Students across America were incensed.
It was Monday, May 4, 1970, a cool, overcast morning on the Pratt Institute campus. Students were reading news reports about the weekend’s university protests: fires, vandalism, and general outrage from Harlem to Long Island in response to President Richard Nixon’s “announcement” of military action in Cambodia four days earlier. The US had been secretly bombing Cambodia under Nixon’s orders since March 1969 and, in many ways, the president’s announcement was a confession. It added fuel to an already blazing fire that ignited a new, unprecedented wave of student activism, nationwide.
The 1969–1970 school year had been punctuated by moratorium days, assemblies, and marches urging for peace, with university students at the helm of activating protest. The morning of May 4, editors of student publications at Brown, Bryn Mawr, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Haverford, Princeton, Rutgers, Sarah Lawrence, and the University of Pennsylvania collectively published an editorial calling for an immediate nationwide student strike, and an end to “business-as-usual” until the complete withdrawal of all American troops from Southeast Asia.
By noon, UCLA, Stanford, Colgate, Berkeley, and Purdue joined in solidarity.
And by 1 PM, Kent State University students Sandra Lee Scheuer, William Knox Schroeder, Allison B. Krause, and Jeffrey Glenn Miller were dead, shot and killed by National Guardsmen who responded with lethal force to a peaceful protest on their college campus in Kent, Ohio, about 40 miles south of Cleveland, 400 miles west of Pratt Institute, and 8,700 miles from Cambodia.
“Who would’ve thought on a college campus that the National Guard would use bullets, real bullets,” says Michela Griffo, MFA ’70. “It was unheard of—like, whoa, this is war. This is really war.”
Griffo is now sitting at the kitchen table in her fourth-floor loft-studio on East 20th Street and Broadway. She’s an artist—a painter—and a lifelong social justice activist. (Griffo’s art was recently included in the Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989 exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, focused on the LGBTQ civil rights movement.) She currently volunteers as a social worker with Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps, which brings free dental and vision care to some of the poorest areas of the US—she has a master’s in social work from NYU and studied pre-med at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before moving to Brooklyn to earn her MFA at Pratt.
Griffo grew up in Rochester, New York, and had been to the city many times over the years with her mother to attend cultural events. The summer she was 16, she accompanied a friend to Harlem so her friend could terminate a pregnancy, which was illegal at the time. The procedure nearly took her friend’s life. “That began my interest in the early feminist groups,” she says. “And when I moved to New York, I became a Redstocking,” a member of the women’s liberation organization founded in early 1969. “We were the women who stood on the corner of Sheridan Square handing out leaflets, asking that the laws of New York State be changed with regard to abortion,” she says. “And we’re one of the groups that eventually got safe, legal abortions in New York State.”
During that time, New York City bars were filled with activists, revolutionaries stood preaching in nearly every park, and the streets were clogged with uprisings and insurgency. Activists in the city could call Dial-a-Demonstration to hear a recording of who was protesting what in and around town that day.
Griffo, who is also one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, the group that organized the first Gay Pride March in New York City, recalls the night of the Stonewall rebellion, June 28, 1969. “All we heard was, ‘Oh, the gays are rioting.’ But everybody was rioting! The Black Panthers, the anti-war movement, the women’s house of detention because Angela Davis was in there . . . And the teachers were just as radical as the students.”
“When I was a student at Pratt,” says Theoharis David, BArch ’61, Pratt professor of architecture, “it was buttoned-down shirts and short hair. But then not so long after, ’69 and ’70 came, and it was totally different. I was raised in one world, a buttoned-down, clean-cut kid, thrust into another world.”
After graduating from Pratt, David was drafted into the army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and served two years before then earning his master of architecture degree from Yale University and beginning, in 1969, his teaching career at Pratt. In just seven years, he had come full circle—Pratt architecture student to professor—and was not much older than the students in his classes. He was also a newlywed and working for a firm in Manhattan. In March of 1969, David’s first year of teaching, nearly 100 students picketed in front of Pratt’s president’s office to protest a laundry list of transgressions. President James B. Donovan called the demonstration “a touch of spring,” belittling the student activists and unknowingly igniting a passionate resistance across campus.
“That was so galvanizing,” says Elliott Newcomb, BFA Interior Design ’70. “It just escalated and escalated.” Soon students were wearing pins that read “TOUCH OF SPRING.” They were also organizing, along with the faculty.
“We quickly formed all these committees,” David says. “More than you’d want, but still it was better to have committees and talk . . . Ideally you should not have to go on strike to effect change. Articulate the problems clearly, not ambiguously, and you put them up there, and generate a dynamic alternative. Then you muster everybody in an equitable way—students, faculty, administrators, outsiders, whomever—to dynamically get yourself to be heard and convince certain people that can effect changes.”
Professor David also chose service as activism, and involved his students. He describes how, after developing a relationship with members of the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative of Alabama, he and his Cypriot wife drove two station wagons full of Pratt architecture students to their home in rural Wilcox County, to design housing for this very poor community of people. “That was my way of dealing with the moment,” David says.
And yet, the April 8, 1969, edition of The Prattler printed a cover that read STRIKE in large bold letters, proclaiming the student body’s collective action to initiate structural change, from curriculum overhauls to building the school’s relationship with the surrounding community. “Of prime importance has been the unity of the student body,” The Prattler reported at the time. “All across the board, architects, engineers, designers, painters—all the schools, all the academic years, whether black or white—the political persuasion from right to left, from the SDS to the Young Americans for Freedom, from the pacifist groups to ROTC, have given their support to the ideas behind this movement.”
In 1970, that same declaration—STRIKE—was repeated, on the cover of the May 5 issue of the newspaper, a special edition published collectively by the editors of five student papers in Brooklyn, with The Prattler leading the masthead. Students were once again uniting, and this time it extended beyond the Brooklyn campus gates. The daily “confederation” newspaper, which grew to a collaboration among 10 student papers in the city as the national strike gained momentum, was as essential to informing and mobilizing a community as news alerts and social media posts are today—full of recaps of actions at city campuses, rally schedules, and updates on students going to Washington to protest and appeal to Congress. Meanwhile Pratt’s ham radio station, W2NOD, joined a 24-hour college network, a complement to Pratt radio station WPIR’s round-the-clock schedule to deliver the latest news bulletins.
Pratt students themselves voted on an all-Institute strike on May 5. Voting was almost unanimous. This time the strike was in support of the anti-war movement; freedom for political prisoners, including the Panther 21—members of the Black Panther Party who were accused of planning a series of bombings in New York City—and draft resisters; and “an end to all US university compliance with the government for defense purposes” (i.e., the removal of the ROTC program from campuses, including Pratt’s). The next day, the Pratt Faculty Council voted to support the students’ objectives, and to suspend all remaining classes and discontinue “business-as-usual”—including formal Commencement exercises—for the remainder of the semester. A passing grade of “P” would be given to all students for the semester.
On the afternoon of the student vote, about 300 students and faculty left the Pratt campus heading down DeKalb Avenue toward Long Island University, stopping traffic. Along the way, the crowd doubled and picked up a police escort to cross the Manhattan Bridge, marching up the automobile ramp. At Wall Street, they joined a rally of 5,000, according to The Prattler’s report, and moved uptown to a final destination of the United Nations.
It was now clear that American students were adamant: ending the war was more important than simply going to class. That week The New Yorker published an article that read, “More than four hundred colleges and universities across the country were closed by student strikes or by faculty decision.”
Even some students for whom activism was background noise were moved to participate.
“The protest was constant,” says Elliott Newcomb of his last years at the Institute. From his Washington Avenue apartment, Newcomb could hear the demonstrations and speeches on campus during his time as a student. But with his family’s financial needs taking precedence, he always remained focused on his studies and took every opportunity to work, to support himself and his wife and child. Given the responsibilities he carried as an individual, he didn’t consider himself, in his words, “a joiner,” but nevertheless was proud of the ethos that supported student action at Pratt. “I think you’ve probably seen the yearbook with the cannon painted paisley,” says Newcomb—referring to Prattonia 1967. “Well, that was that era, and that was a real trademark to the attitude when you came in . . . I just thought it was one of the coolest things on the planet. Proud of it, proud that I was in a place with people who thought like that and did that,” made a sculpture out of an object of war.
When it came to student strikes, Newcomb, who went on to practice interior design, working for two firms for 26 years before running his own business for 20, remembers using the time to work more. “I didn’t hang around and talk to people about why we’re on strike, how we’re going to end this, what are we going to do. The only major event that I joined was blocking that bridge.”
He’s talking about a student demonstration on May 7, 1970, the day of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller’s funeral. The mimeographed map of that event is one of Newcomb’s most treasured possessions. It was to be a day of collective action, coordinated also among students at Pratt, Long Island University, Manhattan Community College, Cooper Union, Hunter College, Columbia University, City College of New York, New York University, Fashion Institute of Technology, and Pace University.
Each school had been assigned a city bridge or tunnel to take over and shut down with the goal of completely locking down the island of Manhattan: no traffic in or out. “It was time to get involved, certainly for that event,” Newcomb says. “I didn’t know the whole scheme of things, all I knew was, somebody’s got to make sure Pratt succeeds. And I was very concerned that we would fail. I was concerned that other schools would succeed and this little arts school wouldn’t block the bridge.” He was among the 700 Pratt students who gathered before rush hour that Thursday morning in Memorial Hall, only to learn that the mass action was postponed as rumors had spread that Governor Nelson Rockefeller was to call in federal troops. But Pratt students rallied and ultimately decided they would march across the Manhattan Bridge and uptown to Miller’s funeral.
Reflecting on the day, Newcomb remembers feeling pride and anxiety. The students had organized to the degree where they could stop traffic, but what would the consequences be? “You had police screaming at you at both ends of that bridge,” he says. “You had commuters getting out of their cars. We were all just long-haired, dirty hippies to the masses. They just saw us as a bunch of rabid liberals. ‘Throw ’em off the bridge!’”
As tensions rose and the situation escalated on the bridge, Newcomb noticed a tall man among the chaos. “He was connected to the church—Episcopal, Presbyterian . . . I never knew—and somehow he got involved to calm these police down. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know what he said. But that was a major shift in the pressure on that bridge.”
The march continued, now with a police escort, heading toward Jeffrey Miller’s funeral at Riverside Chapel on West 76th Street, making its way north on 6th Avenue, picking up groups of demonstrators from other schools along the way, growing to some 4,000 by The Prattler’s report.
“There we were in the 20s,” Newcomb says. “And I see flowers. I didn’t know that it was the Flower District and they sold wholesale. I just went into a store, thinking, you know, let me buy flowers to take to the funeral. And they didn’t sell them, but they handed me some flowers. I came out, and people saw what was going on. More people went in, and the whole Flower District just handed over flowers to the herd . . . Every time I go into the Flower District, I remember that. It’s a great feeling.”
Not all the student actions, however, were met with such generous spirit. The next day, in downtown Manhattan, about 1,000 anti-war protestors—mostly college and high school students—held a memorial for the students killed at Kent State. The morning was overcast and gray, but by noon the clouds parted and the sun came out, briefly brightening the somber mood at Broad Street and Wall Street. But the vibe quickly turned as the roar of an approaching mob could be heard. Suddenly, more than 200 union construction workers descended upon the intersection.
The thin line of police could not keep the construction workers at bay, and they quickly broke through, rampaging violently into the crowd. Some 70 people were reported injured, including four policemen, and six people were arrested during the event now referred to as the Hard Hat Riot. In the days that followed, construction workers would hold a series of parades through the Manhattan streets in support of Nixon and in protest of Mayor John Lindsay, who had shown support for anti-war sentiments.
“Things couldn’t have been more polarized,” says Stephen Mack, BFA Humanities ’70, reflecting on the divides of the time, which were not only political but generational. “When [Vietnam veterans] came back, they were spit at. The people who really talked them down was their parents’ generation who said, ‘We won our war.’”
Mack’s brother was drafted, and went to Vietnam, in 1968. He had just been married. “He was 24,” Mack says. “So he was one of the older guys.” The average age of American troops in Vietnam was 19 years old. (The voting age in the US, however, was still 21.)
“He was a skinny little guy and he volunteered to be the machine gunner,” Mack says of his brother. “He earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars with Valor for his efforts over there. He saw an awful lot,” from hand-to-hand combat to holding a buddy who had been maimed as he passed away.
When Mack’s brother returned from Vietnam in December of 1968, Mack had already decided he would not go to war and was researching options to oppose the draft as a conscientious objector. He’d moved into the vacated apartment of a fellow Pratt student, whose husband had been drafted, prompting the couple to flee to Canada. “It was always like somebody in your midst was doing something more radical than what you were,” he says. “You were trying to feed off of it and decide how you would fit in and what you would do.”
Mack was living in that apartment, steps from the Brooklyn campus, on Washington Avenue between Lafayette and DeKalb, when Pratt canceled classes in 1970, and he, like other students, used his home as a gathering place. “Some of us had classes in our apartments, just to keep up with things,” he says. “We continued to meet there,” along with professors. (Mack was no stranger to initiating action through education. As a Pratt student, he was a tutor for the Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action organization, and he might have been a teacher had he not somewhat stumbled upon a film-editing apprenticeship working on commercials and documentaries, going on to a lifetime career in the field.)
As with the strike of 1969, students were mobilized into action in ways that focused the conversation—from forming committees like those Theo David mentioned, to hosting speakers, to holding teach-ins and community meetings. The Prattler reported that a Pratt Educational Center for Peace was organized to study communication between students and alumni and the community. Organizing, dialogue, and community building had their place along with protest in one of the most turbulent months of a volatile era: In 1968, the world saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In 1969, law enforcement shot and killed Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in his home in Chicago. Five months later, the National Guard shot and killed the four students at Kent State. And 11 days after that, city police and state patrolmen in Jackson, Mississippi, shot and killed two students at Jackson State University.
When it came to closing out their time at Pratt, members of the senior class organized a teach-in to accompany the modest gatherings that were to replace the canceled full-scale Commencement ceremony, deciding that any graduation proceedings “must be made more relevant.” “This teach-in offers us a unique opportunity to reach a group which most students have been unable to reach—our own parents,” the students wrote in a memo to faculty, who were invited to participate. On June 5, eight faculty members spoke to students’ families on topics from “Morality of Industry” to “Solving the Problems of War Poverty,” and two presented on “The Generation Gap.” Meanwhile, the Institute hosted a small assembly where lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler spoke.
What came next, however, was more uncertain. The summer 1970 issue of The Prattler solemnly expressed, “We’re finally on our own. . . . Our hope for this coming year will be if the life-oriented culture will, somehow, discover within itself the strength to declare, over and over again ‘peace,’ even in unpeaceful times. No more dead. And never again war!”
Indeed, as students had urged during the strike that May, the ROTC program at Pratt would end the following year, soon after the
Panther 21 were acquitted. Though it would take two and a half more years for the US to leave Vietnam, Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords and the draft program ceased, in January 1973. But the work would continue.
Even on the one-year anniversary of the events of May 1970, The Prattler warned of the onset of “apathy,” compelling students on the eve of another moratorium, “If you care about stopping the war, about ending the killings, about ending racism and oppression, observe it.” And as recent years have painfully illuminated, injustices and conflict endure, with critique of the institutions and systems that abide these ills remaining important as ever, and students—particularly students of creative and critical practices, students at Pratt, with its history of civic engagement—are uniquely poised to activate these conversations.
“We’re having all kinds of discussions now here at Pratt, which is healthy,” says Professor Theo David. “I say, this reminds me of the kinds of discussions we were having back in 1969, ’70 . . . they were just framed in a different way. We didn’t resolve everything . . . I’m glad all of this is being revisited. I’m hoping, because we’re having similar discussions today, that we will evolve into an even better place—through not so much revolution, but evolution—where the realization of very basic rights for all brings us into a more promising future.”