Photo by Max Catalano
Cardboard signs littered the ground at their feet. Their voices combined as they chanted and sang, finding comfort in each other and their unified convictions as they challenged the university to hear their demands.
Though the chants and songs change with every protest, the spirit and determination of Ohio University students perseveres.
The narrative was similar on Feb. 1, when students occupied the fourth floor of Baker Center to demand that then-President Roderick McDavis make Ohio University a sanctuary campus. The noise from the protesters paused when campus police, local police and state troopers urged the standing crowd to move outside and told the tightly packed circle of sitting protesters to vacate the area or face arrest.
After a second warning, an officer approached the outer rim of the circle, hauled a student to their feet, and tied their hands behind their back with a zip tie, peeling off the layers of the group’s protective circle.
“Because we were facing in, you knew there were cops standing right behind you and you didn’t know when they were going to pick you. It was really scary, just waiting to be grabbed,” says one of the students arrested during the sit-in. She prefers to remain anonymous due to the publicity surrounding the trial.
Some protesters felt the decision to speak out and stay put was their civic duty, while others fought the urge to flee when the police appeared at the top of the escalators.
But they stayed. They sat. They resisted.
The protesters are known as the Bobcat 70. Although the group gained a large following after the event through social media, donation pages, additional rallies and coverage from news outlets, the hype surrounding the event is already fading, and it will eventually be remembered through old yearbooks, newspaper articles and photographs as the Bobcat 70 join the ranks of the Athens 9, the Athens 80 and the Athens 103.
Although details of past protests may be forgotten, civil disobedience is inherent to the history of the United States and dates all the way back to the country’s conception. Protests, rallies and acts of rebellion from students and faculty have also been used to enact change on a smaller, campus level. In the 1960s, the 1970s and again during the Gulf War in 1991, attending protests was as normal as attending class at Ohio.
Joining the Movement
Although students at Ohio worked for social change on campus during the 1960s, they also aided the 1964 Freedom Summer initiative in Mississippi and helped African Americans register to vote. Three Ohio students spent their summer aiding the initiative after attending a week long program at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio – which later merged with Miami University – to learn how to run voter registration drives.
Freedom Summer and its volunteers collected clothes and financial contributions to help individuals who were laid off after registering to vote. Volunteers helped with everything from letter writing campaigns to driving supplies to Mississippi, which could have resulted in arrest.
Other students went south with local ministry groups to encourage people to participate in local movements and help register people to vote. Some members of the group joined protesters to march the last 10 miles into Montgomery, Alabama, as part of the famous Selma protest led Martin Luther King Jr.
During that time, students at Ohio University held a vigil on campus to honor those who were marching in Selma. Nearly 400 people participated in the rally, which was held in the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium.
Then-President Vernon R. Alden, for whom the current library is named, wrote an open letter to The Post on April 7, 1965, in which he praised the students who marched in Alabama and those on campus who showed solidarity with the movement. Although he commended the students’ work and Ohio University’s effort to end “overt segregation,” he reminded them that they had “much yet to accomplish.”
Heeding those words, a committee of students within the Black Student Development Center sent Alden a list of demands, one of which was to create an African American Studies program.
President Alden and the senior administration officers listened to the suggestions and implemented the program in 1969. Though progress was slow, students continued to advocate for equality on Ohio’s campus.
Challenging the Curfew
The women’s suffrage movement secured women the right to vote and was a major step toward gender equality, but it was far from the last time women rallied for their rights. In the 1960s, women were excluded from many opportunities, such as the Ohio University Marching 110.
“The most important thing about being a college woman is being a lady,” reads Ohio University’s Women’s 1964-65 Stu dent Guidebook, which was 76 pages in length compared to the men’s 29-page booklet. The guide details the rules students must follow and the sanctions for breaking them.
As was customary of many universities at the time, Ohio University set a curfew for female students, commonly referred to as “Hours.” Freshmen women were expected to be in their residence halls by 10 p.m. every weeknight, gaining an extra half hour during sophomore
year and another half hour upon reaching senior status. All women were allowed to stay out until 12:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Every minute they were late after curfew counted against them, mounting toward punishment of a stricter curfew or a meeting with the disciplinary committee. If infractions continued, a woman could be suspended or expelled from the university.
It was customary for most universities to act as in loco parentis, or as stand-ins for a student’s parents. However, the students were not thrilled with the curfew policies.
On Jan. 22, 1971, 250 women broke the curfew and marched to then-President Claude Sowle’s house. They demanded that he listen to their demands and abolish the “Hours” rules. He stated that he couldn’t take immediate action, but was“in sympathy with their goals.”
Slowly, the regulations were rescinded due to the outcry from the student body, and the “Hours” regulations ended in 1972.
Resisting the Vietnam War
The administration was not always responsive to student demands, however. In fall 1969, students demanded that Ohio University honor the Vietnam War moratorium and cancel classes. In his first year in office, then-President Claude Sowle stated that he honored the student’s right to protest, but he could not make a public statement through the cancellation of classes.
His statement did not deter students or faculty. Teachers hung signs on the trees on College Green, displaying schedules of classes that they intended to hold on the lawn. Those teach-ins were used to educate students about the draft, events that were happening overseas and methods of dissent.
Students made T-shirts and signs to show their discontent, and they took their messages to College Green, the war memorial and the Memorial Auditorium, where they frequently hung banners. The protests were peaceful and many of the rallies consisted of bonfires, making music with trash cans and playing games that the students created.
The students worked amicably with the administration until eight women and a passerby who joined them were arrested for sitting in during a ROTC class on April 22, 1970. They were known as the Athens 9, and students grew more resistant to the ROTC’s presence on campus after Sowle stated that he wouldn’t drop the charges against the Athens 9.
Due to advocacy from the administration, the overall tension on campus was relatively low until May 4, 1970, when four students were shot and killed on Kent State University’s campus by members of the National Guard. Campuses across Ohio descended into chaos that caused many universities to close their doors for the rest of the spring semester. Sowle believed Ohio University could stay open, but the peace between the administration and students was beginning to break.
The administration instituted marshals comprised of students and faculty to stand duty around campus buildings at night to ensure that the protests remained nonviolent. The initiative began after the ROTC supply room in Peden was firebombed on May 7 by disgruntled students. Despite Sowle’s best efforts to keep the peace, the protesters grew more violent.
The night of May 11, Nelson Commons was firebombed. Firefighters worked for two hours to put out the fire that caused over $120,000 in damage. Meanwhile, other students smashed a window to get into Chubb Library, which was no longer in use as the university transitioned to Alden Library, after a rally in Grover Center. About 70 students demanded a “free university” where they were able to pursue whatever issues they wanted. After numerous attempts from faculty to move the protest to Baker Center, police entered the building and escorted the students out without force or arrest.
Throughout the following nights, police armed with riot gear and shotguns used pepper gas to break apart crowds that threw bricks and rocks at local establishments, breaking windows and damaging police cars.
The university remained open on a 24-hour basis. The administration feared for the students’ safety due to the rising violence and continued to work with the protesters prevent greater violence.
On May 14, police deployed tear gas in attempt to subdue the more than 1,000 protesters that had gathered on College Green. The tear gas dispersed large groups, but protesters would congregate again on other parts of campus, leaving a haze over most of the campus. Nearly half of the protesters stormed the intersection of Court and Union streets, where they threw rocks, chunks of brick and fire crackers at the police and local businesses.
For more than an hour, the students went back and forth with the police, tossing the tear gas canisters back toward the officers. Groups scattered and reformed at different locations, causing tear gas to cover campus in a thick fog.
Sowle talked to the students who were throwing rocks at Cutler Hall, and was later criticized for being too lenient with the students and not increasing campus security. Between May 13 and 14, 54 students were arrested. The morning of May 15, tear gas lingered like fog over a broken campus. The highways into town were blocked off, 26 were injured and 1,500 National Guardsmen had been ordered to campus. All of the local newspapers displayed the same headline: the university was closed.
Most of the campus was empty within 24 hours. The students’ grades at that time were their final grades and the university did not reopen until the summer.
During that time, the Ohio Legislature was working on House Bill 1219. The bill, which went into effect in September 1970, allowed universities to punish students and faculty who broke the enumerated clauses with suspension or immediate dismissal. Some of the trigger offenses listed under the bill included disrupting the functioning of the university, arson, intimidation of public officials and riots. It was used so frequently in Ohio that administrators began to use 1219 as a verb, though Sowle often attempted to exploit the bill’s loopholes to help students continue their education.
Protesters faced armed officials and administrations with nothing but cardboard signs as a shield from arrest, suspension and expulsion. Yet year after year, they continue to take a stand.
Facing arrest and the penalties of House Bill 1219, 80 students sat in Lindley Hall on May 10, 1972, further protesting the presence of the ROTC on campus.
On Jan. 18, 1991, approximately 400 people crowded the intersection of Court and Union streets to protest the Gulf War. One hundred and three people – students, faculty, and residents alike – were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for sitting in small circles, holding hands and refusing to vacate the area. Ten of the arrests were made by force, and the last two people at the sit-in had to be carried away. When an arrest was made, the students chanted, “We love you.”
In similar fashion, the 70 students arrested at the Baker Center sit-in on Feb. 1, 2017, chanted, “Shame on you” as police officers removed protesters from the scene. “It’s important to make your presence known, to make your resistance known, to make your aggravation and your rage and your cause for accountability known. Otherwise, systems of power wouldn’t notice you. So it’s like putting your body on the line to take a stance,” Kim Reynolds says at a rally on Feb. 24 that urged for the termination of Andrew Escobedo, a professor accused of sexually assaulting multiple students.
Though the chants and the causes change, the determination and will of student protesters does not.
“The history of resistance is a history of people fighting for their liberties,” Emma Swaninger, a senior studying geological sciences says at the Escobedo rally. “…When somebody decides that this is not the life I want to live, you come out here and hold up a piece of cardboard.”