Protesting students being hauled away by state troopers, smashed windows and a hippie takeover of the ROTC air armory that took an artistic turn. These are some of the events that characterized the atmosphere that existed surrounding the first Earth Day celebrations at the University of Connecticut in 1970.
A student and a staff member who were at the university for the first Earth Day spoke about their experiences at a panel Wednesday afternoon in Beach Hall. The speakers emphasized the role of ardent student activists to force change.
“The students led, the institution followed. The students led. The country followed. It happened all over the place. I remember that,” Robert Thorson, geoscience professor and the organizer and moderator of the event, said.
Through research at the Thomas J. Dodd Center Archives, Thorson found the official UConn history makes no mention of the Earth Day activities. The only information he was able to find was in the Connecticut Daily Campus, the Daily Campus’ former name, where the events were advertised and reported on across five pages of print over three days, Thorson said.
The Connecticut Daily Campus’ front-page story on April 22, Earth Day, was a photo of a man standing in front of a heap of garbage.
The primary issues of the first Earth Day were pollution and overpopulation, Thorson said. Issues such as climate change were not yet on the agenda.
“The whole focus of Earth Day was not on global warming. It’s not even mentioned,” Thorson said. “The focus (was) pollution, pollution, pollution, pollution…so you can think of how things have changed.”
George Jacobi, who was a junior in 1970, spoke about the charged atmosphere that pervaded the campus while he was there.
“Fifty years on, I’m still discovering what happened to UConn and the Earth in those years, and more importantly, what happened to me,” Jacobi said.
Jacobi talked about how there was a constant fear of being drafted and the events of the war looming over the students.
“Nobody now has the choice of going to war made for them. But I wouldn’t trade those years for anything,” Jacobi said.
Frank Napolitano, the other speaker, attended UConn from 1962 to 1966. He was drafted and then returned to UConn for graduate school.
He was a member of the Student Affairs staff in 1970. Napolitano said his position gave him a “ground-level view” of what was going on with student activism at the time.
Napolitano described several standout incidents from the period. At one point, he said students protesting racism occupied the Wilbur Cross Library and refused to leave. Police were then called in to arrest the students, Napolitano said.
“There were people in tears that we had reached this level of animosity,” Napolitano said.
Another incident occurred when Students for a Democratic Society seized control of the ROTC hanger, which used to be next to Jorgenson theatre.
Thorson read testimony from former student Paul Brody who described what UConn President Homer Babbage did in response to their protest.
“Always a charismatic person, he was magnificent that night,” Brody wrote. “He reminded us of our Earth Day rally just days before. He urged us to find a way to imagine a peaceful way to be heard and make that happen.”
Brody’s statement went on to say that Babbage provided the students with buckets of paint and brushes and challenged them to paint the walls of the armory.
“We were out there all night and much of the next day crafting a vision of our world,” Brody said. “It was very congruent with the Earth Day rally.”
Napolitano said Earth Day served as a way for the campus to come together and unite for something peaceful amid these confrontations.
“It seemed all of a sudden like a breath of a relief,” Napolitano said. “This was an event that brought faculty and staff together as a positive when everything else was just so negative.”
Brody echoed these sentiments writing, “Earth Day felt like a respite from the daily drone of death and destruction, the draft, the pressures of school. The ‘Save the Earth Movement’ would have been a rallying cry for us politically motivated students had it not been for the war.”
Thorson said the environmental movement and Earth Day was fundamentally a student-led initiative.
“Connecticut students were leading the way,” Thorson said. “The key is the faculty didn’t really notice the environment as an issue.”
Cameron Mitchell, a 2016 UConn grad who majored in geoscience, said it was insightful to hear about the beginnings of the environmental movement.
“It was really interesting for me to hear about what happened compared to what I see (now) and that there’s still a passion for the environment,” Mitchell said.
Kervelle Baird, a geoscience and environmental studies double major, is from Trinidad and Tobago. She said she learned a lot about American history from the talk, especially things like the Kent State massacre which she had not known about before.
“I was very glad to learn the history,” Baird said. “It had me thinking about comparing (those events) to present day.”
Thorson reiterated a statement he made in a column published in the Hartford Courant last week about the power of students to affect change.
“The take home message is that UConn’s students and their national cohort convinced the generation of their parents to support a sea-change of environmental legislation within the next five years,” Thorson said.
President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed. The Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 and the Clean Air Act was amended in 1977.
Jacobi said these changes were indeed the result of pressure put on by student activists.
“One valuable thing I learned was this — as geologists might say: great change only occurs under great pressure,” Jacobi said.