Robert Coover's Documentary on the Dec. 5, 1967, Demonstration Against Dow Chemical at the University of Iowa

From the University of Iowa archive

From YouTube

A Reminiscence by JR Foley

     Three months before the Tet Offensive of February 1968, which turned Walter Cronkite and a new majority of the American public against the war in Vietnam, there was a demonstration against a Dow Chemical recruiter at the Student Union of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Dow Chemical made napalm for the Air Force to drop on Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. An earlier demonstration in November had blocked access to a Marine recruiter. Some arrests occurred at that one when demonstrators locked arms in front of the main entrance. But as a result the Dow demonstration on December 5th was much bigger.

     I was not a demonstrator but went over to the Union to see what developed, and in the swelling crowd of spectators ran into Bob and Pili Coover. (I was one of his Fiction Workshop students.) Pili told me that they came to participate; Bob had attended an organizing meeting the night before. But his participation, it turned out, was as what was beginning to be called an "advocacy journalist." He had a big movie camera and a tape recorder in his hands. Without hesitation he asked me if I would take the tape recorder. His previous mike man had been grabbed by cops elsewhere. He had a number of guys roaming the crowd with tape recorders.

     At this point the demonstration was a long loose picket line, which, I believe, Pili joined. Bob quickly led me around to the north (or riverside) end of the Union. To prevent a line of locked arms at the main entrance (facing west) a cordon of campus cops was guarding the front doors, allowing individuals in one by one if they looked obviously uninvolved with the demonstration. Another door on the south side was also cordoned, but no one was allowed in there, as I recall. There must have been another set of doors on the east side, with the same story. It might have been on the south or east side that the earlier mike guy was grabbed.

     Notwithstanding some hecklers, the crowd was teeming mostly with people like me who were there to see what would happen; probably a number, like me, debating whether to join. Since I did not like anyone to prevent me physically from doing anything I chose to do, I was not about to join any arm-lockers. For the same reason, among others, I did not want to be forced, by threat of prison, to shoot Vietnamese. Let's say there were any number of people like me in the crowd. In the film, in fact, I see cropping up among the spectators like Waldos everywhere young men with short dark hair and Clark Kent glasses who could be me, might be me, but almost certainly are not me, because Bob recruited me almost instantly. The shambling picket line below the steps to the main doors held many signs, but two features stand out. The antiwar chants (like STOP DOW NOW!) often broke into a song I later discovered was from Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade:

We're poor, and the poor stay poor
Don't make us wait out here any more
We want our rights and we don't care how
We want a revolution NOW!

     Leading the song was a brooding, darkly moustached, darkly goateed "Death," cowled in a burlap monk's robe, carrying a sickle and a cross with a doll nailed to it. (Later, after Bob and I disappeared to the river entrance, the doll was burned with homemade napalm). Also pinned to the front of "Death's" robe was a paper saying: "I am Dow's only recruit."

     Bob and I were both surprised that the river entrance to the Student Union was free of police. So in we went to the little snack bar there, and sat at a table for a few minutes. Bob whispered he knew a crowd was about to come through on the way to the Placement Office where the Dow recruiter sat; that was the contingency plan decided the night before at the meeting. We did not have to wait long. In a few minutes Bert Marian -- a drama director, TA, and incidentally Presbyterian minister -- suddenly pulled the outside door open and surged ahead like the lead bull in Pamplona -- with a crowd of bulls, male and female, right behind him. He was sputtering indignant apostrophes in his rich baritone. Coover was impressed; he said it had taken Bert a long time to talk himself into this the night before. (Bert is featured in several shots in the film: stocky, bearded, bespectacled, intent.)

     So we fell in behind the front rank of the crowd and soon arrived at the bottom of the stairwell up to the Placement Office -- just as campus cops were doubletiming to the bottom and forming a short defensive line, baton to baton. Bob started filming; he asked me to ask one of the beefier cops for a comment. (I recognize this cop in one of the stills.) The cop muttered and tried to grab the mike; I pulled it back and got beside Coover again. I remember a couple of pieces of "dialogue" back and forth; one, Lorry Rice, a short blond Brit, claiming he had a student's right to go upstairs and look at job listings on the Placement Office bulletin board. The cops only said, "Get back!" but didn't push. Rice kept demanding access. Then one of the higher-rank officers stuck his hand through the line of police shoulders into Rice's face with an aerosol can and sprayed. It turned out to be the first use of Mace against anti-Vietnam demonstrators on a U.S. campus. Unfortunately, it does not turn out clearly in the film, and so is not shown; but someone snapped a photo of it that ran in TIME and NEWSWEEK and other news magazines and newspapers over the next few months. I'm standing right behind Rice as he got a face full of Mace and fell to the floor curled up, face all red, lungs heaving for breath. The rest of us got more than a whiff of Mace and there was a general outbreak of coughing and yelling. Two cops picked Rice up off the floor (he was one of those subsequently charged with conspiracy). Once Rice was cleared from the front of the police line, the order rang out to "Get moving!" The film does record a "Get movin'!" (which I got on my mike); and although that soundbite could be from anywhere inside or outside over the several hours of the demonstration, its timbre is so sharp and without background noise it must be from indoors. I think it's the one contribution to the film I can point to -- though not with complete confidence.

     We all got movin', as fast as possible running against a press of people not yet realizing the action in the corridor had turned to hasty retreat -- and as the guys right behind us were grabbed, we were able to clear out of the snack bar into the general mob of observers outside. Coover took back the recorder with thanks and went off to look for his wife. Which is to say, I don't remember any more specifically, although the demonstration did not yet end. Probably I had a class to get to so I got to it.

     Not a momentous event in the history of anti-Vietnam demonstrations, but certainly significant for Iowa; and notwithstanding the shortcomings of a first-time documentary, the film is compelling. I'm disappointed the climactic interior confrontation with the cops does not come off clearly, because of the lighting, I'm sure. Only if a steadycam, or two or three of them, placed up on the corridor walls and perhaps, yes, on the stairwell occupied by cops, had been present would a nice clear mise en scene have been possible. Bob has had to fall back on stills illuminated by flashbulbs.

     Fred McTaggart is mentioned. His skull was split open earlier and he went to the hospital, although under arrest. He had been prominent in the anti-war rallies at Iowa up to this time. I do not disparage his subsequent withdrawal to the sidelines. He came very close to suffering brain damage, and had to ask himself would it have been worth it. He did contribute his story to the voice-over narrative of the film.

     An exciting time was had by all. We got chased through the student union by the campus cops. Lucky me was a step faster than the guy behind me, who got hauled down, and along with all the others nabbed was charged with felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. The charges were all dropped months later, but not until messing up a number of lives during that school year.

     Robert Coover adds:

     The reason I had to use photographs for the main event is that at least one hundred feet of footage from behind the lines had disappeared when the developed negs came back from the lab. Either someone picked my duffelcoat pocket while I was changing film there in the basement (one of those superpatriot students hovering nearby maybe) or it got appropriated by the police at the lab. I heard that the police were later giving talks around the state at Rotary clubs and suchlike and showing a piece of footage meant to alarm the voters and get them to agree to arm and pay for extra volunteer police deputies. The loss meant that I had hours of sound (thanks!), especially after the lengthy interviews, but very limited dramatic imagery, so most of my time thereafter was spent trying to squeeze sound and create something out of the limited imagery that I did have. The sound guy who got arrested, by the way, later seen being dragged out of the building and shoved into a police car, was David Drum, who might have been in your workshop. Wholly coincidentally I heard from him a couple of weeks ago. He sent me his recent novel, Introducing the Richest Family in America, and I was able to point him to the film on the Iowa website, which he had never seen.