Stony Brookers, Yale, & Kent State, the Vietnam War

Old memories recalled while watching the Ken Burns Vietnam War series

Stony Brookers, Yale, & Kent State

by Mitchel Cohen,
Vietnam era student activist

I saw part of one episode last night -- I haven't seen the others so I am not able to intelligently discuss the entire series. Last night's episode' was the one that included Kent State and Jackson State. I walked into the bathroom and started screaming at the top of my lungs, but not letting it out audibly but still to the universe.

I was THERE in the antiwar actions shown on TV (not at Kent, till a few years later). I knew some of the people Burns interviewed. Not perfect politically but extremely moving and infuriating, though I'm sure many of the critiques I've read online are valid. But still! Sooooooooo horrifying. Soooooo moving! Burns was incomplete in where the largest student strike in U.S. history came from. It was called and organized BEFORE Kent happened. It came out of the demonstration on May1, 1970, in New Haven to free Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins. (The Jefferson Airplane were performing that night at Stony Brook, but 300 of us missed it cuz we were up at Yale.)

I and 2 other Stony Brookers (John Franklin and David Feldheim) ended up on the national student strike steering committee! We were 21 years old and looking for a bathroom at Yale and came across a group of 9 students, who shouted out to us: "Hey, where are you from?" When we said Stony Brook, they said, "Great, we don't have anyone from that area, yet!" And so, since we all at the time saw each other as substitutable cogs in the machinery of anti-war, no questionnaire to fill out, no litmus test of our politics, we were drafted (right after we returned from the toilet) to be part of the ad hoc national committee.

We came up with 3 demands, after around 20 minutes of discussion:

1) U.S. immediate withdrawal of troops from Cambodia and Vietnam (Nixon had just invaded there .... um, excuse me, he called it an "incursion").

2) Free all political prisoners, including Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins.

3) (and this one was our Stony Brook Red Balloon Collective contribution): End all military recruitment and war-related research on the campuses.

I was commissioned to take the hand-written note with the call for the strike and our demands to whoever was speaking at the rally. Turned out to be Tom Hayden when I got there, handed it to Tom who then read it to the 20,000 people there assembled at Yale for the rally, and who would have the shit tear-gassed out of us that night, with makeshift hospitals we built in the basement of some dorms. (I had a hole in my shirt that I saved for years after, after leaning gingerly against a soldier's bayonet. Fortunately, neither of us flinched and I backed away!)

We drove down to D.C. from Connecticut for a larger strike meeting, and it was on the way back to Stony Brook that we learned about what was happening at Kent State over the radio. Important to note that the strike infrastructure was already in existence before Kent happened.

I talked with Tom Hayden (RIP, Tom) about this when I saw him in Seattle in 1999 wearing a hoodie and going incognito. He mentioned it to me when I saw him again in NYC shortly before he died a couple of years ago.

September 27, 2017