In commemoration of the 1970 “May Day” protests in New Haven, three Yale alumni who witnessed the events discussed their new book before an audience of former protesters, students and National Guardsmen at the New Haven Museum Tuesday evening.
Photographers John Hill ART ’60 and Thomas Strong ART ’67, along with author Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57 discussed their experience documenting the event. Chauncey was, at the time of the protests, assistant to then-University President Kingman Brewster ’41. In addition to talking about their newly released book — “May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections: The Trial of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers” — Chauncey lamented the decline of outrage and protest on campuses across the nation today.
The May Day protests were in response to the trials of several members of the Black Panther Party for the 1969 murder of Alex Rackley, a member of the Black Panthers suspected of being a police informant. During the trials, tens of thousands of protesters — including Yale students — gathered in New Haven.
In the wake of an earlier protest in April at Harvard that hospitalized over 200 people, and threats from demonstrators to destroy Yale and New Haven, tension and outrage were high in the lead-up to the protest. Barabara Oliver, a New Haven resident at the time, echoed the fear building up in the community before May Day. “You can’t imagine the rumors of what was going to happen in New Haven,” she said. “[People said] ‘Do what you can and get out of there.’”
On May 1, 1970, 15,000 people filled the New Haven Green, under on-looking armed National Guardsmen, in what resulted to be a largely peaceful and non-violent protest. But that same day, two bombs exploded in Ingalls Rink during a concert that was part of the protests. No one was injured.
Since the protests, Chauncey has been credited with helping to prevent tensions from escalating further.
During the protests, University President Kingman Brewster suspended academic expectations for students, and Yale opened its gates — most notably Phelps Gate — to those protesting the trials. Yale coordinated sleeping arrangements and provided food to the protestors in residential college courtyards
David Pilot, a community member in attendance at the event aiming to make a documentary about the protests, applauded Yale’s involvement in the protest because of the way it unified the University and New Haven.
“It was a moment that brought the Yale community together with the New Haven community, and that’s a powerful thing,” said Pilot, a local high school student at the time of the events.
On Tuesday, Chauncey described this period of the late 1960s and early 1970s as not simply an anti-war period in response to the Vietnam War, but a time of complete civil unrest.
“I choose to call it the period of challenge to authority, the period in which young people were challenging the establishment, the people who were in charge of governments, of business, of academia, and said we need to have a change,” he said.
But that desire to challenge authority has since dissipated, Chauncey said.
“We need more outrage among young people,” Chauncey added. “Because today’s radical ideas might as well be tomorrow’s gospel.”