January 29, 1970: Hayakawa Protest Prompts Police Attacks

“Time it was, and what a time it was …”

                                                                                    — Paul Simon, “Old Friends”

            Looking back, it was a period justly recalled as a time of protest, motivated by parallel lines of dissent that met, one in support for civil rights, the other in ending the Vietnam War. Even the soundtrack of the period composed and voiced by, to name just a small sampling, Baez, Cooke, Dylan, Gaye, Lennon and Simon, reinforced those themes.

At the time it was said, unfairly, that Northeastern students were apathetic to the issues and concerns animating demonstrations on other campuses. In those years, Harvard and Boston University students got attention for occupying buildings. And it seemed out of character when 800 Harvard students confronted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara after he refused to debate a Vietnam critic. Along with Vietnam, students were demanding more direct recognition for courses on Black history, culture and literature.

But, aside from opposition to recruiting events by General Electric and Dow Chemical, Northeastern was largely devoid of major protests for a time, its campus populated by students intent on landing co-op jobs that would advance their careers.

If the Northeastern student body was deemed apathetic, if, indeed, that perception was ever valid, it was dispelled on the Thursday night of January 29, 1970.

On that January night, 3,000 students gathered outside the Carl S. Ell Student Center building to protest a speech by Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, president of San Francisco State University, who became a lightning rod for the left after he ripped wires from a sound truck during an anti-Vietnam rally just a week after being named the university’s president.

As reported by Northeastern News reporters Lenny Gamache, Bill Ashforth and Jay Colen in a special edition of the News published just days after the Hayakawa riot, the protest actually involved two separate events. The first was precipitated by some students who threw rocks, billiard balls and bricks at the building, in some cases hitting hired, off-duty members of the Boston police, who then charged the crowd, injuring students.

Meanwhile, inside the hall, Hayakawa spoke to about 1,400 persons attending the event hosted by the Distinguished Speaker Series. 

After Dr. Hayakawa’s speech concluded, there was a second wave in the quad which witnesses described as being unprovoked, leading to more students being injured. Their account also described a plainclothes officer being pulled to the ground, beaten and kicked by a few demonstrators.

In all, the News reported that 31 arrests were made that night, with estimated damages to Northeastern property of about $5,000.        

The next morning, the Northeastern News was distributed on campus. But as a weekly, the paper was being printed as the riots were taking place, so that morning’s paper lacked any coverage of Hayakawa’s speech and its aftermath.

News Advisor Harvey Vetstein unhesitatingly approved the editors’ request to produce a special edition over the weekend. As a professor in the English Department, Vetstein developed Northeastern’s first African-American Literature courses.

The News office immediately became a center for students to describe firsthand accounts of what they saw and what had happened to them during the event, which were printed as depositions inside the paper. Along with the students’ accounts, the special edition provided extensive follow-up coverage and interviews, including a statement by Northeastern President Asa S. Knowles saying aggrieved students could receive legal aid on campus. 

At Northeastern, graduation still took place, but many students wore arm bands and other anti-Vietnam symbols on their caps and gowns to show their support.