Armed and alarmed
Chico State University students who staged a 1970s sit-in over gun-toting campus cops reflect on the times
Thirty years ago (Dec. 3, 1975) several hundred students attended the last in a series of noon rallies held that autumn at the Free Speech Area in front of the Chico State University administration building to protest an executive order by Glenn Dumke, chancellor of the California State University system, that armed campus police systemwide with handguns.
As the meeting wore on, speakers made clear they believed campus cops at Chico State, a rural campus, didn’t need guns; if serious trouble erupted, the city police could be called in. The chancellor should heed their call for local control and reverse his action. Speakers said their petitions apparently had fallen on deaf ears. Then someone called out for more decisive action: occupy the president’s office and the administration building. Several of the group started walking the short distance to the front entrance, and more than 300 others followed.
Stanford Cazier, president of Chico State, was out of town. Those occupying his office left the next day when he returned because police threatened them with arrest for disrupting school operations, and a SWAT team waited outside to enforce the threat.
The occupying group remained in the building day and night until Christmas vacation, then resumed the vigil when the new term started in January. Police and deputy sheriffs arrested and carried out 35 activists shortly after midnight on Feb. 3. All were charged with trespassing but soon released, some with small fines but all without jail time. A few diehards returned to sit in the building during the daytime for some six weeks, but confrontation essentially ended with the arrests. Except for minor scuffling and shoving incidents, no violence marred the two-month action.
Such are the basic facts of a prolonged and multi-faceted event, a protest that marks the most overt and assertive student action in the history of the university. Comments from four students directly involved—plus various press accounts—add some additional detail to what is a complex story and address the question: could some current major issue trigger another such demonstration today?
One of the meeting organizers and protest leaders (see photos). Today he is weekend morning news producer for Channel 5 (KPIX) in San Francisco.
Campus officials couldn’t close the administration building because it housed the campus police and was thus a public building open 24 hours seven days a week. We received legal advice from some professors (Ed Bronson, a political science professor and constitutional law attorney, is mentioned in press coverage) that we could stay because we weren’t doing anything illegal. We lined the halls, leaving room for people to pass, and slept in sleeping bags. We weren’t disruptive and didn’t pose a safety hazard.
President Cazier agreed to an advisory referendum vote on the issue, and it carried overwhelmingly in favor of disarming the campus cops. More than 4,000 students took part in what was said to be the biggest turnout ever for a student vote.
As Christmas vacation neared, we made up a schedule to ensure that over the holiday break there would always be at least one person in the building to maintain a presence and keep the vigil intact.
With the end of the break, 50 or more protesters were present at any given time. There were people in shifts to replace those who needed to go to class. We heard about the arrest plans and so we took a vote to see who would wait outside to cheer those who chose to be arrested inside. I waited outside because I didn’t want a police record.
(What reportedly broke Cazier’s already frazzled patience was a string of “creative harassment” phone calls by a few activists to him and other administrators in the middle of the night.)
Looking back, the protest was a success because we wanted to make a point and did so. If you think something is wrong, speak out and let your voice be heard. Voting is one way to do that, and it’s a shame more people don’t vote.
Today I would expect the campuses to explode over any draft for the Iraq War. Also, I would expect some protests over the fee increases—possibly even demonstrations of considerable size—but not the size of the large protests of 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not sure people are as committed to ideals as they once were. In any big protest today, the internet would no doubt play a key role in getting the message out.
Student president. Although not one of the sit-in group, he listened carefully to them, won respect, and became one of three students elected by the activists to visit Chancellor Dumke in Long Beach in an ill-fated attempt to persuade him to reverse his order. Today he operates his own entrepreneurial, business advocacy and consulting firm.
At the chancellor’s behest we formed a campus firearms committee—I served on it—in the late spring of 1975 to come up with a firearms policy. We met through the summer and were ready with a policy of no guns for our officers when the chancellor undercut us with his executive order. It made the students angry that he patronized us in this way.
I wrote an executive memo that the campus police could not wear guns in the Bell Memorial Union (BMU), which is owned by the Associated Students and is an autonomous auxiliary organization. The order was respected.
Also, Officer Mike Storm (a Chico State officer) was dry-firing his newly acquired sidearm when the “unloaded” gun went off and sent a bullet through his desk. Terrible timing for such a gaff.
I’m not sure what could trigger a mass protest today, but on a personal level those 141 days provided me with an invaluable, life-altering experience that has been of great value to my career.
An activist also elected to exhort the chancellor. He would become a Chico City Council member for eight years, including a stint as mayor. Today he’s manager for a Redding-based self-help home improvement project for affordable housing.
I think I was elected because I argued passionately that instead of going to Long Beach, our strategy should be to stand firm and make the officials come to us. I was right. We were ushered into a big conference room with a long table. The chancellor and 15 suits came in, and we were out of there in an hour with zilch.
The protest broke down into two parts: the event itself and its management by the university. It was a hot, local control issue that was really not that vital. If it took place today, the protesters wouldn’t stay two months, nor would they be allowed to stay. It’s astounding now that they let us stay that long. (The president of Sonoma State used trespassing charge to quickly break up a sympathy sit-in at that campus.) The event was very encouraging because of the way the activists came together, giving up their time and security.
The anti-Vietnam War spirit was still there in 1975 (the war ended in 1974). I don’t have a sense that a big fee increase would be the kind of issue that might trigger civil disobedience. You’d need quite a spark for people to take that extra step. A draft for the Iraq War might do it.
One among the group that took over the president’s office, she was the third activist sent on the trip to see the chancellor. She was active in student politics and had campaigned for Linscheid’s opponent. Today Pierce is manager of the Boys and Girls Club of Chico.
One vivid memory of the event was a guy nicknamed “Boo” who prepared hot food the whole time for the students on a camp kitchen setup outside the administration building (the arched, sheltered portico).
It’s hard to say what might cause a strike reaction today. What we did came at the end of the Vietnam War, and we were feeling a sense of empowerment that also covered civil rights and women’s rights. It all played into a mood. Our action was a moment in time when it all came together. A draft for the war in Iraq might generate that surge of passion and campus-wide interest that I remember.
It was all about something that seemed within our community of control, and we decided to do something about it. The big thing we learned was the importance of active participation. There was this marvelous exchange of energy and passion among people who felt in their hearts they could make a difference.