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Students graduating again with a real-life history lesson

Ken Light, Reva & David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at Berkeley Journalism | May 19, 2020

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The cancellation of university classes and postponement of commencements the nation is experiencing is not without precedent. For many of my generation, that time and that moment, May 4, 1970 — 50 years ago this month — is forever embedded in our cultural memory. Now the class of 2020 in grade, high schools and universities — a new and different generation, to be sure — will have a memory so rooted to and impacted by this time of coronavirus pandemic with actions synonymously far-reaching, yet different in many ways.

Fifty years ago, then-President Richard Nixon announced “several thousand ground combat troops had entered Cambodia.” The secret war in Cambodia meant to try and stop North Vietnamese soldiers and weapons moving inside Cambodia, a neutral country, along the Ho Chi Minh trail. When Nixon spoke on television, America’s campuses exploded with indignation. ROTC buildings were firebombed; windows were broken at some schools. Students gathered in large numbers often spilling into the streets and lighting bonfires, bringing out the local police, whose only tactics were to beat heads, or throw tear gas. An estimated 4,000 students hit the streets in Columbus, Ohio, the next few days. College campuses across the nation exploded into violence.

I hitchhiked up to Columbus. The Republican governor there had ordered the Ohio National guard deployed to restore order on campus. I had my 35mm camera and a 50mm lens, some Tri-X film, my press pass from the Ohio University school newspaper, and a gas mask. Reaching the campus, I found the became incensed with the idea of bayoneted soldiers on their campus and mayhem ensued. The young guardsmen were overwhelmed, and before long they and the Ohio Highway Patrol shot tear gas at us, ordering us to disperse.

The acrid smell of tear gas permeated the campus. Students walking out of class were caught in the melee; many became radicalized and threw back the tear gas canisters at the police and National Guard. I was able to photograph because I had a tear gas mask on, but it also created an easy target for the authorities. Soon I felt hands on both my shoulders and turned around to see two gas-masked Ohio Highway Patrol officers. They arrested me and handcuffed me. I protested, saying I was a journalist and “didn’t they see the press pass” that was pinned to my green army jacket. One of the officers grabbed it quickly, ripping if off and then tearing it up. He looked at me and said, “You are not a journalist anymore!”

I was booked, mugged and fingerprinted. My camera, film and gas mask were confiscated, and I wound up in a cell with hundreds of others. I had befriended the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, who bailed me out for $5,000. I was charged with inciting to riot, a felony with the possibility of three to five years in prison. As I left the cell, I was handed a paper bag with my camera and the few rolls of exposed film from that day. I returned to Athens, developed the film, made prints and sent the photos to Liberation News Service in New York City, which distributed photos to the underground press.

A few days after I made my photos, a similar scene engulfed the nation when the National Guard opened fire at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds and also wounded nine. I remember being transfixed to the TV in my dorm lounge filled with fellow students. We were outraged, shaken and scared. Students flooded the streets, demanding justice. This was an attack on our generation and radicalized thousands.

My images taken a week earlier of the same National Guardsmen, who had fired at Kent State, were published all over the world. I realized at that moment that photographs have an incredible power to reach sometimes a vast audiences while at the same time you can witness your world, and tell the story of things unseen by masses of people. It was an epiphany for a 19-year-old, and it changed my life.

A photographer had been born, and I haven’t stop taking pictures since. Over the past three decades, I have also taught photojournalism at UC Berkeley, the beating heart of student protest.

From my position as a university professor, I have witnessed the sadness in my students finding remote teaching lacking the quality and closeness the classroom provided now that university has been shuttered. They are upset they will have no graduation to commemorate and the world they prepared for and were about to enter is so transformed: internships canceled, celebrations postponed.

I feel their pain deeply.

I have told them my own story of 50 long years ago, when the nation faced a political crisis not unlike their own today; only then protesters were gassed, shot at and killed, universities closed, students were sent home, graduations for the class of 1970 were canceled throughout the nation. My students today intuit there are no easy solutions to this moment. They recognize that student concerns then are similar to those on their minds today. They are living history, as we were back in 1970. My students and I ponder whether in 50 years as they look back on this time and post on whatever will be the new social media how those living in 2070 will reconcile this time. Will the upheaval and reordering of society overshadow and supplant the turmoil and protests of the 1970s be so distant as to barely represent the historical precedent it is today?

This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Comments to “Students graduating again with a real-life history lesson

  1. I graduated from this program in 2017 and, while I personally like Ken, the Berkeley Journal-ism School was nothing more than radical left-wing political advocacy masquerading as journalism. The quality of teaching was mostly awful and critical though was punished. Berkeley is not the “beating heart of student protest” so much as the epicenter of intolerant, often violent leftists repressing independent thought. That to me is the political crisis in this country.

    The young radicals and old money socialist activists, donors, students, faculty, and above all administrators give the school – which has thousands of amazing faculty and students – a bad name. They’ve made what has historically been the finest public university on the planet into an international laughingstock.

  2. Thank you for the nostalgia trip Prof. Light, it stirred up some of my memories of life at and after Berkeley in the 60s, including the Free Speech Movement and Women’s Rights Movement. First, the most important event that Berkeley made possible in my life was meeting my future wife as a classmate at Berkeley. We were both Coop house managers (Stebbins and Kidd Hall) so I guess it might be considered destiny that we married shortly after graduation, although my wife will probably disagree.

    Now as I wipe the memory tears away, I also remember the day we returned after graduation for a classmate’s wedding, the day that Reagan decided to drop tear gas near Sather Gate, where he also posted the National Guard with fixed bayonets down Telegraph Ave. That memory is truly unforgettable, and it really did bring tears to my eyes, something I never expected because I was a veteran who had experienced tear gas before.

    Since then, my wife and I have experienced some of the best opportunities and life experiences together as good as anyone in history could have enjoyed. However, what I most deeply regret today is the fact that the Greatest Generation legacy that we enjoyed will apparently not be passed on to our newest generations, which I believe to be the greatest failure of my generation.

    I graduated and retired as an engineer, and have since spent 20 years learning social sciences because I am constantly wondering why things just keep going wronger and wronger with our social, political, environmental and economic systems. Unfortunately, lifelong learning has resulted in learning far more than I really wanted to know about the fallibility of the human brain, the male amygdala being one of our most destructive body parts. And our inability to think about the future more seriously, a failure mode extremely well documented by our own CALIFORNIA Magazine 2006 “Global Warning” special issue mainly produced by Berkeley journalism, with the cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?” The saddest reality check is the fact that this issue was one of the best and most important issues ever produced and in this increasingly out of control age of Global Warming, now plus pandemics, we still fail to heed and act upon the warnings in this issue.

    I could go on and on ad nauseam so I shall ramp it down with one of the most important lessons in history that Will and Ariel Durant studied and documented for over 40 years, which describe our worst case scenario failure mode:
    “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” The way things are going wrong, increasingly out of control with pandemics and global warming today, this could well be our epitaph.

    Thus a most important fact of life today is that academics, especially including scientists who can produce solutions we must implement today, are our last resort because politicians have failed to meet far too many challenges of change for far too long.
    In conclusion, we desperately need for academics to unite and do for the public what you do with excellence for your students – communicate, educate and motivate us, unite with us and fight beside us for our survival when the COVID-19 epidemic threatens us in ways we haven’t completely understood yet, when climate changes are totally out of control worldwide because what we have been doing so far is not nearly enough to protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations.

  3. Berkeley May, 1970. The euphoria of the first Earth Day was dashed by Nixon’s bombing. Governor Reagan was meticulous in closing campus disallowing gathering in groups. Our Professor’s weekly group meeting violated the rule. Tear gas drifted over the campus. The most poignant event was the gathering of thousands on Sproul Plaza in a silent vigil. DGMorrell, College of Chemistry ’69 to “73.

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