On May 8, 1972, President Richard Nixon orders the mining of major North Vietnamese ports without consulting Congress.
The news spreads quickly in and around the Mankato State College campus. Thousands of students descend on campus, converging in the student union to begin plans.
Two years before, the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four unarmed students, wounding nine others, during a protest against the American invasion of Cambodia at Kent State University.
The event unified and mobilized groups of anti-war protesters nationwide, including at Mankato State, which had been alive with mostly peaceable marches, sit-ins and demonstrations in the two years since.
Tomorrow would be different.
Mark Halverson and Scott Hagebak, both Mankato State students at the time, said almost everyone knew someone who had died or been wounded in Vietnam. And there was a great fear Nixon’s orders May 8 would escalate an already devastating war with thoughts the Chinese would get involved. The news created a crescendo of emotion, including, at the heart, anger and fear.
“That night, as soon as that happened, people converged on the student union from all over town,” Hagebak said.
The college allowed the students to sleep in the union after forming a plan for the next day’s demonstration — the largest and most controversial since the protesting had begun years before.
“The demonstrations up to that point had been down to the post office and back, and I think there was a real feeling that nobody noticed,” Hagebak said. “The decision was made that night that we wanted to make the city of Mankato stop and consider.
“... (There are) lots of different feelings of what happened that day. But there came out of the group that night a discussion that we want to let Mankato know that we’re not out to just create havoc, but we’re committed to what we’re doing.”
A polarizing war
Halverson started at Mankato State in 1969, deciding college was the lesser of two evils compared to the possibility of being drafted and going to war. Hagebak attended from ’67-’69 and again from ’71-’74.
Halverson remembers, even during his high school years in St. Peter, the war was dividing the population.
“By the time I was out of high school in May of ’69, the Vietnam situation had already deteriorated to where half the country opposed the war,” Halverson said.
By the spring of 1972, tension was at an all-time high, and the Mankato community was growing tired of near constant public demonstrations, said Steve Davis, a Mankato police officer in the early 1970s.
One incident involved a student strike day in the student union when liquid tear gas was dumped into a stairwell, forcing an evacuation, according to an account written by David Phelps in the book “Out of Chaos,” published in 2006 by former Mankato State President James Nickerson about the unrest in Mankato. Phelps, a reporter at the Star Tribune, was editor of the student newspaper, the Reporter, in ’72.
During the warmer months, there were weekly demonstrations, including marches downtown. In the classroom, some professors used class time to plan demonstrations. Many others incorporated Vietnam into their class curriculum.
At one point, almost daily bomb threats occurred on campus. Nickerson decided he couldn’t keep evacuating the buildings, so he left it up to the professors and students as to whether they wanted to leave. Some criticized him, saying he was risking people’s lives. But retired philosophy professor Ron Yezzi, Hagebak and Halverson said the threats were so frequent, Nickerson did the right thing.
At one point there had been a bomb threat against the post office, which was evacuated and thoroughly searched, Hagebak said. A cardboard box was found and inside was an alarm clock and a piece of a broomstick painted to look like a stick of dynamite, said Bob Williams of rural Mankato, who was the maintenance supervisor at the post office. A note said the package was an apathetic bomb meant for the apathetic people of Mankato.
“The post office was kind of the focal point for a long time,” Hagebak said. “(The students) had to march somewhere. ... For years, we marched down the hill, stood on the steps of the post office, had our say, and then marched back up the hill.”
In the spring of ’72, students occupied the post office, too, encouraged by visiting professor and activist Mitchell Goodman to go up to the second floor Selective Service office, which was closed. Williams was there, attempting to lock the entry to the upstairs.
“They broke through that and broke through two steel doors on the second floor,” Williams said.
Students filled the lobby, the second floor and the roof of the post office.
“This one professor from the college, Goodman, was on the second floor giving a speech. But he had gotten word that they were going to start arresting people, and he chickened out. He left. But the rest of the students stayed there,” Williams said. “I caught a bunch of them out there urinating on the roof and hanging their legs off the roof. A couple of kids were sticking matchsticks into the door locks of the other offices. I said, ‘What did those people do to you?’”
The tumultuous climate on campus reached a point that Nickerson had a choice to make, according to a Free Press interview in 2006. He could have called in the National Guard just like officials did at Kent State. The governor, Nickerson said, was ready to send troops to Mankato.
Nickerson examined the situation, knowing tension was increasing between students and the community, which was losing patience with the constant commotion. No one had been hurt, nor arrested up to that point. And he feared the National Guard would change that.
“These were our kids. They were not criminals,” he told The Free Press in ’06. “They just wanted to talk. They wanted to talk to the town.”
May 9, 1972
The night of May 8, 1972, it was decided a group of 3,000 students (by some accounts 5,000 to 7,000) and other protesters would split into three groups, Hagebak said. One would stand at Front and Main streets, closing off access to the Main Street bridge. Another would block access to the North Star Bridge by West High School, which prevented motorists from crossing the river. The third group would shut down Highway 169 in North Mankato at Webster, blocking traffic on the highway.
The plan was to bring Mankato to a complete standstill, Hagebak said.
The Highway 14 bridge didn’t exist at the time. So occupying the three locations would prevent access into and out of Mankato.
Tensions between the community and anti-war protesters were at an all-time high with some threatening retaliation against the students and especially Goodman, who was seen as pushing the envelope too far, according to Phelps.
The morning began with the discovery of a bomb blast that had gone off at the Law Enforcement Center on Front Street, which was under construction and unoccupied. About 30 sticks of dynamite had blown out a wall and caused $300,000 in damage. (The person responsible was never found, although Halverson said rumors indicated he or she was not a student involved in the anti-war movement.)
Davis, who lived nearby on West Liberty Street, was woken up by the blast. He spent the rest of the night holding his rifle in his second-floor apartment, watching out of the window.
The bomb scared Mankato Police Chief Charles Alexander, Davis said. Law enforcement was put on high alert. And even though they knew about the plans for that day’s demonstration, Davis said, Alexander made the decision not call in the National Guard.
“We didn’t want any more police around these kids than absolutely was necessary. ... The chief and the police officers, too, we had a mission not to accelerate things, not to make things worse than they were and keep the kids calm and not give them anything to hang their hat on,” Davis said. “At the same time we had a citizenry who had just about had enough of this stuff.”
The movement began at noon with a rallying cry by Goodman on the upper campus mall. Nickerson also spoke, promoting peace by saying, according to Phelps’ account, “I pray we don’t meet brutal violence abroad with brutal violence at home.”
The thousands marched down the hill at 1 p.m. They planned to occupy until 6 p.m., meaning the traffic coming through early afternoon — before law enforcement could mobilize and begin rerouting traffic in St. Peter and other areas — was trapped.
People in each of the three locations had walkie-talkies to communicate back and forth. They realized shortly after taking positions their plan had worked.
“It really brought Mankato to a stop,” Hagebak said.
According to news reports, hundreds of motorists were affected — semis carrying goods for delivery, families with groceries wanting to get home and start dinner, travelers making their way through the area.
“Things really started to heat up as the town was struggling with how to handle this,” Hagebak said. “The highway was backed up for miles and miles in all directions. We had crossed into another county, so we had other kinds of law enforcement involved and people were ready to dig their heels in on both sides.”
Hagebak was at Front and Main, and on the Mankato side, he said, the situation remained peaceful. Although Hagebak does remember seeing a concrete truck with a driver who was determined to creep through the crowd to keep the concrete from hardening.
“Someone laid down in front of (the truck), and people pulled him out at the last moment and the truck rolled through,” Hagebak said.
Davis was stationed at Second and Main streets, less than a block away from hundreds of protesters. Mainly he tried to direct traffic around the protest site. He also talked down a car full of “big, beefy construction workers” with baseball bats who wanted to go in and “kick some butt.”
Davis admits he was nervous watching as the protest progressed.
“They were climbing light poles, and they were chanting and doing all these things,” he said, adding that some were starting small fires. “Alexander, he was in a pickle because, on one hand, he couldn’t let these demonstrators keep setting fires in Mankato. But if you use force against that kind of a crowd, the first thing you have to understand is you’re outnumbered, and any good movement could use a few martyrs.”
If the demonstration were to erupt into violence, Davis said the chief gave him one direction: “Do the best you can.”
A ticking clock
On the Nicollet County side on Highway 169, students — including Halverson, student body president Larry Spencer, and a leader among the protesters, Zeke Smith — were dealing with State Patrol and Nicollet County Sheriff George Witty for the first time, who was not as patient as Alexander had always been, Halverson said.
Halverson remembers the irony of the situation. He had grown up as Witty’s neighbor in St. Peter. Now they seemed on opposite sides of a battlefield.
“It was (like) coming full circle. Here I am face to face with this guy I’ve been sort of friends with my whole life,” he said.
A large group of demonstrators were faced with officers in full riot gear. Highway patrol cars were parked side by side.
“That’s where the Nicollet County Sheriff drew their line,” Halverson said.
At 3 p.m., the State Patrol called Nickerson to the scene, saying he had 15 minutes to get the students to clear out, or they would be moved forcibly. Nickerson pleaded for the students to leave. Witty said the deadline was 5:20 p.m., but the students were insisting on 6 p.m., Halverson said.
In Nickerson’s final plea, according to Phelps’ account in “Out of Chaos,” he said, “I’m sorry it’s working out this way. Take care of yourselves, kids. And God bless you.”
“For me, I must admit this was one of the most lonely and isolated moments of my life,” Nickerson told the Reporter in 2006. “With friends who wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to me or who were not ready to assume their usual responsibility of leadership, I reluctantly gave up and returned to the cluster of officers, knowing what I was sure would happen as force was applied to remove the crowd.”
At the deadline, officers attempted to use fake tear gas. When that didn’t work, they used the real thing. Some students responded by throwing cans and rocks. Others jumped on the hoods of vehicles that had started to creep forward. Eventually, the tear gas caused the crowd to disperse.
“That was an example of the difference between law enforcement on this side of the river and on the other side of the river,” Halverson said.
“They’d decided they’d had enough,” Hagebak said.
Goodman made his first appearance at the roadblock at 5:40 p.m., telling the crowd to retreat and regroup at Front and Main streets. By 6 p.m., traffic was flowing again on Highway 169.
“I think we all did an excellent job of containing that,” Davis said. “Any one of us — the chief, the captains, the foot soldiers — anybody could have set that thing off. (We were) right on the edge of doing just that.”
All three groups of protesters reconvened at 6 p.m. and began their march back up Val Imm to campus at about 7 p.m.
Mankato State staff had a meal waiting in the student union for the thousands of protesters when they returned to campus. Many reflected on the day and have continued to reflect over the past 40 years.
May 9, 1972, thankfully didn’t turn into a Kent State situation, Hagebak and Halverson said. Only a few injuries were reported and no arrests were made, although both Hagebak and Halverson agree they would have been willing to pay that price to put forth their message.
“Everyone did this with at least some acceptance that it could happen,” Halverson said.
Among the thousands that day, there were numerous reasons people had for being there, Hagebak said. Some just wanted to watch. Many on the Mankato side created a party atmosphere with alcohol and music.
“But there was a fairly sizable group that I think was very committed to what they were doing,” Hagebak said.
The Silent March
One more major act of vandalism took place overnight. Someone broke into the motor pool of the Mankato Army Reserve unit at the intersection of Highways 60 and 169, and unknown intruders placed dynamite under the hoods of two 5-ton trucks, Davis said. Only one exploded, damaging several vehicles and sending the hood on the roof of the reserve building.
After the chaos of May 9, many students wanted to demonstrate the next day more peacefully, Hagebak said — against the urging of Goodman to keep up the momentum of the previous day.
Political science professor Abbas Kessel, who promoted peace at the demonstrations, and other faculty encouraged the students to show the community they cared about the war and not the violence, Hagebak said.
Beginning on campus, 5,000 students marched two by two down Val Imm, through downtown, up the hill to Madison Avenue, to Victory Drive and back to campus. The whole way, they marched in silence, and those who spoke or laughed were chastised until they quieted, Hagebak said. (Some broke off and attempted to block traffic, although they didn’t succeed.)
“This was supposed to be solemn, almost like a funeral march,” Hagebak said. “At one point, I was standing on the corner of Front and Madison, and the line at the very back had not come around the corner down at Front and Main yet, and the line at the top was over the top of the hill where I couldn’t see it.”
The Silent March on May 10 received almost no coverage, while the previous day’s events had made national news, Halverson and Hagebak said. But both demonstrations were equally meaningful to them.
“I look at it as a joint event,” Hagebak said. “I was pleased that the decision was made to do something of a very peaceful nature the next day. I know, on the bridge incident, the level of frustration was just sky high.”
“This might have been the shining moment of our generation in the whole scheme of things,” Halverson said, reflecting on both days.
The point, they said, was to be heard by the community and to get media attention to spread the anti-war message, joining a larger choir of voices nationwide. In that way, they said, they succeeded.
“I don’t know how much we changed minds locally,” Hagebak said. “I do know there was a discussion around every dinner table that night.”
With a diminished reputation, Phelps said, Goodman left campus that spring. Smaller demonstrations continued at Mankato State for a while, Hagebak said, but never to the same degree.
In January 1973, Nixon announced an agreement had been reached that would end the war. The draft ended, and most of the demonstrations on campus ended with it. The same year, Nickerson resigned as president.
“At that point you couldn’t get 50 people together,” Hagebak said. “The cause was done.”
Since Vietnam, there hasn’t been a cause that has unified so many people nationwide in protest, including in Mankato. Hagebak said it’s because so many aspects of Vietnam were personal to people for so many years, from fear of the draft to lost lives of friends and family.
“There was a real strong feeling that this war was unjust,” Hagebak said. “All of us knew people who didn’t come back. So it really became a situation where you were protesting to stop a war, you’re protesting to try and save your friends, to save yourself. And there was a real personal aspect to it.”