Anti-war protests of the 1960s and '70s changed the political face of Ann Arbor
File photo | AnnArbor.com
Editor’s note: Time magazine recently declared “the protester” as its “Person of the Year” for 2011, citing worldwide protests including the Occupy Wall Street movement. But the modern day protest movement has nothing over the 1960s and ‘70s when America was divided over the war in Vietnam. Ann Arbor played a central role in those times, as regular contributor Robert Faber details in this column.
For many of the last century’s residents of East Coast factory towns, the dream of living in a first-rate university community in the Midwest seemed an unattainable goal. But this is America and you can never aim too high, so in the summer of 1954, I made the move.
As a proud political liberal, the promise of life in a town like Ann Arbor, where the people are educated, smart and, ipso facto, Liberal (as a major university community, after all, how could they be otherwise?) the future was clear and ordained.
It is unlikely I could have been more wrong. Mayor Bill Brown, a Republican stalwart, had been in office for six terms (1945 - 1957) and was now presiding over an almost solid 10-member-plus-mayor Republican City Council -- the single exception being the politically lonely, young Democrat Alicia Dwyer.
In 1957, the university professor Sam Eldersveld won the mayor’s seat, but that revolution lasted no more than a single term. The real and lasting upheaval broke out in the election of April 1969, when out-of-state students were given the right to vote in local elections. And so began the Revolution - Bob Harris, a University of Michigan law professor, was voted in as mayor, I won the traditionally Republican 2nd Ward by an eight-vote landslide, and the two of us were joined by four other Democrats for a solid majority for the first time in 30 years.
But revolutions have a way of encouraging disruption and within a month of that election, Ann Arbor suffered one of its more disquieting upheavals of recent decades: weekend invasions of rock music played at glass-breaking decibels in all of our public parks. While the young embraced that bombardment of their senses, the slightly older population -- those who voted, paid taxes, and used telephones to besiege members of City Council -- remained reluctant captives of the almost physical misery inflicted by this offensive new sound. Within a few weeks almost everyone on City Council had installed an unlisted telephone line in order to avoid some of the violent dinnertime complaints of Ann Arbor’s symphony-oriented older generation. It was a new era in which the nature and limits of behavior were to be set by the rebellious young.
After many weeks of near riots and threats from both the increasingly deaf participants (including the pre-professional Iggy Pop) and their distressed and no less confrontational parents, I was able to meet with Skip Taube, minister of education for John Sinclair’s White Panther Party and spokesman for the insurgents, to seek some sort of common ground to resolve this crisis. The unexpected reality was that they were not particularly interested in revolution, merely the pleasure of playing their own music in their own way.
Despite the continuing antagonism and threats preceding our negotiations, the matter was peacefully resolved by relocating the music sites from mid-city parks to the field bordering Huron High School (comfortably out of range of the city’s residential antagonists) in exchange for an agreement by the bands to limit their volume to 90 decibels - still enough to break glass, but leaving most skulls intact.
File photo | AnnArbor.com
But that was just the beginning. As noted by Bob Dylan during that period, the times they were a-changin’. The face and many of the features of the national scene were becoming more radical, more confrontational, and dangerously tinged by the lure of the commune culture with its promotion of LSD by Timothy Leary’s advice to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” That new national climate of strident independence was not lost on Ann Arbor, the most disruptive result of which was the week-long turmoil that came to be known as the “South U Riots.”
On the very hot night of June 16, 1969, about 500 U-M students and “street” kids began an unplanned celebration on South University with wine and firecrackers and unrestrained good cheer. In the midst of all this, a motorcyclist engaged in some stunt riding, a dangerous activity on a crowded street, prompting the police to stop him with a ticket. But the party, now energized by the confrontation with the police, continued until about one o’clock in the morning.
The next day the Detroit press and television stations, simply by showing up for a probable “story” created the story, a disruption that necessitated assistance in crowd control from about 300 city, county and state police who used nightsticks, pepper spray and tear gas to dispel an estimated 2,000 rioters. To keep the movement alive, kids the next morning distributed leaflets inviting everybody to party again that night, an invitation too exciting to ignore. The White Panther Party, in coalition with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and Rent Strike Committee, passed out their list of “demands,” including closing South University to traffic and making the street a mall for the young people and putting police under ”Community Control so the Fascist Pigs won’t continue to run amuck.” That night, an estimated 1,500 people showed up. The hard-nosed, confrontational Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey established a beachhead at the north end of South University, placing a borrowed army tank in the center of the street, bordered on either side by parallel rows of snarling police dogs.
As an alternative to the violence being stirred by Sheriff Harvey’s “peacekeeping” efforts, the mayor and then University of Michigan President Robben Fleming met with several hundred of the young dissidents in the square behind the Administration Building. The purpose of the meeting was to hear and respond to the complaints and, although predictably raucous and punctuated throughout with catcalls and insults, managed to form a thin thread of communications between the kids and the authorities and helped considerably to calm the tensions. It helped, too, that the presence and performance of a local rock band (I believe it was the MC5, a highly regarded and nationally known rock group) redirected the attention when emotions threatened to get out of control. Finally, the air cooled, the conflict dissipated and the streets returned to the People (well, to some of the People).
But ending that particular source of vitriol in our city’s affairs did not completely separate us from all the unrest then spreading throughout the country. “Reefer Madness” had by then grown from a movie classic to a community commonplace, with Ann Arbor’s population divided into passionate partisans on both sides of the issue. What the older generation saw as a fruit of the Devil was accepted by the young as a harmless indulgence, not much removed from an occasional glass of wine before dinner.
File photo | AnnArbor.com
Meanwhile, it was inevitable that the changing needs and demands of our increasingly vocal youth would find reflection in the city’s politics, so the Human Rights Party (HRP) was born. The HRP was a new youth-oriented political party of angry dropouts and student antiwar activists whose purpose was more to stir the political pot than to push programs, but their initial impact was the dilution of the Democrat’s majority role on city Council by two, leaving us dependent on their cooperation to get some things done. The reality was that their election had little real impact on the city’s affairs, but it did change the climate in council meetings, leading to many dramatic political confrontations at about 2 o’clock in the morning.
An exception was the $5 marijuana penalty, a compromise between the $9 called for in the Democrats’ ordinance and the 25-cent penalty they proposed. (And for me, sitting between the two HRP Council members, their presence provided an occasional slice of pizza as the pie was passed from one to the other.)
It is of special significance to note that during those several years of political and social turmoil, while most of the country was busy calling out the National Guard to quell assorted scenes of violence, both our city and our university remained reasonably well-ordered and fairly free of dangerous and damaging turbulence. Confrontations between the rebellious youth and the authorities, while raucous and close to constant, were reasonably contained and never violent.
It was telling, for example, that the wild scenes of rebellion that began on South University resulted, not in punitive police action (except for the antics of Sheriff Harvey on that opening day), but in a widely scattered series of community meetings to better ascertain the nature of the problems in order to fashion mutually acceptable changes to calm the discord, and perhaps to design new programs of interest for the young. And while most confrontations were loud and threatening, they were never reduced to violence, either personal or property, providing both the administration and the public an alternative to the dangerous disruptions that were then infecting so many other -- notably university -- communities throughout the nation.
Much of this climate of order and relative calm was doubtless the restraint exhibited by our police under Chief Krasny and by our university leadership. but that in turn was largely a reflection of the character and attitudes of the larger Ann Arbor community.
And that is not a bad characteristic about which a community may boast.
Robert Faber is a regular contributor to AnnArbor.com, writing about aging, politics and other issues. A resident of Ann Arbor since 1954, Faber and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.