A WORLD AT WAR
By David Holcombe '71
[Editor's note: The correct date for the closure of the campus mentioned below was May 7–10, 1970.]
In 1968, as a terrible war raged in Southeast Asia, UC Davis was still a bastion of conservative rectitude. But despite its sleepy agricultural surroundings, the campus had its share of rebellious youths ready to take on the world for the sake of peace and social justice.
UC Berkeley, always a hotbed of liberalism, sent out the first shock waves of student revolt. As student protests caught Davis in their wake, the campus, like many others around the country, was temporarily closed by striking students and some sympathetic faculty.
During that time, I remember designing antiwar posters in the UC Davis art building, which had remained open. We all strove to produce some original, moving artwork under the benevolent and conspiratorial eyes of the art faculty. My poster showed a pile of dead babies with the legend The Fruits of Victory, Want a Bite? As we silk-screened copies, an older man wearing a suit and tie came in and requested a copy of each poster for the university archives. This well-dressed stranger appeared completely out of place in our animated and dirty workshop, but his request seemed so typical of the university environment. He collected posters to preserve history as we fought for the new world order. Despite my feelings of moral superiority, I watched proudly as my poster joined the other collected works.
After printing our posters, we scattered around the campus on bicycles to post our creations on the usually pristine campus walls. Later that week, emulating our more radical brothers at UC Berkeley, an impromptu student action committee decided to occupy the administration building. In Berkeley, the Bank of America burned and tear gas drifted down the streets. At Davis, perhaps 400 students (out of a student population of 11,400), many riding bicycles, converged on the stately new administration building with its tall concrete columns. It must have seemed ludicrousa bunch of students riding to the revolution on their bicyclesbut at UC Davis, why not? We poured into the building and occupied the spacious entrance where we listened to incendiary speeches from student leaders under the watchful and bewildered eyes of the campus police.
Our takeover seemed jovial and deceptively inconsequential until a representative of the administration addressed the crowd. We are asking you to vacate the premises immediately, he announced, or face the possibility of arrest and subsequent expulsion from the university. The silence that followed bore witness to the seriousness of the threat. There could be no doubt, staying in that building could have real consequences for our academic careers and professional futures. Each student looked at his or her neighbors. Should we retreat into our private worlds or demonstrate our solidarity with the great social movement of the time? Some students silently slipped away, but the rest, maybe 250, remained. One student started the chant Hell no, we wont go! Almost immediately, that once-silent space echoed with the voices of all the other students who joined in screaming Hell no, we wont go! The administrator did go.
We waited anxiously for the next few hours, but the day did not end in a violent police assault with broken bodies, windows and furniture. Instead, in the finest UC Davis tradition, a delegation of student leaders met with an ad hoc committee of administrators. The latter accepted student demands concerning meaningful student representation on various academic bodies, a truly revolutionary concept at the time. The great occupation of the administration building came to a prosaic end as students filed out, picked up their bicycles and rode home.
The whole event taught me an interesting lesson: that public protest could paralyze an institution and that a benign response could reflect official disarray or even sympathy. I learned much about the ability of a determined group of people to catalyze change in the face of official opposition.
Our week of student revolt ended, but the war in Vietnam dragged on. Some UC Davis students joined the 25 percent or so of regional inductees who refused to do their military service. They, too, said, Hell no, we wont go! Some fled the United States, some were arrested, some were classified as unsuitable for the military. Others chose to do their perceived patriotic duty and either survived or left their names engraved on the black marble wall in Washington, D.C.
For better or worse, UC Davis was the crucible for my formative college years when political, social and sexual upheaval swept the country. This strange combination of time and place helped create a group of students the likes of which UC Davis had not seen before, or perhaps since. Did we create any lasting change for the university? Now, student representation on academic committees remains the rule, the Vietnam War finally ended allowing students to pursue their educations in peace, and somewhere in the bowels of a campus building, my poster sits as a tiny reminder of those turbulent times.
David Holcombe 71 is an
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