Connecticut

Avoiding Armageddon: How the 1970 Riots in New Haven Never Happened

Everyone thought riots in New Haven would break out on May 1, 1970.

But they didn’t. The reasons include unorthodox policing, black community leadership, Yale’s decision to welcome visiting radicals and the efforts of a future Baltimore mayor.

May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections. The Trial of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, by Henry ‘Sam’ Chauncey, tells the story.

At the time, he served as assistant to Yale President Kingman Brewster.

Photo of New Haven Green, from May Day at Yale, 1970.

Photo of New Haven Green, from May Day at Yale, 1970.

May Day that year came four days before National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State. The New Haven murder trials of nine Black Panthers were imminent. Fifteen days earlier, violence broke out in Harvard Square, where a crowd grew to 3,000 as police tear-gassed and clubbed people who looted, threw rocks and set fire to buildings and police cruisers.

Tens of thousands of protesters, led by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg and the Weathermen, were headed to New Haven. After the violence at Harvard, Hoffman vowed New Haven would burn.

But New Haven did not burn. Chauncey, in an interview, explained:

The key was Yale’s decision, made in conjunction with police, to welcome the visiting radicals onto campus. Everyone else had tried to prevent radicals to keep them from getting onto the building, and it failed.

Police Brutality

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, co-founders of the Black Panthers

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, co-founders of the Black Panthers

The Black Panther Party was at its height in 1970, with 68 offices throughout the United States. It was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 to monitor police brutality and to fight police violence against African-Americans. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called them the greatest threat to America’s security. The FBI infiltrated, harassed, spied on and set up Black Panther members, ultimately discrediting the organization and causing its demise.

In May 1969, 19-year-old Alex Rackley was tortured in New Haven and murdered by several Black Panthers because he was believed to be an FBI informant. New Haven police found his body and arrested nine Black Panthers. Warren Kimbro and George Sams, Jr. confessed to the crime, implicating Bobby Seale, who had happened to be in New Haven at the time of the killing. His supporters believed he was framed.

The case became a cause celebre among the American left, and thousands came to the Elm City for the trial of the New Haven Nine.

Tinderbox

College campuses were exploding all over the country in 1970, fueled by anger against the Vietnam War and by other causes.

Abbie Hoffman, 1969

Abbie Hoffman, 1969

It was tough enough being a college administrator then even without a Black Panther trial in your neighborhood, recalled Chauncey, a descendant of Yale’s first graduate. He described the atmosphere as ‘extraordinarily volatile.’

“Every day was an adventure,” he said. “Either a radical student came into your office or you were surrounded by protesters on the way home.

“This was not just the antiwar period. This was a group of young people for the most part who felt they weren’t entitled to the American Dream…combined with the assassination of the three young leaders, it was a tinderbox.”

Photos, which liberally illustrate May Day at Yale, 1970, show banners and placards with messages to get out of Trinidad as well as Vietnam. They also said to free the Black Panthers and to stop killing animals.

Chauncey and Brewster met with Archibald Cox, then assistant to the president of Harvard, about what had gone wrong two weeks before in Cambridge. Cox said Harvard made a mistake when it tried to keep out the protesters by locking the campus gates.

He said, ‘Look Sam, when we tried it failed. Everybody’s failed. You got to think of something new.’ He thought of opening the campus instead of locking it down. It created a whole different atmosphere.

Three Squares

Kingman Brewster

Kingman Brewster

The administration invited protesters to sleep in Yale’s 12 residential colleges, and Yale’s dining halls fed them three meals a day. Teach-ins went on at the colleges. New Haven community organizations also housed and fed the visiting protesters.

At 3 a.m. on May 1, Yale administrators and the radicals struck a deal. Chauncey recalled what happened:

Kingman Brewster and I met with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Anne Froines, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Kunstler, who was a classmate of Kingman’s. We struck a deal. The deal was we would do everything in our power to keep the police and National Guard out of sight of the [New Haven] Green, to use as little tear gas as possible. They promised not to change their rhetoric, but to preach nonviolence. They could say ‘f-ing this and f-ing that, but today is not for violence.

It was a huge gamble, but it worked. For two days, protesters calmly assembled on the green to listen to speakers such as Benjamin Spock, Jean Genet, John Froines, Hoffman and Rubin. Plenty of other conversations went on at the same time, Chauncey said.

We convinced the radicals we were decent people, we would listen to them. We were talking nonstop, 12-14 hours a day. It was exhausting. …Black Yale students were talking to the New Haven black community, Yale alumni were talking to anyone they knew…

Talk is a wonderful thing as long as you’re honest. One of the rules that Brewster and I had, because we were talking to all kinds of different people, you had to say the same thing to all of them.

Toward midnight, a bomb exploded at Yale’s Ingalls Rink during a concert. Police didn’t find the culprit, but the bomb didn’t injure anyone.

New Haven grafitti, from May Day at Yale, 1970.

New Haven grafitti, from May Day at Yale, 1970, a day of no riots in New Haven.

No Riots in New Haven

Kurt Schmoke, secretary of the class of 1971, got credit for defusing tensions by representing students in discussions with the administration.  A divided faculty couldn’t decide whether to suspend classes. Schmoke spoke just a few words to them:

The students on this campus are confused, they’re frightened. They don’t know what to think. You are older than we are, and are more experienced. We want guidance from you, moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us.

Unlike many other colleges, Yale did not shut down that spring. Classes were ‘voluntarily optional.’ Students received ‘pass-fail’ grades.

No Riots in New Haven

Despite small outbreaks of violence, the Armageddon that everyone expected never came about. Said Chauncey, “Ninety percent of the radicals were passionate about the idea, the war, women’s rights, Bobby Seale, but they were not bad people.

“If you say to a person who is challenging you, say I like you, I respect you come into my house, I’ll give you three meals a day…It took the steam out of the anger, if not out of the cause.”

Kurt Schmoke, 1982

Kurt Schmoke, 1982

Kurt Schmoke later won election as Baltimore’s first African-American mayor. Three of the Black Panthers were convicted on lesser charges than first-degree murder. Seale’s trial ended with a hung jury and prosecutors did not seek a retrial.

Kingman Brewster kept his job until 1977 and his appointment as ambassador to Great Britain. Sam Chauncey founded Science Park Development Corporation. He then served as president and CEO of Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, and finally as lecturer and head of the Health Management Program in the Yale School of Public Health.

With thanks to May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections: The Trial of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers by Henry “Sam” Chauncey (Author), John T. Hill (Photographer), Thomas Strong (Photographer), Henry Louis Gates (Introduction). This story about riots in New Haven that didn’t happen was updated in 2020. 

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