Irrational and unreasonable, mobs take on a life of their own.
I’ve twice been part of mob scenes. The first in what became the largest single day of mass arrests in U.S. history, the aftermath of the 1971 May Day anti-war protest in Washington D.C. That particular event had been planned over a period of two years, a massive manipulation of masses organized for purposes beyond what most were aware of. It’s not the focus of this story, however. as I am currently working on a longer essay about that experience.
The 1972 protest at Ohio University the following spring was much smaller in scale, and spontaneous as a wildfire.
I can’t recall who the speaker was that evening but Baker Center Ballroom was jam-packed with students to hear a speaker of note, someone on the scale of a Woodward or Bernstein, the journalists who broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post. At the end of this person’s talk, someone stepped up to the speaker requesting permission to make an announcement. They proceeded to share a breaking news story, that President Nixon was at that moment placing mines in the North Vietnamese harbors.
The news produced a wave of murmuring, jolting the room like a low-level electrical charge. Another speaker attempted to channel the building energy into an orchestrated action. “We need to let our government know of our displeasure with this new act of aggression.” The crowd was becoming increasingly agitated. Someone else requested the microphone and said that we should have a march tomorrow morning at ten a.m. The U.S. Post Office is a symbol of our Federal government. The mic was then passed to another who appealed to the crowd for other ideas.
Suddenly, a lean man with long wavy locks leapt to the stage, grabbed the mic and shouted, “This is bullshit. If you want to do something about it, follow me.” He then leaped back to the floor heading toward the door. The mass of humanity parted like the Red Sea as he shot out into the night, everyone inside then following in his wake.
I was standing in the back with my girl friend watching from the far corner of the room. By the time we made it outside there was already a bonfire of skids in the center of the intersection. People were running in all directions. A fellow whom I recognized went flying toward Baker Center on a motorcycle and appeared to lose control going up the stairs and crashing.
My girl friend and I followed others to the ROTC Building which had been broken into and was now occupied by hundreds of students. I recognized a few from our dorm. There must have been music playing as there was a party-like atmosphere and some dancing taking place. Other students had begun vandalizing, emptying drawers and flinging papers everywhere.
This frivolous mood was not shared by all. In the main hallway corridor, dozens had seated themselves on the floor lining the hall with their backs to the walls, facing one another. I recognized a couple of them as young teachers or professors. The gravitas on their faces indicated that for these this ROTC action was not a party. It was a protest statement being being carried out with serious intent. I respected those who were seated, and felt that the vandalism by some of the others was uncalled for, but said nothing.
By three in the morning the energy inside had abated. Outside, someone was announcing something with a bullhorn. I looked out and saw that the building was surrounded by police in riot gear, facing the building at ten-foot intervals in a semi-circle 100-200 feet away on the college green. The one with the bullhorn was saying, “This is the police. Anyone who wants to leave may leave now and we will not ask for your names. You may go home, but we are asking you to leave. Those of you who wish to remain will be arrested.”
As Carol (name changed to protect identity) and I left the building we saw that the drama on Court Street had abated. We slowly walked away between the guards and headed back to our dorm.
Those who stayed became known as the Athens 77. The students were expelled from school, and the two teachers fired. But that was not the worst penalty. Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, is a college town with no real industry to speak of. The students would not be free to get on with their lives until they finished their court hearings and trials. This was the real penalty, and it took two years.
If they believed they were making a point, no one heard. It was a protest that time forgot. Here are a pair of links to mentions of the incident, the first from our college yearbook of that year and the second from the Athens Messenger.
Throwback Thursday: May 10, 1972
May 10, 1972: Officers in riot gear holding batons stand in front of the City Building as anti-war protesters march…
May 10, 1972: Officers in riot gear holding batons stand in front of the City Building as anti-war protesters march down Washington Street in Athens. This day’s protest was generally peaceful, but the night before, students occupied Ohio University’s ROTC. headquarters in Lindley Hall. There were 77 arrests. That same night student protesters took over Court Street and made a big bonfire at the intersection of Court and Union Streets. The country wide protests were prompted by President Nixon’s decision to put mines in North Vietnamese harbors.
The Baker Center Ballroom scene came to mind while watching YouTube videos of the yellow jacket revolt in France. People get agitated and go to the streets. They form a mob, but what does a mob accomplish? The mob is a force, but can a mob create something good and beautiful? Mobs instead become a destructive, irrational energy that you can’t reason with.
On that podium in the Baker Center Ballroom an effort was made by some to turn the moment into a statement. But this quickly fell apart in the emotion of the moment.
I do not believe mob violence is the way to win hearts and minds. Mobs are exhilarating for the moment, but easily turn scary. They are usually comprised of people with different agendas. As John Lennon once sang, “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”