Sunday, October 30, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: Flashing Back to UNM Protests

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 30, 2011

I was following on Twitter last week’s confrontation between police and (Un)Occupy Albuquerque protesters when, shortly after midnight Wednesday, I got a first-hand report from Yale Park from my son, a student at The University of New Mexico.

Even though some of the protesters had already been arrested, he was in good spirits. I think that he just wanted to let me know that he was there. And that he was safe.

Clearing Yale Park early Wednesday
I remember making a similar call to my mother from UNM nearly 40 years ago. Except I was far more scared. This was back during the Vietnam War protests in 1972. I’d just seen a police officer open fire on a small group of protesters near Yale Park. My buddy Frank, who’d been right beside me, was hit in the arm with birdshot.

I’d called my mom just to let her know I was OK — even though that shooting hadn’t been on the news — neither Frank nor the others who caught some birdshot were seriously injured — and she probably didn’t start worrying until I called.

Last week’s Yale Park situation brought back a lot of memories of those freshman-year anti-war protests. President Nixon’s May 8, 1972, announcement that he was mining North Vietnamese harbors sparked protests on campuses all over the country. It would be the last of the great anti-Vietnam war protests in these parts.

I hate to sound like a cranky old goat saying, “You think you kids got it rough, well, in my day ...”

But I’m going to anyway.

Compared with those 1972 protests, the police handling of the (Un)Occupy situation at UNM on Wednesday morning was downright friendly.

That’s little comfort, of course, to anyone who experienced the bitter taste of teargas last week. But back in ’72, police helicopters dropped teargas on demonstrators — and bystanders — all over campus during a week of protests.

Even worse, the day before my friend was shot, a reporter from the Daily Lobo was seriously injured when a police officer shot her in the chest and stomach. This was right after police used teargas to clear Interstate 25 near Central Avenue of protesters who were blocking the highway. (The reporter was hospitalized, but she lived.) This occurred on a street off Central while hundreds of students, including me, were fleeing.

One big difference between then and now is that current UNM President David Schmidly is the one who ordered the clearing of “Coyote Camp” at Yale Park. Back in ’72, UNM’s president stood with the protesters.

Dr. Heady
On the day after my friend was shot at Yale Park, Albuquerque police declared an 11 p.m. curfew and threatened to move in and arrest anyone who defied it. Naturally, hundreds, maybe thousands of protesters gathered at the UNM mall in defiance. The crowd probably was at least twice the size it would have been had that gauntlet not been thrown.

I was almost certain that we would all be gassed, perhaps clubbed and probably arrested. But shortly before 11, university President Ferrel Heady, who initially had ordered the curfew, appeared and made an announcement: “If they’re going to arrest you, they’ll have to arrest me, too.” He was cheered and no police action occurred that night. Just about all the protesters left within the hour.

I don’t think there was any way Schmidly would have stood with his students the way that Heady stood with us.

But I can’t help but think how this week’s confrontation could have been avoided had Schmidly just extended (Un)Occupy’s permit for Yale Park and not created the deadline to leave, which, just like in 1972, served mainly to swell the crowd size.

With the coming winter, the Yale Park campout — if not the Occupy movement itself — was bound to end soon anyway. Extending the permit could have saved some teargas, jail cell space, police overtime and a lot of hard feelings.

For a description of the 1972 UNM demonstrations and Heady's role in managing the crisis click HERE and scroll down.