The May 1972 Cambridge Police Riot
The first time I was tear gassed I was an innocent bystander.
The spring of 1972 was an unsettling time. Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam had proved illusory, but a combination of “Vietnamization” — using Vietnamese troops instead of Americans — and the end of the draft had taken the urgency out of the anti-war movement. In April, Nixon resumed bombing Hanoi and Haiphong and in May mined Haiphong Harbor and created a de facto naval blockade of North Vietnam. The concern of the anti-war movement was that a stray bomb or a mine would hit a Soviet ship and trigger World War III.
On May 11th, I went to the Political Science department in building E53 to talk to one of my professors. At the time, I was mostly ignorant of the role of this building in the Vietnam War. Home to many of its strategists and the CIA-created Center for International Studies, the offices of Daniel Ellsberg when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, it had been bombed in 1971 by the “Proud Eagle Tribe”, targeting the office of William Bundy, one of the architects of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War escalation.
There were some unidentified people in the E53 offices. Asking staff, I was told they were watching the Longfellow Bridge because of a possible march. I conducted my business, and started back to my dorm on the western edge of campus. Exiting the Infinite Corridor onto Mass Ave. just before the administration locked the doors, I was suddenly enveloped in emerging chaos. The march hadn’t come over the Longfellow Bridge. It had, instead, come up Mass Ave, to be met by Cambridge and Somerville tactical police lined up on the railroad tracks. Using tear and pepper gas, billy clubs and dogs, police drove demonstrators back down Mass Ave and onto Kresge Plaza. Anyone who happened to be on Mass Ave, like me, or in and around the Student Center got caught up in the melee. Like hundreds of others, I sought refuge in the Student Center through doors that the administration had tried, but failed to lock.
This was a police riot. We watched as police shot demonstrators in the back with tear gas grenades and beat them with billy clubs and the butts of grenade launchers. I watched police aim and shoot tear gas grenades at the front doors of McCormick Hall and the Student Center, keeping students pinned inside. I watched them tear gas Kresge, and engage in prolonged billy-club beatings of students. For the next few hours the same pattern repeated. Police violently dispersed demonstrators from Kresge Plaza into west campus and withdrew to Mass Ave. There was a police line on Memorial Drive, as well, leaving demonstrators no good path off campus than back to Mass Ave. As they returned, joined by MIT students wondering what was happening on their campus, police would disperse them again onto west campus. This pattern continued until early evening when, finally, the police withdrew and calm returned.
As the MIT student newspaper The Tech reported the next day:
Many incidents of excessive force were reported. A group of people trapped on the Student Center porch by locked doors were gassed and beaten with clubs and gas-gun butts as police moved them down the steps. A tear gas canister was aimed at spectators on the McCormick Penthouse. Gas grenades were lobbed into Kresge, and when the band attempted to leave, the police told them to get back inside. They escaped through the rear exit.
The worst violence took place behind Baker House as the police dispersed people into the dormitories and across Briggs Field. At one point a patrol car on Amherst Alley swerved sharply in an attempt to hit several students, who escaped harm.
The police were apparently trying to use terror tactics to keep students in the houses; one helmeted tac cop entered Baker lobby at 8:05, shook his club at the 75 people gathered there and said, “Next one outside gets this.”
Police were also seen attempting to enter Bexley Hall and McCormick. When frustrated by locked doors at the latter, they gassed the vestibule. At Phi Beta Epsilon, where several people had taken refuge from the sweep, police unsuccessfully attempted to break down the door and arrested one straggler who hzá been locked out.
Ten injuries were reported, four serious, including head injuries from a beating and two back injuries from tear gas grenade impact.
The march that triggered the riot was not a part of frenetic MIT antiwar activity that started directly after the announcement of the Haiphong Harbor mining. Department and university-wide meetings were held. A strike was proposed and, the day after the riot approximately two dozen students occupied ROTC offices, holding them for less than a day before peacefully leaving. They’d later be tried and convicted for trespassing.
Edward Fredkin, director of MIT’s Man and Computer project, a conservative former Air Force General, formed the Army to End the War, a group for which I was treasurer. Fredkin believed that you fight wars to win, and that, if you weren’t going to win, you stop fighting. Since the government wasn’t going to stop, Fredkin believed that it was the responsibility of citizens to take direct action to stop it. Fredkin’s plan was to build an organization that would coordinate anti-war citizens going to their bank at a specified time and withdrawing their money. The prospect of an organized run on the banks, he believed, would force the end of the war. The activities of the Army to End the War abruptly stopped, the general belief being that Fredkin had blundered by organizing using resources that were, in part, paid for by the Department of Defense. An enrollee in Fredkin’s Problem Solving course, I received course credit for my work to end the war.
In December 2014, Black Lives Matter marchers made their way down Mass Ave headed into Boston. They crossed the railroad tracks, walked by Kresge Plaza only to meet aline of police, conspicuously not in riot gear, at Memorial Drive, stopping their progress. A tense, but peaceful, standoff took place until Boston Police on the other end of the Harvard Bridge were ready to escort marchers. The police stepped back and the march continued.