Legacy of Turmoil : CSUN Looks Back at Years of Activism at Former Valley State College
San Fernando Valley State College was on the cutting edge of the student protest movement two decades ago.
Before student riots at the University of California, Berkeley in 1969 and before four students were killed in 1970 during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, Valley State students were protest veterans.
Those turbulent times were revisited Wednesday on the campus--now California State University, Northridge--during a screening of the documentary film “Storm at Valley State.”
From 1967 through 1971, there were six massive demonstrations, during which about 400 students and faculty members were arrested by Los Angeles police. In 1968, police remained on campus for a week following an occupation of the administration building.
The documentary chronicles events of the period. In the film, student activists and CSUN faculty members recount their experiences. Scenes of the various demonstrations are included.
Following the screening, CSUN faculty members and a former activist discussed the results of those campus protests.
“The fact that there are black and Chicano students here, that’s one of the major legacies of the Valley State movement,” said John Michael Lee, a former campus radical who now is a deputy public defender assigned to San Fernando Courthouse. “One of our goals was to increase the number of black and brown students at this campus.”
Between 1966 and 1967, there were 23 blacks and seven Latinos on the Valley State campus. That increased in the fall of 1968 to 150 blacks and 75 Latinos.
“The 1968 takeover of the administration building led to the establishment of the Chicano Studies Department here,” said Gerald A. Resendez, chairman of that department. “This was the first Chicano studies program in the California State University system.”
CSUN’s Pan-African Studies Department also was created from a signed agreement that ended the November, 1968, takeover of the administration building.
In fact, three major demands of black students during that takeover--expansion of the school’s Equal Opportunity Program, creation of an ethnic-studies program and recruitment of minority faculty members--were incorporated into CSUN policy.
“I don’t think students now are aware of how significant their opinions are or can be,” said Verne Bryant, chairman of the Pan-African Studies Department. “The accomplishments of the students of this period certainly prove students can have an impact on the university.”
During a Jan. 8, 1969, demonstration, 50 police officers clashed with more than 2,000 demonstrators at the administration building. When the fracas ended, 14 people had been arrested and two students had been taken to Los Angeles County Hospital.
The following day, thousands of students and faculty members assembled for a peaceful protest of the police action. University officials declared the gathering illegal, and police arrested 300 of the protesters.
Three times a week, an outdoor stage known as “The Open Forum” served as the platform for such speakers as attorney William Kunstler, former UCLA professor Angela Davis and Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd, then leaders of Students for a Democratic Society.
Valley State student Mike Klonsky would later serve as national secretary of SDS.
The campus had an underground newspaper called “Outcry” during the period. It had a circulation of about 5,000 and lasted for five years--an unusually long span for an underground campus newspaper, according to Abe Peck, author of “Uncovering the Sixties--The Life and Times of the Underground Press.”
The last major campus demonstration of the period was on May 5, 1971--the first anniversary of the deadly encounter at Kent State.
In recent years, there have been scattered bursts of political activity on the CSUN campus. Demonstrations calling for university divestiture of stocks in corporations doing business in South Africa drew large numbers of people. CSUN students also have been active in working with refugees from Central America.
Presentation of the documentary on the school’s turbulent past was part of “Political Awareness Month,” a campus activity that student organizers said is aimed at raising the level of political involvement at the school.
Lee, the former campus activist, believes school administrators have tried to erase the turbulent past. For example, he noted that the school’s Open Forum stage has been dismantled.
“They’ve stolen your history,” Lee told a group of CSUN students. “And if they steal your history, you can’t understand what’s happening around you. You act in a vacuum.”