Monday is the 50-year anniversary of a tragic event that is not even a distant memory for most Americans. According to census figures, two-thirds of the country wasn’t even born back in 1970.
But on May 4, 1970, the nation and Seattle were rocked after members of the Ohio National Guard fired at students at Kent State University demonstrating against the Vietnam War.
Shortly after noon, within 13 seconds, 67 shots rang out. Four students were killed, nine were wounded. Since then, those few seconds have been described as standing for a bitterly divided era and the end of American innocence.
According to a New Yorker article last week, demonstrations broke out in four out of five colleges.
These days, Jeff Dowd is known as the real-life inspiration for “The Dude” in the 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski.”
The character, a slacker who walks around in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, smokes dope and likes White Russians and bowling, is so ingrained in our culture that there are Lebowski Fests around the country. Slogan: “Just take it easy, man?”
But 50 years ago, when he was 20, The Dude was at the forefront of a massive protest on May 5 by 5,000 University of Washington students who took over I-5. He was out on bail after being indicted by the feds on conspiracy charges as part of the Seattle Seven after demonstrators rushed the doors of the federal courthouse here.
Fifty years ago, when she was 25, Stephanie Coontz was working toward her master’s degree at the UW. She’s now a professor emeritus of History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College.
Coontz also took part in that I-5 protest, eventually negotiating with Seattle Police near the southbound Roanoke Street offramp. The UW students had come off campus and gone onto I-5 at Northeast 45th Street.
A few days ago, they were asked to explain those times to the proverbial 20-somethings of 2020. It is a message of warning: Some of the same elements that split the country then are still here today.
And, from The Dude, for the anniversary being about such a tragic event, it’s also one of hope.
Says Dowd about that freeway march, “We were dodging trucks and buses and cars coming at us at 60, 70 miles an hour. We were lucky there wasn’t a pileup.”
Coontz says the cops were scared, too.
“One of my most vivid memories is of the officers lined up, and some of their hands were shaking,” she says.
Going on I-5 wasn’t something protest organizers had planned. Along the way from campus, the demonstration had grown to about 5,000 to 8,000 people.
Reaching 45th, some students turned to go back to campus. But there were spontaneous shouts of “Freeway! Freeway!” in the hyped-up crowd. And so, it happened.
There would be protest marches the next three days. There would be property damage, and confrontations with cops, a report of vigilantes, and some injuries.
But, says Coontz, “It was largely peaceful. On the anti-war side there were those who thought it was good to throw stones, and a few cops overreacted.”
At one point, cops taped daffodils to their nightsticks in a show of non-violence, according to a paper in the UW’s Antiwar and Radical History Project.
From protester to professor
At age 75, Coontz says that when she was teaching about this era at Evergreen, it was at three-hour seminars.
What would she tell today’s 20-something? It might sound familiar, given today’s political rhetoric.
“There is the tremendous danger when politicians demonize opponents of administration policies, instead of trying to de-escalate,” she says.
Being an academic, Coontz has research material.
And right there, beginning on Page 253 of a 418-page document from the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, set up by President Richard Nixon after Kent State, are statements made about the protesters by then Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, who sent the National Guardsmen to the campus:
“We are going to eradicate the problem . . . They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and the night riders and the vigilantes. they’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America . . .”
Was it any surprise that Rhodes’ rhetoric helped set up the confrontation, Coontz asks.
Then, she says, there is the matter of who gets the media coverage.
“Whoever controls law enforcement and the military has far more media opportunities to misrepresent and demonize opponents,” she says. “Don’t give them an excuse to demonize you.”
That’s why, says Coontz, during that first freeway march, she was among those talking to the cops.
The deal that was made was for the protesters to walk off the freeway on their own at the Boylston-Roanoke exit, and go on to downtown along Eastlake Avenue East.
Coontz says she made a point of not dressing in an outfit that would peg her as radical, such as fatigues. “I just wore the kind of dress a student wore,” she says.
She still remembers what the late Don McGaffin, then a KING-TV investigative reporter and commentator, once told her.
When an interview with her was aired, he said, “He got more hate calls than when he interviewed any firebrand. At first, he couldn’t figure out why. Finally, he figured it out. He said, ‘When you go on TV, they don’t know what they’re getting. You could be a sorority girl. Then they hear you.’”
The Dude as optimist
Dowd, now 70, moved to Seattle in late 1969 from Westchester County, N.Y., with a group of other anti-war activists.
“We wanted a place that was a little more wide open,” he says.
They started the Seattle Liberation Front, and then, within a couple of months, Dowd and the Seattle Seven were indicted on conspiracy charges to plan a riot.
In a trial marked by theatrical disruptions, most of the charges were later dropped, with five of the Seattle Seven pleading no contest to contempt-of-court charges.
Dowd says that mindset from 50 years ago is alive and well.
“Right after Trump was elected, millions of people took to the streets,” he says. And he says that climate activism, for example, is driven by a younger generation.
He says today’s 20-somethings – having grown up in a start-up mindset – should well relate to that era five decades ago.
“It wasn’t all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” Dowd says about those times. “We were entrepreneurs. We were business people.”
“Some of my roommates started the Rainbow Tavern and The Fresh Air Tavern, which had some of the best musicians in America performing there. I was part of Randy Finley’s movie theater chain.” (The Seven Gables, before being sold, became the Northwest’s largest chain of independent movie theaters.)
Dowd moved to Southern California in 1981 and produced and promoted movies. He lives in Venice Beach.
He worked getting a distribution deal for “Blood Simple,” the 1984 movie that was the first feature for Joel and Ethan Coen. He became friends with them, and they based The Dude character on Dowd.
Dowd says he is and isn’t The Dude.
“Making The Dude stoned all the time?” he says. “I do a lot of business during the day.”
He says, “This Dude has always been an activist. This Dude is very much an optimist.”
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