law enforcement. As the first culvert reached the bottom of Grand Avenue, and officers began advancing up the hill, I turned around and headed back to my room to wait out whatever might happen.

According to The Daily Iowan, one of their reporters was at the police station when news of the disturbances near the dormitories arrived. They overheard Highway Patrol Captain Lyle Dickinson order officers to “take the gas gun. Lob some gas in and chase the others up the hill.” And so, they did.

I heard the commotion outside yet stayed in my room. That is, until I began to smell tear gas. I opened the window facing the courtyard and saw a tear gas cannister ignited and bouncing towards the center of the courtyard. I headed outside to escape the fumes. After it was over that night, we blamed the rough handling students got on the Scott County Sheriff’s Posse, although it was the Highway Patrol who were in command of the operation.

A junior student named David Yepsen, who later became a journalist, was quoted in the newspaper, “(the teargassing of the dormitories was) an over-reaction on the part of the police. It was totally out of line. They made a grave mistake in doing that.” None of us liked it and people who had been neutral toward the anti-war demonstrations were now provoked and activated after our dormitories were tear gassed. Overnight, seven persons were arrested, and 16 patrolmen and 3 students injured. Governor Robert Ray dispatched 200 Highway Patrol officers to assist local law enforcement.

With the presence of uniformed Highway Patrol officers on campus, Wednesday, May 12, passed without disturbances. Peace continued through Saturday. On May 14, President Boyd suspended outdoor rallies and Monday, May 17, classes ended for the academic year. The entire series of anti-war demonstrations in April and May made us feel powerless to influence our government and the interminable war in Southeast Asia.

I was much more active the following year when demonstrators briefly shut down the eastbound lane of Interstate 80.

This is an excerpt from a draft of an autobiography in progress.