December 26, 2014

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Glory days

Oberlin College students among first to protest Vietnam War in ’67

OBERLIN — It was 40 years ago this month when Oberlin College students took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam.

Mayer

They surrounded a car carrying a Navy recruiter and kept him trapped for more than four hours. When the recruiter tried to drive forward, he bumped one of the protestors.

That forced the students to develop a plan, according to Bernie Mayer, a leader in the protest and then-president of the Student Senate.

“One guy shouted out, ‘Lift up the wheels!’ and we lifted up the rear of his car and he couldn’t go forward,” Mayer recalled.

When students finally released the recruiter’s car, the vehicle crashed into a newsman’s car, but no one was injured.

“The whole thing was surreal,” Mayer said.

Unless you were there, you really can’t fathom the depth of feeling that went with several days of protests that began Oct. 26, 1967, Mayer said. The students carried a banner saying “Bring the Troops Home Now” and got national news coverage.

“It was pretty intense — we thought the major issues of the world came right down to Oberlin,” Mayer recalled.

As it turned out, the Oberlin students were well ahead of their time.

The protest involving the recruiter occurred more than 3½ years before a deadly demonstration at Kent State University. There, on May 4, 1970, four young people died from rifle fire from 28 Ohio National Guardsmen.

In Oberlin, the protests actually began in the spring of 1966 when students staged a sit-in at the doors of Finney Chapel in an attempt to keep college officials from administering a draft deferral test.

The tests eventually were moved to Hale’s Gymnasium, but students got a taste of nonviolent protest, and they knew it could be effective.

During the protest involving the recruiter, in which Oberlin police used tear gas on the protesters, the protesters themselves tried to be decent about it — they were persuaded to allow the recruiter a break to use the bathroom, said George Langeler, dean of students at that time.

The students exacted a promise that the recruiter return but he never did, according to news reports.

Langeler said he stuck to the sidelines because the protest “was a police matter, and it wasn’t appropriate for me to get involved.”

Police asked the students what they wanted and they said they wanted to be arrested, he said.

Now 79, and still living in Oberlin, Langeler said no one was expelled, but some students got suspensions of two or three weeks.

Thirty-six protesters also were reportedly fined.

He said he doesn’t know what became of the Navy recruiter, but the students continued with their activism.

During those eventful times, sit-ins were commonplace, and “you’d almost have to crawl over people” to get in many buildings, Langeler said.

“They always let me go where I wanted,” he said. “The students were very principled — their intention was not doing ugly or violent things. All they wanted to do was highlight their belief the war in Vietnam was wrong.”

Mayer remembered Langeler’s steadying presence during that time, which he said was a marked contrast to then Oberlin College President Robert K. Carr, who was furious about the protests.

Demonstrations continued in the ensuing years, and Carr resigned in 1970.

Mayer graduated in 1968 and went on to Columbia University, where he said demonstrations against the war were “much worse.”

Mayer, who eventually got a doctorate at the University of Denver, is a professor at Creighton University and also works as a mediator, conflict specialist and a partner in CDR Associates in Boulder, Colo. The company’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to transforming difficult conflicts into opportunities for creativity, mutual gain and positive change.” It has worked to resolve conflicts in this country including workplace problems and environmental concerns as well as international cross cultural conflicts.

Mayer acknowledged the Oberlin protesters “were not the best listeners,” but with good reason.

“We always said if the Navy wanted to give a speech, it’s fine, but we also should have someone to give the position of South Vietnam and North Vietnam,” Mayer said.

Those who did not live through that tumultuous period of our nation’s history have a hard time understanding the ever-present worry about the draft, he said. Mayer had applied for conscientious objector status, but he was rejected.

“I thought I probably was going to war,” he said.

He said his son is of draft age, and “on an intellectual level, he gets it,” Mayer said.

“What isn’t different now is that from my perspective, we’re still fighting a war we shouldn’t be in. I say for a country like ours, war is a sign of weakness, not strength,” Mayer said. “Strength is when we’re willing to talk about significant issues with people whose opinions we might abhor.”

But that doesn’t mean Mayer thinks we should begin having conversations with terrorists.

“Taking police action against people who engage in criminal acts is important,” Mayer said. “I would like to see Osama bin Laden brought to justice.”

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.