Just a year earlier, on May 22, 1969, the body of a member of the New Haven chapter of the radical Black Panther Party was discovered in woods outside New Haven. Before being shot to death in the woods, he had first been tortured at the Party’s New Haven headquarters. He was suspected of being a police informant.
Several members of the local Black Panthers chapter had since confessed to the crime. At least one person implicated Bobby Seale, the National Chairman of the Black Panthers, in the crime. Seale was a founder of the original Black Panther chapter in Oakland, California, and had visited the New Haven chapter at the time when the victim was being held. Seale was scheduled to go on trial for murder the next year in May 1970.
Coincident with the Kent State May Day protests in 1970, a National May Day rally was held on the New Haven Green to protest both the expansion of the war into Cambodia and to support the Panthers charged in the local murder trial.
Activists of all denominations turned up together with Yale students at the rally. Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin was quoted as calling the upcoming trial “Panther repression,” and said, “All of us conspired to bring on this tragedy by law enforcement agencies by their illegal acts against the Panthers, and the rest of us by our immoral silence in front of these acts.” Kingman Brewster, Yale’s President, said he was, “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” He went on to say, “in large measure, the atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers in many parts of the country.”
In the aftermath of the Kent State event and the consequent student strikes at colleges and universities across the country, I had followed the New Haven events closely. Beyond a casual interest in my old school of course, my job was to provide intelligence support to DCDPO by periodically assessing the likelihood of riots getting out of hand. That meant I was also watching the New Haven situation unfold from a purely professional perspective.
There had been a growing tendency in the charged atmosphere of the 1960s to think that antiwar student protests and demonstrations were somehow akin to the racial disturbances in cities that had required intervention by the Regular Army during the First and Second World Wars and now the Vietnam War. However, from a military planning standpoint, the thought that New Haven in the current context needed the Regular Army forces seemed to me completely unnecessary. Nonetheless, Connecticut’s Governor and President Richard Nixon arrived at a different conclusion.
Through memory’s haze, I seem to recall a newspaper story that John Dean, then a Department of Justice functionary under Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, had met Connecticut’s Governor in Hartford, and that the Governor promptly thereafter issued a statement that the situation in New Haven was beyond the State’s ability to control. The Governor’s declaration legally permitted Nixon to commit federal troops if he chose to.
The situation in New Haven was coming to a head, and I soon found myself accompanying DCDPO’s Deputy Director. an Air Force Major General, up to the offices of the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, General Bruce Palmer. Palmer was taking the meeting in the absence of then Chief of Staff, Gen. William Westmoreland. Palmer had commanded the Army troops President Lyndon Johnson had sent to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic not too long before. He began to size up the matter with a few incisive questions, and once he had a detailed grasp of the tactical situation, he asked me what my opinion was. Did I think regular Army troops would be required?
I told him that I was familiar with the New Haven community, having graduated from college there only a few years before, and said I didn’t think there was a military requirement for deploying Regular Army troops there at that time.
General Palmer scratched his head and said he didn’t think it made much sense to send troops either. At this point my Air Force friend coughed and interrupted. He informed General Palmer that it was a passed point. Following presidential orders, the first airstream of airborne troops had just departed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, headed north.
As it turned out, there was no cataclysm in New Haven at the commencement of the murder trial and questions about whether Bobby Seale could get a fair trial went away when he was acquitted. My recollection is that the Connecticut National Guard provided sufficient backup to the New Haven police. The Regular Army troops got no closer to New Haven than Hartford and Rhode Island, where they bivouacked for a short period before being flown home.
During the New Haven affair, I provided my usual round of briefings to civilian and military managers at the Pentagon. I was supported as always by the graphics department at OACSI. The illustration I remember best was a map of New Haven, no doubt dug out of the DCDPO files. It was centered on George and Harry’s restaurant, across from my old room at Silliman College. Superimposed on this choice piece of real estate was a freehand black and white drawing of a long-haired, screaming student wearing a toga. The out-of-control youth seemed to be holding a scrolled diploma overhead in a clenched fist, looking much like a banana republic revolutionary holding a rifle.
In the years since, I often thought about the toga-clad students who came after me at Yale. Who would have guessed their style of dress and extracurricular interests would have been so different from mine only a few years before? When I got out of class, I typically put on jeans, walked across the street, and grabbed a beer at George and Harry’s. When they got out of class, at least in the Army artist’s mind, the animals put on dresses, stormed into the street, and hoisted high school diplomas over their heads pretending they were AK-47 Kalashnikovs.