For last week's Isthmus, I wrote a review of Matthew Levin's excellent history of the New Left in Madison, titled Cold War University.
Most of us who have been around this town for a few decades think we know these stories, but I certainly didn't understand it all in context. Levin traces the history of the left from the UW Regents' stirring defense of free speech and free inquiry in 1892 ("sifting and winnowing") up to the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing.
One of the many things I found fascinating in Levin's book was his discussion of "direct action." For decades, the left in Madison used arguments to make their case. They wrote articles, started journals and formed associations of various kinds. Occasionally, there might be a petition circulated or a few signs at a small rally, but that was pretty much it.
Direct action was about actually trying to interfere with the functioning of a system they found objectionable. They took their cue from Civil Rights Movement activists, for whom direct actions were things like peacefully sitting at lunch counters and politely asking for service in areas where black customers were not allowed.
On the UW-Madison campus, direct action first took the form of disrupting speeches by those who supported the Vietnam War, like Sen. Ted Kennedy. Eventually, direct action escalated to the famous sit-in at the Commerce Building (now Ingrahm Hall) to block Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of napalm, from interviewing job candidates. That action resulted in a police riot that radicalized some students and others in the community.
The most tragic form of direct action was the bombing of Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Math Research Center. Levin notes that the bomb killed a young doctoral student who had no connection to Army Math, while it barely damaged the Center itself.
This history is worth reading for a lot of reasons, but it has relevance today as direct action is in the news again because of the ongoing controversy over the Solidarity Sing Along.
It's always a hard to understand in the moment if a form of direct action is helping or hurting the cause. Sitting in at lunch counters is now understood to be heroic and important. But at the time, even some of those who supported civil rights weren't so sure. Disrupting speeches of those you oppose seems to me to be always bad form and counter to an open-minded university and community. The Dow disruption, while ugly, probably ended up being a positive for the movement to end the war. The Sterling Hall bombing was seen by most to be criminal, morally wrong and extremely counter-productive.
And the sing-along? Time will tell. Clearly, both sides see advantage in continuing the confrontation because either side could end it tomorrow if they wanted to. Solidarity Sing Along participants see the confrontation as giving front-page attention to their cause, while the Walker administration apparently sees advantage in providing red meat for his base of conservative supporters.
But there's one last lesson from Levin's history that is worth noting. Ralph Hanson was the UW police chief during much of the campus unrest. Hanson was there on the front lines himself and the protestors came to know and like him. No one knows how many potentially violent confrontations were diffused because of that human relationship.
By contrast, hard line Capitol Police Chief Dave Erwin is nowhere to be found at the daily protests. He has developed no relationship or dialogue at all with the people who attend them. So, he has become easy to hate as the devil they don't know.
One step toward resolution, if that is actually wanted by either side, would be for Erwin to meet with the sing-along participants and listen to their message, try to get to know and understand them, and then share his perspective. That in itself won't end the confrontation, but it might lessen the tensions and head off any serious physical confrontations down the road. It's much harder to hate the devil you know.