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William Arthrell, Oral History William G. Athrell, Oral History

William G. Arthrell, Oral History

Recorded: May 4, 1995
Interviewed by Sandra Perlman Halem
Transcribed by Lisa Whalen and Kate Medicus 

[William Arthrell]: My name is Bill Arthrell and that's A-r-t-h-r-e-l-l. And I live in Oberlin, and I grew up in Oberlin -- so I came from good liberal stock. In fact, a great abolitionist town, first coed college in America and the first interracial college in America. And I'm very proud of that. I don't shrink from my liberalness for one minute, okay, even though we've often been made to feel ashamed of it in the 80s and 90s.

At any rate, I would like to relate several stories around May 4th that I think are -- somewhat unique. I returned to Kent State -- ironically -- in the -- the spring of 1970. I flunked out in the spring of '69 because I got involved in the SDS movement, and I completely neglected my studies, and was a young man totally consumed by politics -- and with an absolute burning desire to change the world. And, of course, many people have talked about the University very much suppressed SDS -- banned it from campus. Members were indicted and convicted and sent to jail -- for protest activities that were certainly, in my opinion, fully legitimate. The student body, which was not so far to the left, totally supported SDS too. I mean, we had, I remember, marches of seven thousand students around campus, defending SDS's right to exist, and stay on campus, and essentially protest the war in Vietnam especially.

So I returned then -- I thought about going to Akron U. instead, or Hiram College and again -- how ironic that I decided to return to Kent State -- and two weeks before May 4th, the Spring quarter started. So I -- I instantaneously hooked up with a group called the Independent Radicals From Tri-Towers, and we -- we sort of had to go underground because, you know, SDS had been so routinely and completely suppressed. I ended up leading a demonstration in which we threatened to napalm a dog. It was the day after my twenty-first birthday. So remember, we're really young people, who are out to change the world, and really taking on this incredible responsibility -- that, obviously at that point, the older generation had absolved themselves of this kind of responsibility. So we -- I wore a suit and tie I remember -- just to throw people off -- you know, so we didn't look quote, "radical." And I got up -- and we passed out flyers on April 21st, my birthday -- twenty-first birthday in fact. I was with two other guys, passing out flyers saying "For your edification and amusement we're gonna napalm a dog on April 22nd, blah blah blah." So police came up to us, and said "What are you guys doing? Blah blah blah." And the policeman said, "Wait here, I'm gonna get my partner." So I -- I -- he went to get his partner, I waited.

[Interviewer]: Kent State police?

[William Arthrell]: Kent State police, right. And I -- I gave the flyers to the other two guys, they took off, and the policeman returned and said, "Where's your flyers?" And I said, "What flyers?" And he said, "Well, where's your friends?" And I said, "I don't have any friends." And this was kind of the -- the sort of playful attitude too, that we had in defying authority in a sense that was appropriate.

Well, we found out later the police were planning to arrest us for conspiracy to napalm a dog, okay. Well, as you'll find out, this was our whole point. So, the next day, about three or four hundred students showed up to stop us from napalming this dog in front of the Hub, the old student union. And again I was wearing a suit and tie, and as I explained what napalm was, and tried to be as dispassionate and scientific about it as I could, how the U.S. government developed it at the end of World War II, and how it was such a heinous weapon in, you know, Vietnam -- I mean, you know, people burned alive. In fact, I'll never forget the picture of the three little Vietnamese children running down the road in 1972, with napalm burning on their backs. If I remembered nothing else about Vietnam, that would be the most vivid picture that -- seared my mind, and of course, seared their bodies beyond belief. -- So, and I said, "Okay, how many of you people here have come to stop me from napalming this dog?" And they all shook their fists and -- and growled. And I said, "How many of you people are willing to take action to stop me from napalming this dog?" And they shook their fists and growled. And I said, "Good for you. You've done the right thing. You've come to stop me from doing a very immoral act. However, your government isn't doing it to just one dog, it's doing it to thousands of people. Just because it's halfway around the world, doesn't make it any less immoral. So take that -- that morality, and stop your government from utilizing it in Vietnam, as well as implementing the entire war in Vietnam." Well there was deadly silence and -- and -- on the campus, and you know quote, "You could hear the anguished screams of the Vietnamese, halfway around the world." It was -- it was so moving.

Now, I want you to know, there was never any napalm, or never any dog, and -- and yet the newspaper reported -- at least one of them -- that they took the dog out of my hands. And this is how vivid people's imaginations are. The county prosecuter was there, Ron Cain, the Animal Protective League, the Sherrif's deputies -- it was amazing how people turned out to save a dog. Which is totally legitimate, I totally concur with them, except that, again, it was being done to human beings. Well, this really catapulted me into the middle of the anti-war movement, doing this demonstration. So, of course, you know, just two weeks later, I was in the middle of all the May 4th activities, although, I -- I must confess, uncharacteristically, I was studying on Friday night, May first, for a midterm the next day -- which, like I said, is very much out of character. But I was there for May second, third and fourth. And, you know, I think I want to fast forward to another, other event, because I think that, again, May 4th is stuff that a lot of people have talked about in particular.

So, I got indicted in the "Kent 25" and -- and this was, you know, almost as traumatic for me as the May 4th tragedy was itself, 'cause I was a twenty-one year old man, and suddenly, you know, I was -- the lights of repression were shining on me, so to speak, and it was a really, really frightening experience. And I just want to describe that Fall of 1970, 'cause it was so bizarre. They convened a special state grand jury, right, to indict the students. The special prosecutor, Seabury Ford, said, "They should've shot all the troublemakers," right? And this is the prosecutor for a quote, "unbiased and objective grand jury." Attorney General Brown said, "Probably no Guardsmen will be indicted." So they're -- they're setting the stage for a whitewash, OK. Well, they also, of course, issued an injunction with this grand jury saying that you could comment on, but not criticize the -- the special Ohio grand jury. The University was admonished for allowing the Jefferson Airplane to play at Homecoming, for students going barefoot, and professors for not saluting the flag. I mean, it was absolutely absurd. At best, you know. And, in this grand jury report, they never mentioned four students were killed. They exonerated the National Guard -- they walked -- they indicted twenty-five students and faculty -- including two of the wounded students. And the -- the morbid joke was that they were guilty of getting in the way of bullets. Yeah, it was -- and another one of our maxims was, you know, was, the ones they missed with bullets, they got with indictments.

So, it was this onslaught of right-wing repression against this left-wing movement. Well, when they started to indict people, it was, you know, done in a very methodical way, one person about every other day. So that a reign of terror kind of descended on campus -- who's next? And they got the student body president, Craig Morgan, who was you know, a liberal who was in ROTC -- I mean he was no flaming radical, right. I mean he was a liberal, but that's it. They got Tom Lough, you know, professor of sociology. And then they got a couple of old SDS-ers, a couple of non-students, to quote, "prove their outside agitator theory," although of course everyone else was students.

And then they got me. And -- and God knows why, except that one of the reasons I related the dog napalming demonstration was because I think that -- put the focus on me. 'Cause otherwise, I was one of two thousand people out there. So, that -- not only did I get my life totally changed by May 4th, but I -- I got turned inside out again just four or five months later by the Kent 25 indictments. -- Which led to, eventually, twelve -- eleven other arrests, twelve all together -- for anti-war and Kent State activities.

So I want to fast forward again, okay, because -- to 1977-- 'cause then once again, you know, this issue refuses to -- to die. And I think that that's really important. -- and I think it's because lots of activists and -- and because of what you're doing, that made sure it hasn't died. Because the government would like it to die, in fact, they would like to bury it. In fact, they'd like to bury it under a building, which is what they did in 1977.

And so, once again, a really valiant student movement was -- was generated to oppose the gymnasium building. And I was arrested six more times in the gym -- what was called the gym struggle. And I think most nefariously, I wanna talk about the -- the end of the gym protest -- at the end of '77. The University got an injunction to ban all demonstrations, rallies and marches for one month, starting in October to November of 1977 -- simply banning this sort of activity.

Well, me and my roommate, Jerry Alter, at that time, you know, realised this was a gross violation of course, of our civil liberties; very reminiscent of -- of May 4th, 1970. So we simply made copies of the First Amendment, we went this time to the new Student Union here, and we -- I gave a speech about First Amendment rights. We began to simply chant the First Amendment, like an incantation, over and over again, in front of this Student Center. The police were in the Student Center wearing their crash helmets and their full regalia, charged out. And first they -- I was standing on a picnic table giving a speech. They pulled me off the picnic table, threw me into a nelson, locked behind my back, as I continued to chant the First Amendment, they dragged me away.

They arrested six other guys -- A total of seven. My bail, in Portage County jail, was -- was five thousand dollars. So they're using bail as a punishment, right? And my cellmate, his bail was twenty-five hundred dollars. He was an accused rapist. So for rape you had twenty five hundred dollars bail; for reading the First Amendment, I had five thousand dollars bail. It -- it was so astounding. It was incredible. But I mean, that was the climate of -- of repression, and violation.

And I think that because of what happened in Oklahoma City, and stuff like [that] -- I need to say that -- very much delineate between the right and the left in this country, because I -- I think that -- that some of these Michigan militia types are sort of trying to make a connection with the left in the '60's. And I guarantee you the only thing we have in common is that we both breathe oxygen. That they're -- if you critique the government from the left, it's a completely different orientation. That, our goal was to end war and violence and -- in -- in the name of Vietnam, at that time, but in general. And that we wanted to enfranchise everyone in the human experience. And the right wing want "my" rights, so I can have "my" gun, you know, and just to assert "my" rights -- is -- their life is just a very individualistic, in my opinion, selfish experience, so that they can get what they want without any interference from anyone in the government. Whereas I think that we want to create a government that serves everyones needs. That -- that was the whole point of the sixties movement. So...

[Interviewer]: However, they do want to use the same -- tools, again. They want to bring those -- crank up the same tools again of -- of surveillance. I mean there is a similarity...

Yeah -- yeah we certainly -- have to be careful of that. And, I don't ever want Oklahoma City to happen again, 'cause that is intolerable. And I don't know what it would take to make sure the right wing -- 'cause the right wing is preparing for war against the U.S. government -- and I'll tell you what, I mean, I'll take -- I'll take AFT agents over David Koresh any day. And -- and, I just want to comment that -- that fundamentalist Christianity has done far more damage in the history of this planet, you know -- and I'm a Christian myself, but -- but I'm a Christian two thousand years ago. And that -- and I think that, in that pretty much sense Christianity has been used as a social control mechanism by society, rather than as a spiritual experience, you know. And that's exactly what David Koresh was doing. Anyway, but that's -- that's pretty extraneous.

I just want to -- go back -- I don't know -- when I got -- found out I was gonna be indicted in the Kent 25, I decided to go underground, I thought that was pretty romantic, you know, and that would be a great thing to do, given -- Abbie Hoffman of course eventually went underground for seven or six years, and then many other people did. But I just went underground for one day, that was enough for me.

And I -- I was in love with this woman, named Debbie Cohen, and she lived in Pittsburgh and you know, I was still trying to seduce her . So I thought let's -- let Debbie take me to Pittsburgh, cause if I crossed state lines, they couldn't extradite me, cause it was a misdemeanor. So we went to Pittsburg for a day and we met these radical attorneys there. And they said that there's -- you know, this is a misdemeanor and you'll only face a year in jail. -- Only. -- Only to a twenty-one year old, that's -- that's an eternity, is -- is a year in jail. But nonetheless, they counseled to go back and face it. And you know, after cooling my heels for twenty-four hours, I was really ready to go back and make a stand.

And -- and really, my life has been a stand ever since that. And it's -- it's catalyzed me teaching in the inner city -- of Cleveland for many, many years. -- Thirteen or fourteen years. And being very dedicated to the needs of inner city children -- to try to make it better. And so, I mean I think the May 4th legacy has had some very positive repercussions for me. That -- that its also kind of sent me on a search throughout my life. You know, kind of searching for truth and justice and freedom, and those other sixties' values.

And I've -- I've literally traveled and lived all over the world since then, -- and including in southeast Asia, which really touched me deeply. And I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, for example, and got to experience socialism instead of just relentless American capitalism. And found out that socialism could work. I worked in Sweden too, which is a socialistic country, and it's got the highest -- so I saw beyond American propaganda that this is the greatest country in the world.

Alright -- and so in that political context, I want to say that Kent State was not just Kent State, but it was a symbol for everything, and it was indicative of everything, you know. And that in a sense it -- they said that was the day the war came home.

And remember, there was a war that it came home to. And that war, you know in McNamara statements about, you know, admitting it was a mistake, and therefore, there was kind of a firestorm of saying, "You could have saved fifty-eight thousand American lives," etc. And -- I mean first of all, that probably twenty-five -- half that many, were already killed. However, one of the points we're missing, -- thats very tragic,that fifty-eight thousand Americans died -- we killed two million of them. It's never mentioned, never mentioned, okay. That we visited forty times as many deaths upon the Vietnamese as they visited upon us. And that we invaded them, they didn't invade us, this was not Pearl Harbor. And that it was an absolute war of imperialism, it was unconstitutional- it was never declared, and we used such horrific weapons as napalm. And I think that really has to be put in the context too, that -- that this was not only part of a pattern of repression by the -- by the establishment, and the government against the left, but it -- it was a part of an international conciousness, which included third world nations, seeking their independence from European colonialism.

And that -- that we -- we had enough savvy, as kids -- and I think this is pretty impressive -- to have compassion for the Vietnamese. I mean, we didn't -- we could be drinking beer at a frat party, we didn't have to do that, right? So, I mean, that was one thing that was really courageous and moral, to have that kind of conciousness, that people -- a peasant nation, around the world -- mattered. You know, people that we never met. And, as I mentioned, I lived in southeast Asia and I had a chance to meet -- well, I -- I dated a Cambodian woman for a while. And I remember being so moved and so sad when I really -- met her face to face. And I -- I started crying, and I really apologized for what my country had done to hers. You know and that's just undeniable. And of course, it was the invasion of Cambodia that precipitated the Kent State protest.

And -- so, you know, you -- you're talking about the -- also the ultimate impact on your life, and I think what I've enunciated so far is pretty positive, but there's a lot of negative stuff too. A lot of a -- personal agony, a lot of emotional trauma.

'Cause you know what, I didn't have the ability to -- to process things. I didn't have coping skills in 1970, I was a kid. I was being a -- a twenty-one year old college kid. And so I politicized my anger, which was against Nixon and Agnew, and J. Edgar Hoover, and so on. And that was appropriate, but I didn't know how to work it out emotionally. So, I really suffered, and I've been haunted by all that stuff. And not even just May 4th, but that whole era. Partly of feeling totally rejected by my own country and government, for standing up and doing something moral. And -- and you know, going to jail twelve times -- by it.

Whereas, Nixon didn't go to jail, but he was the law-and-order President, right? John Mitchell didn't go to jail, he was the Attorney General. Spiro Agnew didn't go to jail. But we did. Tens of thousands of young and -- and even older and middle-aged Americans went to jail during that period.

Including -- 1971 -- we went to Washington. We had the May Day demonstrations, in which, and again this how, I think, courageous youth was at that time. We said if the government won't stop the war, we'll stop the government. And we sat in the streets of Washington and attempted to shut down the District of Columbia for a day -- in protest. And it was a -- it was a very militant protest, but it was not violent.

Well, Attorney General John Mitchell, told the police chief, Jerry Wilson, to clean -- quote, "clean the streets", of the demonstrators. And when the media asked him about the Constitution, John Mitchell said, "We'll worry about the Constitution later." So, as you can see, I mean the seeds of Watergate were already planted. I mean, this was -- even part of the Watergate mentality- as you have a perfect right to suppress dissent.

And -- I -- I want to delineate too, especially if it comes from the left. The right wing does not get the same treatment we do. I remember, the super structure in our country, meticulously protecting the Nazi's right to march through a Jewish suburb of Chicago, in Skokie, Illinois.

Okay, I remember myself protesting Nazis in Cleveland, there was eight Nazis, and there was fifteen police on horseback, around the Nazis, protecting them. Now, we didn't get the same kind of protection at Kent State when we were demonstrating. On the contrary, you know, we were attacked.

And not just in 1970, but year after year.

[Interviewer]: How many -- for the tape -- how many years were you a student at that point in Kent?

I was here [Kent State] from '68 to '73 -- as a student. And then I came back in the gym struggle, '77 to '79.

[Interviewer]: I just wanted to make -- you were getting an undergraduate ... ?

An undergraduate degree in history -- ha-ha -- And I also lived history and made history. So, it was very consistent, and I minored in English.

And I want to say, I got a fine education from Kent State, I can't say enough about the professors here. I mean, they were very divorced from the administration, and many professors supported us, and sympathized with us, and -- and I really appreciate that. I won't name names 'cause it would take too long. But -- but that was really great, because it would have been so easy for them to hide. Because they had quote, "more to lose than," -- it was easier being twenty years old, than being fifty years old and protesting, you know. Yeah, I'm really grateful.

So -- well, the May Day thing- I just want to say, I -- this was an incredible act of -- of -- it was like Chile, I mean it was so frightening. We were protesting and sitting in the streets, and stuff like that. And the police pretty well broke up our protest, and this was May of '71, again.

And, so me and two of my friends from Kent State, Gail Goldman and Lynn Goleman, who are cousins, were walking down the street in Washington D.C., and we just felt a hand on our shoulder and it was the D.C. police. And they arrested us. Now, they didn't know that we were demonstrating an hour before, and even if we were, we had a right to, but nonetheless, they arrested us.

Because they had orders to sweep the streets. So, thirteen thousand Americans were arrested. In that day alone, seven thousand people -- or eight thousand, were arrested in one day. In the next two days the total went up to thirteen thousand. We were put on buses, D.C. buses, with police and -- I don't know if it was the eighty-second airborn, but soldiers, with guns pointed at us on the buses, trained at us. I mean for all we know, we could be driving off to concentration camps. No one knew what was happening, we were never charged with anything.

We finally were -- most of the demonstrators were taken to the RFK stadium, how ironic, the Bobby Kennedy stadium. And jailed in this entire stadium, just like what the United States did in Chile, or at least, helped orchestrate in Chile, in '73. And so -- and again, there was no charges, but we were -- I remember that -- every other person was -- the arresting officer was, "officer King...officer Queen...officer King...officer Queen." They had to make up officers' names for arresting officer.

And we were held -- I was held for two days, with no charges, and we went to -- actually to the D.C. jail yard, with about twelve hundred people. RFK stadium had up to ten thousand demonstrators being jailed in the stadium -- in this country. I don't think anyone remembers this anymore. This was an incredible event, just the year after Kent State.

And by the way, one person escaped, from RFK stadium, and that was Abbie Hoffman. He was arrested -- and he somehow -- God knows this man was -- was amazing. Jimmy Carter called him the Holy Ghost of the left. And this guy was an incredible human being -- they arrested him in New York City a couple of days later. He had escaped and gotten to New York City somehow. That was a great aside.

So, and then also, I remember the next year, in '72, I saw demonstrators in Miami Beach, protesting Nixon. And again, the war was still going on, right? Nixon had a secret plan for peace in 1968. In 1972, he still hadn't ended the war, four years later. Four more years? Nixon wasn't kidding, was he, when that was his slogan!

So, and -- you're talking about familial situations, and my parents had been wonderfully supportive through all this. It was real hard for them because they grew up in a generation when you were obedient to your government, and the establishment. And they had some problems with my activism, but overall, they were incredibly supportive, and loving.

My dad worked in a factory in Elyria, and I remember him, you know, arguing with Republicans there, and -- and almost getting -- coming to fisticuffs, but not. Supporting his son, you know. Because I became pretty, quote, "infamous," or famous, depending on your point of view; for my leadership in the anti-war movement, and my indictment in the Kent 25. And I was in the newspapers a lot, and Arthrell's an unusual name. I mean, if it's an Arthrell, it's related to my dad. So I really applaud him and my mother too, they were so loving, and so supportive, you know, at that time.

But anyway, I was watching TV -- and my parents didn't want me to keep doing this either, they were still protective parents, and I said, "I gotta" -- I was at my parents' house in Oberlin. "I gotta be there in Miami Beach. I mean, this is a great story, I gotta." And they said, "No, don't do it again Bill!" And I said, "I'm outta here."

And I -- and I went out to Morgan Street, and I walked down Morgan Street to route 58 in Oberlin, and started to hitchhike. I had -- forty-eight cents -- or fifty-three cents, I can't remember which, that was it. I had -- I had -- and my glasses. I had nothing else. I mean, I had my jeans, and my t-shirt. I didn't have a jacket. I walked out of my parents' house, and I walked to the state route and put my thumb out with nothing. I was going to Miami Beach to demonstrate against Nixon -- Yes! It was great.

So this is really funny. I -- shortly before that, I actually had long hair and a beard, and I cut my hair and shaved my beard off, and just had a moustache. This family picked me up and said, "Gosh, we're sure glad you aren't a dirty hippie." I thought, "two weeks before, I was a dirty hippie! And you're picking up the same human being that was just as decent a guy when I had long hair and -- and a beard as I am now. But anyway, I'll let you fool yourselves."

So, I remember hitching all the way down to Florida, right. So okay, I was -- I met a guy from Cleveland and he was -- and he was just going to Florida. And I said, "Let's go demonstrate." And I talked him into it. So we were hitchhiking then to Miami Beach to protest Nixon at the Republican Convention.

By the way, this was very vividly remembered in Oliver Stone's movie, Born on the Fourth of July, that -- the demonstrations in '72, at the convention. And anyway, so police -- police crews were pulled up and arrested us for hitchhiking. Now we were off the turnpike and in front of the gate, which is almost universally allowed. At least it was then, and so it was unusual to arrest hitchhikers.

Well, what happened was, in Florida, they really had created a dragnet to arrest all hitchhikers because they assumed they're all coming down -- they're all hippies -- hitchhiking down to Miami Beach to protest Nixon. So we spent the next two days in jail. It was so bizarre.

I remember I read The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, and talking to -- and the cells were segregated, by the way -- racially, still, in 1972. And talking to the quote, "crackers," that was the term for southern whites. And most of them were really pretty good people and in for pretty minor stuff, and we're giving our political rap against the war in Vietnam.

Well my girlfriend then, Debbie Cohen, sent money, the one I was in love with, during the Kent 25, she sent money to bail me out of jail. So we got bailed out of jail. We immediately went back to the turnpike, and went right on the -- you know, next to the turnpike, and started hitchhiking and got a ride down to Miami Beach. So, I was only in Miami Beach for a few hours, and was caught up in the big demonstration.

We -- and they were tear gassing us, so we thought, right. When you get tear gassed, you can alleviate the symptoms with water. So we put our heads in the -- the, you know, many pools of Miami Beach, and it actually aggravated it 'cause it was pepper gas. It was like your face was burning off. And people were screaming in the streets in Miami Beach. There were thousands of people protesting.

So, anyway, when we -- when I took care of that finally, it wears off, we marched on the Nixon headquarters at the Doral Hotel and had a sit-in. And it turned out, eleven hundred people were arrested, at the sit-in against Nixon. And we were jailed -- this was a really interesting story -- I remember being arrested, and Jane Fonda was arrested, and Allen Ginsberg and others, you know, celebrities of the left.

And so we actually -- the bails were all different. If your hair was real long, you had a hundred dollars bail, if you had short hair, you had twenty-five dollars bail, if you were Jane Fonda, you had a thousand dollars bail. So we went on strike to protest all that. And when they fed us food, we threw it back, on the floor, we banged our trays against the walls. For forty-eight hours, we made noise, saying we want all the bail lowered to the same amount. Well, we did such a good job of striking -- this was the largest arrest in Dade County history, by the way -- that, not only did they drop all the bail, they dropped it to zero, and dropped all the charges and let everybody walk out of the cells with no charges, because we all did such a brilliant job of striking in the jail.

But, that was also the -- the -- I guess the positive spin on this was the excitement of the times, too. The sense of exhilaration and energy that you can really make a difference. That you can change the world; and we did have victories like this too. After May 4th and the student strike of 1970, Nixon got out of Cambodia in six weeks. So, you know, we did make a difference; Lyndon Johnson lost his job, and so did Richard Nixon, because of their immorality. So, there's a lot to be hopeful for, and people really can be empowered.