It started simply enough for the times. April of 1970. Ohio State had been a Midwestern hot bed of protest for a few years by then. It was overlooked because of huge protests and clashes at Berkley, Columbia, Harvard and more well-known schools in major media markets. They got the press. OSU was seen nationally as a bucolic football powerhouse, not a nest of commie hippie pinkos.
There had been protests for years at Ohio State. However in 1970, Governor Jim Rhodes was facing term limits and running for Senate. To score political points he ramped up responses to peaceful protests. Police response became more vicious.
The Columbus Police Department had a rapid response team for protests. It was known as “D” Platoon. They were notoriously vicious in their use of violence as a first response to dissent.
Dissent at Ohio State was more visible than at any time during the Sixties. Some of this was due to Ohio State’s indifference to student demands. A lot was due to Nixon being in the White House. His aggressive management of the Vietnam war angered most of us. After Bobby’s killing more of us gave up on peaceful resolutions. Our anger. pain and despair manifested in more protests that weren’t as peaceful as they once were.
The national Anti-War Movement turned their attention to Middle America. The SDS was touring Big 10 schools organizing in opposition to the war. After the election of Nixon they realized the Anti-War Movement was seen by most adult Americans as a coastal phenomenon. A show of strength in the heartland was needed.
During that time I was on campus a lot as a high school senior against the status quo. One night I was in an apartment off campus listening to a woman talk about the Movement and the need for solidarity against the war, draft and racism. I left after an hour or so. It wasn’t till years later I realized she was likely Bernadette Dohrn.
On April, 15 1970, 2000 protesters marched down High Street (Columbus’ main N/S thoroughfare) to the Ohio Statehouse, flanked by a large police presence. A show of force to keep the hippies in line. On April, 29 the Ad Hoc Committee For Student Rights called a strike to demand the addition of Black Studies and Women’s issues to the University’s courses. The goal was to establish them as full-fledged departments eventually.
In the center of the OSU campus is a large grassy area known as the Oval. That was ground zero for the strike.. Students picketed the University admin building. The Ohio State Highway Patrol (They have jurisdiction over State property) responded by closing the roads near campus. They then moved into the crowd with tear gas and loaded weapons. And in the 60’s the OSP was not shy about clubbing protesters.
Predictably, tensions exploded into violence.
As the students moved towards High Street, word spread and the crowd swelled. (This HS Senior joined in). The Staties called in reinforcements.
At 15th Avenue and High Street, the traditional entrance to the OSU Campus, stood two brick columns that supported open, iron gates. They were a gift from some early Twentieth Century class. The gates were swung closed by the protesters, symbolically closing the School. Those gates have since been replaced with two concrete columns, sans gates, to prevent that from ever happening again.
Bricks from the pathways that crisscrossed the Oval were handy projectiles. Along High Street, Molotov cocktails exploded in brilliant orange fireballs as storefronts went up in flames. Windows were smashed as the students surged. The response of local law enforcement (CPD’s “D” Platoon had been called in) was gas, clubs and opening fire on the crowd with live ammo. The clash raged for hours as the spring sky darkened with gas, smoke and dusk.
At 10 PM Governor Rhodes, making a show of force to crush dissent in Ohio, called out the Ohio National Guard. (No Ohio Governor has ever deployed the Guard more than Rhodes)
The sight of troops, armored personnel carriers and tanks rolling down the streets of a major American university in a state capitol has a chilling effect on dissent. It always conjures visions of the Blitzkrieg or Soviet responses to dissent.
In the aftermath it was determined seven people had been shot, thankfully with no fatalities.
During that violent day, Football coaching legend Woody Hayes spoke to the students attempting to quell the violence. During the unrest, Woody was the only member of the Ohio State administration to actually speak to the students, to seek peace. Woody always seemed to genuinely care about the students at OSU.
The next day violence erupted again as news broke of the secret war waged by Nixon in Cambodia. An estimated 4000 students hit the streets. College campuses across the nation exploded into violence. Ohio State was as violent as any. Kent State and Ohio University also erupted showing the War had lost support in the Ohio hinterland.
As the smoke cleared, 400 had been arrested and more than 100 were injured. Again, with the brutality of the city and state’s response, it was pure luck there were no fatalities.
There were smaller protests and violence as the police and national guard kept a lid on the campus area during the next few days. There were armed checkpoints manned by armed troops. APC’s and tanks rumbled along High Street recalling the Soviet mobilization to crush the’68’ Prague Spring. Following the news of the Kent State shooting, security became oppressive. The campus was cordoned off from the rest of Columbus.
This continued through the 6th of May when Ohio State cancelled classes. OSU reopened on May, 19th under tight security. A busload of students from my high school arrived on campus to take some state achievement exams. I could still smell the cloying stench of tear gas lingering in the air. Or so it seemed. (I came in second in the state in history, by the way. Behind my nemesis Gail.) It was chilling to be passed through those military checkpoints.
Early on, coverage was quashed by Rhodes, the University and City of Columbus. Columbus and OSU did not want the publicity nationally. Rhodes was running for Senate and wanted to look strong on protests.The media played down the riots(The Columbus has always been pliable) and then Kent State pushed it off the radar.
The riot here at OSU is largely forgotten, now. The disturbance at OSU was larger and more violent than Kent State. It was a miracle no one died.
The walkways on the Oval were paved with asphalt to deny any future use of the bricks as ammo. However the disturbances at OSU tend to center around Football nowadays.
Jim Rhodes lost his bid in the primary for Senate. In 1974 he ran for, and won reelection as Governor of Ohio. Twice.
No one was involved at the OSU riot was prosecuted here for excessive use of force.
The Nixon Administration’s take was the students at Kent and OSU deserved whatever happened. The party line here in Ohio was the same.
In 1974, charges were dismissed against the eight guardsmen accused of the shootings.