A police officer, a protester and 1972’s lessons learned

Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

On a sunny morning last April at about 6:30, Marv Davidov was sitting at the front entrance of Alliant Techsystems in Hopkins, waiting for a bus ride. The fare was a $50 fine, and the journey was a one-way trip to the Hopkins Pavilion jail, where Davidov and 84 other anti-land mine protesters would later be booked for trespassing.
While Davidov — a social and political activist for about 40 years — was awaiting another arrest, University Police officer Lee North was finishing a night shift in Stadium Village. “I’m nocturnal,” says North, who has worked nights for most of his 28 years on the force.
One of these men is called “The Rock” by his colleagues. The other rocks the boat. One works for security within the University. One calls for social transformation from the outside. In their years near the University, both have seen protest movements come and go. Both participated in the largest protests of all — the antiwar demonstrations in May 1972 that became known as the “Eight Days in May.”
And though the two have never directly crossed paths or shared the same perspective, they see many of the same things.
Looking back
In May 1972, North was beginning his fourth year with the University Police and was already well-acquainted with student demonstrations. He was stationed at the University Armory Building on the afternoon of May 10, just before the violence began.
“We were standing outside the Armory, arguing the pros and cons of the war and Nixon,” North said. “It was kind of funny.”
Along with other law enforcement officials from the University and surrounding cities, North worked 12-hour shifts during the unrest. While the strains of duty made everyone tense, North said one change in police strategy could have helped avert violence.
“In retrospect, there should have been a mixture of University and city police,” North said. “They were working from the outside, we were working from the inside. Things would have been calmer with a mix.
“Minneapolis police didn’t have to face the students the next week,” North said. “They were tired, it was hot — many of them had made plans for the opening of fishing that weekend, and they didn’t want to deal with college kids.
“To me, the protests weren’t anything upsetting. I don’t recall any really negative feelings toward students.”
Davidov helped coordinate demonstrations during the 1972 protests. As a veteran of the Freedom Rides of the 1960s civil rights movement and a founder of the anti-military Honeywell Project, Davidov recalls not being surprised by the violence that erupted on May 10.
“After the cops came onto campus, there were thousands of people on the bridges” over Washington Avenue, Davidov said. “I remember shouting at them, ‘You better move away. The pigs are going to whack people.’ They didn’t believe it.
“People overreacted,” Davidov said. “There was never anything that warranted violence. But people panicked. It was out of control.”
To understand the 1972 protests, Davidov said, it’s important to understand the divisiveness of the Vietnam War. “A minority of people were activists, but a majority accepted that the war was wrong. By 1972 even the frat houses had big signs saying ‘US OUT OF VIETNAM.’ That’s how extensive the opposition was.
“The war changed everything. It brought people together. People put their careers on hold to protest the war. Movements for peace continued after the war. The protests helped end our involvement in Vietnam.”
But North disagrees. “I don’t know how much the protests affected the war, but they absolutely tore the country apart,” he said.
“I didn’t agree with protesters whatsoever, but they’ve affected how policy is set to this day. I think that before politicians and generals jump, they look more closely at the consequences. It’s the Vietnam Syndrome. Everyone is very careful,” he added.
25 Years After
The 1972 demonstrations had lasting repercussions for the University community. A Coffman Memorial Union remodeling project done later that year reduced the number of open gathering spaces for students, inhibiting the type of mass assembly that took place there during antiwar protests.
Cedar Square West — the West Bank housing project that inspired 17 arrests at its May 9 dedication — was one of up to 10 planned developments in the Cedar-Riverside community. Opposition to the developments led to an effort among Cedar-Riverside groups to stop construction of the other developments. Cedar Square West, now Riverside Plaza, remains the only project ever built.
While the protests created change, other changes hoped for by demonstrators, such as the conversion of the University to an “antiwar institution,” and the ending of ROTC on campus, never occurred. And with the negative public reaction to the protests — opinion surveys consistently showed solid support for police action against protesters — it is debatable whether any minds were changed.
The major lesson the University learned from Vietnam-era protests, North said, is that violence doesn’t solve problems.
“When there’s destruction, that’s counterproductive. If you want to change people’s minds or public policy, the moment you resort to violence, you have lost your cause.”
To Davidov, the protests are a reminder that historical change comes from grass-roots movements.
At the University, Davidov said, “we’re very privileged, to be in the heart of the beast. But while we’re in the heart, we can make change.”
As part of its reaction to the protests, the University officially changed how it dealt with them. After the demonstrations, University President Malcolm Moos and Minneapolis city officials worked out a plan for protest control that encouraged power sharing between the city and the University. The University community tried to learn lessons from 1972, and prepared for any future unrest.
That unrest has never come.
Two paths
When U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973, the protests stopped. North kept working his beat. So did Davidov.
“I wondered what I was going to do,” when the war protests ended, Davidov said. “But then there were meetings about FBI abuses of civil liberties. And in ’77 the nuclear power movement started.”
Davidov’s most prominent public involvement has been through his work with the Honeywell Project, which protested the manufacturing of munitions at the Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis in the 1970s and 1980s. Davidov now heads the activist group Midwest Institute for Social Transformation and teaches courses on social change at area colleges.
North has become a fixture of University night life, providing security for University events and patrolling bar rushes for the past quarter-century. Named the University’s police officer of the year in 1990, North has seen his community change — and stay the same.
“I’ve been barricaded in front of Morrill Hall more times than I can count, listening to people trying to get ROTC off campus, people protesting the regents,” he said.
Through his work as a security guard for student events, North has seen student activism evolve from the mass movements of the Vietnam era to the identity-based groups of today.
“Right now there’s an organization for every belief. For every nationality, there’s something on campus to them … that’s really nice to have. If you look at the support groups for University students, it’s unbelievable.”
Looking ahead
But while there are more specialized small groups, there are fewer mass movements. “Coalition-building is where it’s at right now,” Davidov said. He also said he is optimistic about the future of protest movements.
North said he doesn’t foresee any new waves of protest.
“I wonder how many students think there can be. I tell students about the old protests and they think I’m telling them about ancient Greece. There’s an apathy right now, and it’s not just this campus, it’s society.”
North cites participation in a recent Take Back The Night March attended by 120 people as an example of student apathy. “There was a paltry number of people there,” North said. “At a campus this size you should be able to fill up the streets.
“People are so busy in their roles. There are things people can’t change, but looking out for safety is something they can.
“But there’s a tunnel vision. You’re looking straight ahead. You don’t know what’s to your left, your right or what’s behind you. You need to see things. You need to look around. It’s survival,” North said.
“I go to Perkins in the mornings, and I talk to the U students there,” Davidov said. “I ask them, what do you find at the U? They say, ‘big classes that students teach.’ … They can’t wait to get away, but they don’t know what to do now.”
Those who do not remember …
Lee North is due to retire in 10 months. He’ll miss his job. “Working in an academic environment is something that grows on you. Working here gives you a different perspective on society, the world in general … You can afford to be idealistic here.”
At 65, Davidov jokes about getting the “senior perks” for activists. “I’ve been banging at this for 40 years,” he said. “But if the revolution comes in 5, 10, 50, 100 years, I’ll have helped prepare the way.”
Both Davidov and North hope the lessons of the past aren’t forgotten. “I get the impression that students don’t learn the history of conflict in this country,” North said. “There is a danger that if you don’t know what happened in the past, you’ll repeat it again.”
“There’s a hunger out there for some kind of truth and some kind of meaning,” Davidov said. “Students don’t know a thing about the history of dissent in America.
“I say to students, ‘What’s your morality? What’s your spirituality? What’s your philosophy? Why don’t you live it?’ You got to live this stuff wherever you can. … We can change lives.”
Striving for change and security for almost 70 years combined, North and Davidov work in different places. At about 7 a.m. on an April morning, the shifts changed. As Lee North finished another night in 28 years on the University police force, Marv Davidov’s bus arrived.
As police led him to his latest ride, he was asked how it felt to be arrested yet again. “It feels great,” Davidov said. “It always feels great.”
Tomorrow: A look at current student activism at the University.