While the 70 people arrested during the Feb. 1 immigration/refugee order protest in Baker Center may not have set the record for the most people arrested in a single protest at Ohio University, the arrest number is still significant in the history of OU and Athens activism.
The protest two weeks ago led to more arrests than the main Vietnam War protests in Athens, in which just 54 people were arrested between May 4 and May 14, 1970. These protests (simultaneous with the deadly National Guard shootings at Kent State) came along with days of “teach-ins” on College Green and marches through Athens that brought in students and demonstrators from across the state, as well as fire bombings and bricks thrown at windows and police, according to reports at the time in OU’s student newspaper The Post.
Then-OU President Claude Sowle canceled classes, final exams and commencement ceremonies on May 15 because of the protests, and Athens Mayor Raymond Shepard called in the National Guard to disperse the crowds.
The events were later described in a WOUB-TV documentary “The Sky Has Fallen.” The name referenes The Post’s weather report the day Sowle shut down OU.
The Feb. 1, 2017, demonstration’s mass arrests also outnumber the arrests resulting from a March 19, 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War. Athens NEWS reports from that time said the demonstration included a demonstration on College Green that drew upwards of 500 protesters. A march through uptown Athens streets followed the demonstration, with many protesters sitting down in the intersection of South Court and Union streets. Ultimately, 39 people were arrested at that point, including the late Art Gish, at the time the best-known peace activist in Athens.
Local organic farmer and Navy veteran Rich Tomsu told the protesters that “we stand for patriotic Americans all across the United States who are opposed to this war.”
Despite plans by the OU College Republicans to hold a counter-protest to support President George W. Bush and American troops after that day’s protests, little or no direct opposition occurred during and after the anti-war protest.
The event that holds the record for most mass arrests at OU is a protest of the first Gulf War that happened on the morning of Jan. 17, 1991. Held on the first day of Operation Desert Storm, like the 2003 sit-down protest, protesters also occupied the intersection of South Court and Union. According to Athens NEWS reports at the time, the march was sponsored by anti-war group the Athens Peace Coalition and brought upwards of 500 people to the intersection. In total, 103 were arrested by Athens police officers, 33 more than the recent “sanctuary campus” protest. The 1991 protest gained the attention of national media outlets such as Associated Press and NBC News.
“No town this size has made such an enormous effort against the war,” Gary “Spruce” Houser told the crowd during the demonstration.
Like the recent protests in Athens, the Gulf War protest received a lot of criticism from OU students and faculty and community members at the time. Unlike the recent protests, members of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student organization, and other students organized spontaneous demonstrations against the anti-war protesters several times during the following days.
“If I had my truck, I’d drive right over them,” one student helping to hold a Confederate battle flag with other counter-protesters told The Athens NEWS in 1991.
The two sides skirmished against each other for days afterwards. More than 700 supporters of President George H.W. Bush marched through campus in the early hours of Jan. 18, 1991, disrupting a peace vigil on College Green in the process.
“The Athens Peace Coalition is a minority, and it’s about time we got out and showed our support,” then OU sophomore Amy Taylor said at the time of the march.
Historically this campus is known for its peace rallies,” then OU sophomore Ron Troyer said at the time of the march. “I think we really changed that.”
Back to 2017…
While a “sing-in” protest occurred on Feb. 2 in support of the 70 arrested the day before, as well as continuing calls for the charges against the protesters to be dropped, there has yet to be any significant counter-demonstrations to the Feb. 1 protest.
Charges remain pending against most of the protesters arrested that day.