A Vietnam War Protest was held in St. Cloud – on ‘This Date In Central Minnesota History’
ST. CLOUD – May 5, 1970 – When the United States first began fighting the Vietnam War, there was a lot of support from the public and Congress. But, as the war dragged on, more and more people began to question and protest U.S. involvement. This movement was spearheaded by youth activists, and their numbers grew as more people objected to the increasing death and destruction.
Violence erupted in cities and especially on college campuses. When the decision came from President Nixon to invade Cambodia, massive demonstrations were held across the country. Tragically, 4 young students were killed when shot by Ohio National Guard troops at such a rally at Kent State University on Monday, May 4th, 1970. This led to nationwide boycotts.
Colleges here in Central Minnesota immediately joined in the protests. The undergraduate student government at St. John’s University voted to shut down the next day’s classes and arranged a noon march to the Stearns County Courthouse in downtown St. Cloud. They invited St. Cloud State and St. Benedict’s students to join them. SJU student body president Dave Varlandshoot stated “This is not a boycott against the university. The student government has voted the boycott for Tuesday in protest against President Nixon’s Cambodian invasion and because of the four Kent University students fatally wounded. It definitely will be a peaceful march. This was stressed in the motion we passed Monday night” (St. Cloud Daily Times, 5 May 1970).
About 700 sympathizers showed up downtown St. Cloud on May 5th, 1970. After speeches and a war-protest rally at the Federal Building, the crowd marched down to the DeSoto Bridge, where, according to headlines “Peace Rally Spirals Into Police Test”. The crowd, now about 1,000 strong, blocked Hwy 23 traffic when they sat down on the bridge. After about 20 minutes, SJU freshman Robert Thompson from Yankton, S.D. was arrested after he refused to leave the highway. The rest of the protesters quickly cleared the way for traffic and surrounded the arresting officer. The students grabbed both Thompson and the officer, pleading for him to release Thompson. During the hassle, someone stole the officer’s gun and several bullets from his belt holster. Chief of Police Nicholas Grams and about five other officers quickly joined the mob, but were unable to regain control. The police were outnumbered 100-to-1, and Grams agreed that he would release Thompson if the gun was returned. Thompson was then released…but the gun was not turned over.
Following this 30 minute confrontation with the police, the group continued their march to St. Cloud State University where they disrupted a faculty meeting. Part of the group also marched to the St. Cloud Chancery Office, wanting to speak to the Bishop about the Catholic Church’s stance on the War. The day ended with no further scuffles. A larger protest was held a few days later on May 8th, in conjunction with nationwide boycotts. 3,000 people attended this rally in St. Cloud, and more than 4 million students participated in demonstrations across the country that day.
Thanks to Sarah Warmka and the Stearns History Museum for their help with our series, “This Date In Central Minnesota History”.