May 1972: antiwar protests become part of U history

by Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-day series on the 25th anniversary of the “Eight Days in May” antiwar demonstrations and the legacy of activism at the University.

At about 1 p.m. on May 10, 1972, Eugene Eidenberg was standing on the lawn of the Armory building, watching paper fall from broken windows. It was windy that day; the papers blew unpredictably, just as some of the rocks the protesters were throwing missed their targets.
Near the Armory, along University Avenue, the demonstrators were tearing down an iron fence. An overturned 1962 Chevrolet was on fire near 18th Avenue. A small contingent of University police, dwarfed in numbers by the 3,000 protesters, were guarding the locked Armory doors.
A few blocks down University Avenue at Koehler’s Garage, now the site of Pizza Hut, three 30-man squads of Minneapolis police in full riot gear waited for an order to march toward the Armory.
Eidenberg watched the crowd converge on the Armory. Eidenberg sympathized with the antiwar movement; the previous day he had signed an open letter condemning President Nixon’s decision to mine Haiphong Harbor off the coast of North Vietnam — the action that had provoked the demonstration.
But Eidenberg was not demonstrating. In University President Malcolm Moos’ absence, Eidenberg, acting vice president for Administration, was in charge of handling the unrest. As he heard rumors that demonstrators might set the Armory on fire, Eidenberg was faced with what he later called “as profound a decision as any I could make.”
Eidenberg called in the police.
By the end of the day National Guard units were patrolling the campus. Dozens of protesters and police were hospitalized with injuries. Dinkytown residents closed their windows to keep the wind from blowing tear gas into their homes. And the University had experienced the most turbulent and controversial day of its history.
The “Eight Days in May,” as the period of unrest from May 9-16, 1972 came to be called, witnessed the largest, most violent University demonstrations of the Vietnam War era. Beginning with a May 9 protest against the opening of a Cedar-Riverside housing development, now Riverside Plaza, protests spread to the East Bank, where confrontations between protesters and police on May 10 resulted in numerous injuries and arrests.
Minnesota National Guard units were called in that evening to monitor disturbances as demonstrators erected a barricade blocking traffic at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Church Street S.E. Both the barricade and the Guard were gone by May 13; meanwhile, bomb and fire scares sustained campus tensions, and protesters blocked traffic on Highway I-94.
But despite the efforts of protest leaders to organize a cohesive campus antiwar movement, the protests were not sustained. An occupation of Johnston Hall on May 15 lasted only three hours, and May 16 rallies were cancelled for poor attendance.
Campus life returned to normal, but the effects of the protests have lingered to the present, affecting University policy and political attitudes.
“A lot of things were accomplished,” recalls history professor Hyman Berman, “but there were a lot of things that could have been done differently.”
The War on campus
The May protests were only a small part of what was, by 1972, an established nationwide movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. From the first University antiwar protest, which drew 200 demonstrators to Coffman Memorial Union on Feb. 2, 1965, demonstrations escalated as the war continued.
On Moratorium Day — October 15, 1969 — crowds of more than 6,000 demonstrators gathered to protest the war. About 5,000 demonstrators rallied on May 5, 1970 to protest President Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia, part of a national wave of protests that included the shooting of four demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio.
“By 1972, most students opposed the war,” said Marv Davidov, who was an instructor at the University’s now-defunct Experimental College, and a protest organizer at that time. “It was the latter stages of protest, and the peace movement was pretty well-organized. There was a lot of rage after Nixon mined Haiphong, and people were expressing that,” through demonstrations, Davidov said.
The frequent University antiwar activity of the late ’60s and early ’70s stepped up in the spring of 1972. Campus tensions began building after Students for a Democratic Society members occupied the Air Force recruiting office in Dinkytown on April 18. In a hearing before a commission set up by Moos to investigate the disturbances, campus safety administrator Wesley Pomeroy called the occupation the “real beginning” of the May protests.
During the occupation, Pomeroy said, University officials changed the procedure for allowing Minneapolis police on campus. While a 1969 policy called for a written request to be made before city police became involved in campus disturbances, Pomeroy said Moos told Minneapolis police administrators that “if we called them, the letter would be waiting for them when they arrived.” But April demonstrations were peaceful, and University police handled them without outside help.
Cedar-Riverside — May 9
Worries about violence increased when Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong, and were borne out with the Cedar-Riverside protest. About 500 protesters gathered to demonstrate against the dedication of the new Cedar Square West housing project by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development George Romney.
Romney was scheduled to speak at the 2 p.m. dedication. Police trying to stop a rally at the dedication site were met with a volley of eggs, marshmallows and rocks. Police charged the crowd, swinging riot sticks and spraying Mace on demonstrators. After a short confrontation, they confined protesters to the sidewalks.
Most of the crowd was gone by the time Romney, who arrived in Minneapolis later than expected, dedicated Cedar Square West at 5 p.m. in a private ceremony with city officials.
Minneapolis resident Dean Zimmerman was one of the 17 demonstrators at Cedar-Riverside arrested for breach of peace, disorderly conduct and breach of traffic.
The North Country Co-op, a nearby store, donated three dozen eggs to the demonstrators; Zimmerman received 12 of them. “I was holding 11 eggs when they arrested me,” Zimmerman later said. “They arrested me for the one I didn’t have.”
Despite the brief violence, relations between protesters and police on May 9 “weren’t that bad,” Zimmerman said. “I was brought in for booking, and they were mainly concerned with who would pay for cleaning the egg off their pants.”
An anti-Haiphong rally took place in front of Northrop Memorial Auditorium the same day. Many Northrop demonstrators later joined the Cedar-Riverside protest. Zimmerman said this worried the police, who foresaw that the combined tensions of the two groups could lead to more violence.
However, only 10 University Police were at the Northrop protest, guarding Morrill Hall in case of a disturbance. And University Police Capt. James McDonough expressed little concern about possible violence at the University, as Moos’ absence deprived protesters of a focal point for anger against authority.
“There’s not going to be (a disturbance),” McDonough said. “Not with the president out of town.”
May 10
Eugene Eidenberg and Walter Pomeroy walked to the Armory. A crowd of protesters was marching through the campus and Dinkytown, following a published schedule of antiwar activities. The plan included a noon rally at Morrill Hall, followed by an occupation of the Air Force recruiting office. About 1,500 demonstrators attended the rally; about 800 moved toward Dinkytown afterward.
When the protesters arrived at the recruiting office shortly after 1 p.m., it was empty. The Air Force had vacated it at 9:30 that morning. Frustrated, the protesters moved toward the Armory, which housed the University ROTC. As the crowd grew to about 3,000, taking up 3 1/2 blocks of University Avenue, Minneapolis police gathered at Koehler’s, waiting for a call to action.
Davidov was at a fraternity house across the street. “People were tearing down the fences by the Armory and making barricades,” Davidov recalled. “They were going to take the Armory, and they were chanting ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war’ … one fraternity kid had an old car, and he and his friends turned it over.” Leaking gasoline near the car caught on fire, sending eight-foot flames into the air.
“There were things that went beyond the pale of a student demonstration,” Eidenberg later said. “It became clear something had to be done.
“People were talking about setting fire to (the Armory). I asked the mayor to put some police nearby if we needed their assistance. And when it looked like things might spin out of control, I asked them on campus.”
Minneapolis Mayor Charles Stenvig ordered the police on campus. Stenvig, a former president of the Minneapolis police union, had been elected mayor in 1970 on a law-and-order platform. His relationship with Eidenberg was cold; in a previous position as police liaison for then-Mayor Arthur Naftalin, Eidenberg had clashed repeatedly with Stenvig. Eidenberg had also endorsed Stenvig’s opponent in the 1970 elections.
Communication problems plagued relations between the University and Minneapolis police throughout the day. While Eidenberg believed the University would control city police movements on campus, Stenvig took control throughout the demonstrations.
“(Minneapolis police) marched to the most visible places in a show of force, which provoked students,” Eidenberg said. “Then they decided, without any consultation, to physically disperse the students. … It was a melee.”
The three groups of police marched down University and chased demonstrators from the Armory. Protesters regrouped at Washington Avenue and Church Street, then split into two groups, with the other group occupying Washington and Oak Street.
Protesters occupied the streets to stop “business as usual,” Zimmerman said. Occupations were a way of defying business and authority, which activists saw as directly or indirectly contributing to the war effort. “Vietnam permeated everything,” Zimmerman said. “By stopping traffic, you could help stop the war.”
Zimmerman, who had been released from jail on bail the day before, said he spent much of the day trying to stay out of trouble.
He wasn’t successful. “I didn’t want to get arrested so soon, but somehow I ended up with a bullhorn,” he said.
“We put a few heads together and decided to take Washington. … We were feeling pretty confident, so we decided to take half of us and march over and take Oak and Washington.
“Then we heard on a police radio we had, someone said, ‘take the guy with the bullhorn.’ At that point a couple plainclothes officers jumped me, and I was back in a squad car.”
At 3 p.m., 80 Minneapolis policemen marched toward Washington Avenue. After requests to clear the area were met with shouts of “Sieg Heil!” from demonstrators, police rushed toward Oak Street, spraying Mace and clubbing protesters. Oak Street demonstrators were pushed toward Northrop Mall. Some joined the Church Street group. About 500 congregated in Dinkytown.
In a final effort to break up the crowds, a police helicopter flying over Dinkytown sprayed tear gas on the assembled protesters. While this was moderately effective in dispersing the crowds, the windy day caused the gas to permeate the University, Dinkytown and Stadium Village.
“We were already getting water to wash the tear gas out of people’s eyes when more came down from the helicopters,” Davidov said. “This was right when children were getting out of school, so they all got exposed to the gas. It was so thick that it drifted to University Hospital and they had to close all the windows.”
Thirty-three protesters were arrested on May 10; 20 protesters and seven policemen were hospitalized with injuries. After the gas cleared, demonstrators began tearing fences and gathering debris to build a barricade blocking Washington Avenue at Church Street. With no end in sight to the protests and the crowd’s hatred toward police growing, Eidenberg pursued other options.
“Once the situation deteriorated … I made a decision to ask Gov. Anderson to send in the National Guard. The only way to stop the tear gas and clubbings was to bring the state authorities in,” Eidenberg said.
The Guard’s arrival was a turning point in the demonstrations. “Students blamed the police for the violence,” Eidenberg said. “When the Guard came in, things calmed down.”
“The Guard was different from the police,” former Gov. Wendell Anderson recalled, “Because in the days of the draft you had a more broad-based military. … It was very difficult for police to identify with campus protesters, while many of the Guard could identify with the students.”
The Guard arrived on campus at 1 a.m. on May 11. About 50 demonstrators occupied the Washington Avenue barricade. Others slept in Coffman, which Minnesota Student Association President Jack Baker declared open for protesters.
May 11
Also arriving on campus that night was Malcolm Moos. Moos met with Anderson, regents, advisers and Guard officer at Eastcliff, the residence of the University president.
While discussing the day’s events, the group realized that one important figure hadn’t been invited — Stenvig. Anderson’s chief aide called Stenvig, who joined the meeting. Stenvig paused before shaking Eidenberg’s hand, but spoke easily with Moos. Thus began a closer working relationship between the University, the city and the state.
Moos would be consulted on all police and Guard actions. Stenvig maintained overall control of the Minneapolis police. The Guard was commanded by Brig. Gen. W.S. Lundberg, under the final control of Anderson.
The protesters controlled Washington Avenue. A crowd of 6,500 gathered at Coffman for a rally that featured U.S. Senator and Minnesota native Eugene McCarthy, who was met with mixed crowd reaction. While some supported the 1968 peace candidate for President, others jeered him when he was introduced as a man who voted for extension of the draft.
Lack of unity among protesters became a problem as the demonstrations continued. “It was so frustrating,” remembered Paula Giese, a humanities professor active in the protests. “You’d get in a room and people would start arguing over unimportant issues when they could have done something.”
Isolated fires and explosions kept the University tense throughout the day. The Coffman rally was interrupted by the sound of a Kolthoff Hall explosion that injured one graduate student. The student was the only victim of fires and explosions. But each incident, whether real or rumored, contributed to fears of escalated violence.
“There was one rumor that a woman was standing in an elevator and three sticks of dynamite fell out of her coat,” recalled University Police officer Lee North. Police were concerned that violent student groups such as the Weathermen were infiltrating the protests. “There wasn’t really any fear of Weathermen at the University,” North said. “But we saw students from Madison, Ohio State … you got the feeling that some of the protesters were battle-tested.” Moos later noted that only 13 of the 33 people arrested on May 10 were University students.
Just as the police feared non-University agitators, protesters suspected that undercover police agents were contributing to unrest. “One night on the barricades, a truck pulls up and unloads iron pipes,” Davidov said. “And the men in the truck … give the pipes to these kids and said ‘get the pigs if they attack you.’
“We collected all the pipes, called the cops and said, ‘this is a provocation.'”
Protesters held the Washington barricade throughout the day, while another group walked to I-94 and blocked both the east- and westbound lanes near the University exit. Traffic was stopped for about 45 minutes before police persuaded the crowds to leave. As protesters returned to the barricade for the night, the University remained at a standoff.
The barricades come down
Shortly after 5 a.m. on May 12, two units of Minneapolis police cleared the barricade, dispersing 150 people. There were no arrests or injuries. The operation took about five minutes.
For the first time in five days, no new disturbances were anticipated. A Coffman rally showed public disagreement among protest leaders over strategy. Baker called for the University to cancel classes and become an antiwar institution, a request dismissed by Moos.
As the crowd grew to about 4,500 and a police helicopter began circling overhead, Eidenberg pushed through the crowd to the top of the Coffman steps. He announced that Minneapolis police and the Guard would clear the crowd if they didn’t disperse within 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, police were deciding what to do if the crowd didn’t clear from Washington Avenue. Minneapolis Police Capt. Bruce Lindberg decided, he later said, that “this street is not worth killing anyone over.” Shortly after Eidenberg finished speaking, Lindberg took the stage and announced to the demonstrators, “The street is yours.”
The confrontation passed. Most of the crowd left; about 100 stayed to build another barricade by Ford Hall.
The Guard left campus that evening. The next morning, the second barricade was cleared, exactly 24 hours after the first.
Further attempts to demonstrate and organize against the war failed to sustain the momentum of earlier actions. The Committee for an Open and Peaceful Education, a group of students, faculty and administrators formed to communicate campus action in response to Vietnam, called for a teach-in that was held May 17-18.
Davidov led the formation of a “Constituent Assembly” that would include two members — one male and one female — from each campus organization. The assembly was instrumental in the last major demonstration of May 1972, the occupation of Johnston Hall. Between 75 and 100 students controlled the building for about three hours before leaving under threat of police intervention.
“There was this feeling that things had been going too far,” recalled COPE member Hyman Berman. With teach-ins, Berman said, “We’d channel the energies people had in protesting the war toward positive things.”
By the time of the teach-in, campus tensions had passed.
But questions surrounding the May protests continued to haunt the University. As protesters faced court dates throughout the summer, May incidents became the subject of court testimony. A Hennepin County Grand Jury was appointed to examine why violence erupted and how things could have been done differently. In June, Moos appointed a 14-member commission of students, faculty and University-area community members to investigate the protests.
Most protesters who faced trial had their charges dropped or received small fines. The jury report criticized Minneapolis police for breaking ranks, using night sticks on demonstrators and possibly attacking them with no intention of arresting or apprehending them.
The report added that police demonstrated “poor judgment” in spraying tear gas from a helicopter, and that police should always have their badges on display. Unidentifiable police were a major concern of demonstrators worried that police could not be held accountable without identification.
The University commission found fault with every group involved in the protest. While calling police actions “abominable,” it noted that University administrators did not respond quickly to the demonstrations, and that some protesters’ actions “involved confrontations well beyond the bounds of rationality.”
Minneapolis police were indignant about the amount of blame assigned to them. The day the report was released, City Police Chief Gordon Johnson called it “an attempt to whitewash the University of Minnesota.
“The grand jury should have gotten into the fact that the demonstration cost (to the taxpayers) was between $300,000 and $500,000.”
The public strongly supported Mayor Stenvig’s tough stance toward protesters. In a survey commissioned by the University student affairs office, nearly 80 percent of Twin Cities residents found students more responsible for the violence than the police. Nearly 75 percent agreed that “Those involved in the recent demonstrations were concerned with nothing more than creating chaos.”
The view of protesters was different outside the University than within. “I didn’t think they were bad — it was just a war of ideas,” North said. “But my parents, they just thought the students should be beat, shot, thrown in jail — they thought they deserved everything bad. They didn’t understand how people couldn’t support their country.”
That outsider attitude might have affected the actions of city law enforcement officials, North said. While Minneapolis police emphasized public concerns for order, “(University police) looked at student issues more sympathetically. We had more tolerance,” North said.
Stenvig and Eidenberg were each criticized for their actions on May 10, both in handling the protest and in communicating with one another. While Stenvig was criticized for not consulting University officials once city police came on campus, Eidenberg was criticized for calling for outside help. “Eidenberg panicked,” Davidov said. “He thought people would be burned alive in the Armory, and there was never any danger of that.”
Moos told the University commission that he might not have called police on campus had he been there. “When outside police have been called on campus … you have absolutely no control over an outside constabulary.” In the aftermath of the demonstrations, Moos pushed for a change in the city/University law enforcement relationship; a 1974 agreement between the University and the City of Minneapolis mandated joint control of police activity by the mayor and the University president.
Whether Moos’ presence would have made a difference is doubtful, Berman said. “Nothing would have been different if Moos had been around,” Berman said. “There would have been pressure to use force.”
“Police hated the students, students hated the police — it just exploded,” North said. “Now there’s a trend that, when there’s a disturbance, you wait it out. We’ve learned.”
The May demonstrations were the last major antiwar protests at the University, and part of the last wave of protests nationally — the University of California–Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin in Madison both saw significant disruptions, while dozens of demonstrators were arrested at Mankato State and Southwest State in Marshall, Minn.
U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended in January, 1973. After years of disturbances, the University and other college campuses were quiet.
Student moods changed in the years after the demonstrations. “By the late ’70s, apathy set in, and it’s continued to today,” Berman said. Many officials who handled the demonstrations, including Stenvig and Moos, have died.
Eidenberg left the University in fall 1972 for an administrative position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Now a businessman in California, Eidenberg said he still thinks about the Armory and the events of that May. “We’ll never know this,” Eidenberg said, “but it is clear in my mind that the events could have been different.
“It’s hard to communicate how tense and emotional people were. We were concerned that people needed the right to be safe to express their opinions. … The police were in a difficult position. They had to defend a status quo people were protesting.
“But I do continue to think about it,” Eidenberg said. “People got hurt.
“And it didn’t have to happen that way.”

Tomorrow: A policeman and a protester; two perspectives on activism.
— Some information in this article was taken from the Minneapolis Star, Minneapolis Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and The Minnesota Daily. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota State Historical Society.