By the spring of 1972, American troops were knee-deep in the jungles of North Vietnam, planting mines in Haiphong Harbor and fragging enemy soldiers with Minnesota-made bombs, while young people burned draft cards and drenched recruitment centers in blood.
Richard Nixon, who’d promised to end the war, instead escalated American involvement. Demonstrations erupted after each new offensive.
There was also a war at home in the Twin Cities. Seventy-one-year-old Monte Bute, now a sociology professor at Metro State University, was then an anti-war foot soldier in the bloodiest protests to ever hit the University of Minnesota.
“You had to be there at the time. People considered themselves a movement,” Bute says. “It was a time that poverty, injustice, domestic issues particularly in neighborhoods really were at the fore. You saw yourself as part of this massive effort to transform America.”
Minneapolis, it turned out, was ripe for a revolution. A new housing development, now known as Cedar-Riverside, was turning people out of their homes. Though the new high-rise was for federally subsidized low-income housing, residents called it gentrification and rallied in protest on May 9, 1972.
They were met by a second group of protesters – anti-war activists – from the U. The students were angry with the U's complicity in defense research. The two demonstrations collided, merging into a crowd of about 2,000 people.
Bute, who had a megaphone, good tactical sense and a bit of a stage presence, slid naturally into a leadership role. When demonstrators got word that the Minneapolis Police were being sent in, they decided it would be a good opportunity to confront them.
"As I look back, I don’t remember another time of being taken over so much by so much adrenaline and having to think on your feet," Bute says. "It was like the university and the police sort of lost power, and it spilled into the streets. So a number of improvisational people picked up that power and orchestrated ... this theater of the absurd. It was pure improvisation. Plans were made instantaneously, people moved rapidly. They counterattacked. It was guerilla theater, but dangerous at that point."
Police in riot gear clashed on Cedar Avenue, recalls then-University News Service reporter Bill Huntziker.
"At one point I was writing something in my reporters notebook, and I looked up and I was surrounded by cops," Huntziker recalls. "And this big guy looked down on me and he had his helmet on and he had his hands on my shoulders and he said, "Which side are you on, son? And I said, 'P…p…p…p…press.' They were beating people up! And so he said, 'Stand aside, please,' and he gently walked me to the curb and he went on clubbing people. It was bizarre."
Demonstrators multiplied to about 6,000 strong. They poured into Dinkytown, where they began to ransack a military recruitment office. Half of the group split off for the ROTC Armory, tore out the steel rod fencing that surrounded it, and began stoning the building. At the time, the armory was more university office space than a military headquarters, but it was the idea of the place that insulted students.
Police gave chase, clubbing and beating students around a two-block radius. At the time, Minneapolis was led by a law and order mayor, Charles Stenvig.
"A lot of pent up anger and rage that was held by conservative people," Bute says. "They had elected the first conservative in years and years in the city. And he was really a take-no-prisoners guy. He felt he had a mandate from the silent majority to really come in and clean up and unleash any kind of tactic that was necessary."
Demonstrators moved to Washington Avenue, where they set up blockades. It became a day of hit and runs and ongoing battles and police beatdowns of protesters who may have prodded and provoked and vandalized. By the afternoon rush hour, the police went into panic mode. Cops chased students down University Avenue while a helicopter rained canisters of tear gas.
Huntziker retreated into Ford Hall, where he stood at a window on the fourth floor and looked down into the street as students were beaten as they sunbathed and read books on the lawn. Several people were hospitalized. Tear gas seeped through the locked doors and windows of university buildings. Police from seven counties joined in the effort to quell the protests.
The governor sent in 800 National Guardsmen. Over the next week, the national media's attention and the National Guard caused the Eight Days in May protests to eventually slow and disperse.
"I learned how vulnerable the university is to demagogues and police who just wanted to beat up people because they had long hair and think differently than they do," Huntziker reflects. "I tried to imagine who was benefiting from any of this. It must have all been short term. Maybe the police chief, the mayor whose popularity was based on a law and order candidacy. I thought maybe some guys in military corporations would benefit from the war. They don’t mind this stuff going on in the streets. They weren’t touched by it."
He still doesn't know the key to bringing about change, Huntziker says. Neither does Bute.
“There was this sense of a zeitgeist, that the world was gonna change," Bute says. "Then unfortunately we woke up in 1973 and the '60s were over and not that much had changed. We expected a revolution to break out any week. And that was kind of the mentality of many young people at that time."
On May 21, Bute, Huntziker, and other eyewitnesses to the Dinkytown anti-war protests will share their experiences from the riots at the Roots Cellar in the University Baptist Church.