May 68 - 50 years on

A 30 year reunion was held on Saturday, 24th October 1998 for those who were at Essex University during the Academic Years 1967/8 and 1968/9, and who considered it to have been a positive experience worth celebrating. Over 120 people came and shared a wonderful, memorable evening. Friendships were renewed.

Jack Straw quote

Essex, May 68 - a personal memory

The events of May, 1968 at the University of Essex started with a protest against the recruitment of students to work at the chemical and biological research station at Porton Down. The University's response to this protest led to massive general meetings, which voted to replace the existing university with a "Free University of Essex".

When I enrolled in 1966, the campus was as quiet and pedestrian as any university of the early 1990's. But early in 1968, everything changed. Protests over food prices were followed by busloads of Essex students joining the 17th March ‘Battle of Grosvenor Square’ demonstration against the Vietnam War. Hundreds of students disrupted a lecture given by Enoch Powell, shortly after he had delivered his "Rivers of Blood" speech. When the University attempted to discipline myself and six others involved in the Powell demonstration, the disciplinary hearings were prevented by sit-ins.

On Tuesday, 7th May, Dr. Inch, a scientist from Porton Down arrived to give a talk on toxic chemicals. The planned demonstration was organised in secret. Communication was by word of mouth and only to those people whose discretion could be relied upon.

The Chemistry Department had expected a handful of third year science undergraduates to attend the meeting. What they got was hundreds of protesters armed with an indictment.

Before Dr Inch could start speaking, a young woman with long black hair, stood up and started reading the indictment in a strong, loud voice. She described in some detail the activities of Porton Down; in particular, the development of CS gas which was being used in Vietnam and on the streets of Paris.

University security men were soon on the scene. As fast as they prevented one person from reading the indictment, someone else would stand and start reading from another copy. Dr Inch was trapped and forced to listen to the charges.

Police arrived, bringing their dogs with them.

"Here, this one will do!" I remember hearing, as several pairs of arms grabbed me.

"No arrests!" shouted a voice and I was freed by my friends. I was grabbed again and freed in the same way before escaping. We all began to retreat towards the residential blocks.

In the following decade, student protest, sit-ins and occupations were to become commonplace. However, at this time, they were new phenomena and commanded national press attention. The following morning's papers were full of stories about the police and dogs being called to the Essex campus.

On Friday, 10th May three students, David Triesman, Raphael Halberstadt and Peter Archard, received letters of suspension. The letters ordered them to leave the campus by six o' clock that afternoon.

Within an hour of the letters being delivered, a general meeting of four hundred students and staff had gathered. The Administration offices were occupied and the three students were given protection in one of the residential towers.

A delegation of about 250 marched to the Vice-Chancellor's lakeside villa. They demanded an audience with the VC, Albert Sloman, but his frightened wife insisted that he was not at home.

Strong feelings, tension and excitement increased throughout the weekend. Newly painted slogans spoke for many.

The floor is now open to further questions

Where has all the knowledge gone? Long time passing

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Monday morning saw the largest general meeting in the university's three and a half year history. Over a thousand staff and students were present; about four fifths of the entire university. A motion deploring the Vice-chancellor's action and his refusal to attend the meeting was passed by a huge majority.

The meeting continued all day. Speeches were lively, impassioned, humorous and often, poetical. By the end of the day, it was agreed that all routine teaching and functions at the University should be suspended until the three students were reinstated.

The following morning saw the creation of the "Free University of Essex." Teach-ins, organised discussions and seminars were held on many of the issues that had been thrown up by the conflict. These included university reform, the role of the press and, of course, chemical and biological warfare.

Distinctions between staff and students became notably less obvious. The atmosphere was festive. In the evening the campus main square was packed with students clutching bottles of wine and dancing to music like Country Joe’s anti-Vietnam songs. "One, two, three, four, what are we fighting for?"

Large general meetings, the Free University, media attention and negotiations with the VC and Senate continued all week.

By the Thursday, Dr Sloman finally agreed to attend the General Meeting and answer questions. If anything, the Thursday meeting was even larger than the Monday one.

However, Sloman's response was evasive, unclear and showed little grasp of the impact his actions had had. In the one and a half hours he was present, he failed completely to give reasons for what both staff and students saw as his arbitrary use of power. He failed to explain why the three students had not been given the opportunity to present their case. Or why there was no independent appeals procedure.

Even a report in that morning's Times had remarked, "...One can certainly sympathise with the students over the issue of justice. They were not asked to state their case nor are they allowed any appeal against the decision. Additionally, only three out of some 100 to 200 students were singled out for treatment." (Times, 16th May 1968)

Dr Sloman insisted that authority in the University, and therefore the three students' future, rested with the Senate. The Senate had already met and endorsed the VC's actions. It was not due to meet again for another month.

Staff and students remained united, adamant and lyrical in their persistent demands for the students' reinstatement. Letters and telegrams of support flooded into the University, including one from Jean-Paul Sartre.

That evening, behind-the-scenes moves by senior staff were successful in bringing about a further meeting of Senate the next day. Senate could no longer resist the almost unanimous feeling of the university community. A face-saving formula was worked out which meant that three students were immediately reinstated.

The demonstration over Porton Down and its publicity provoked results that could not have been foreseen. A founder of a group campaigning against chemical and biological warfare, contacted the University. She said that because of the protest, the Guardian had decided to publish a front page article on the subject. She had been unsuccessfully pressing them to do this for some time.

The BBC decided to show a film on CBW that they had made earlier. The "Observer" released a list of University scientists engaged on work connected with Porton Down.

There were other results from the demonstration that were, if anything, more important. The Free University debated issues such as the extension of university democracy, the validity of the examination system, the nature and purpose of knowledge and the concept of free speech. When the students departed to their different parts of the country, many took with them the ideas and inspirations of their own May, 68.

Formerly, students were regarded as another part of the Establishment. They were the ones who did as they were told. If they had any association with politics in the public mind, it was as strike-breakers in the General Strike. 1968 changed all that.

Essex was the first British university to be shaken by a major revolt. The influence of the May 68 events at Essex and the examination of the issues they raised was not confined to those who took part. Our experience, and similar experiences across the world, was avidly followed, analysed and developed by a whole generation. This generation helped to bring about a complete renaissance of ideas of the post-war world.

Only six months before the May 68 events, sociologists and pundits were stating quite categorically that workers and students had been contained within modern society. The age of revolt and protest, they would have had us believe, was merely a thing of the past. Consequently, when I am informed that the most collective action Essex students now perform is congregating together before a large TV screen to watch Neighbours, I remember similar images of apathetic domesticity among my own contemporaries not long before the rebellions of 1968.

In spite of cynics commenting then and since, many of us have never lost our radicalism. On the contrary, it has deepened and matured. We are in the Green, Peace and Women's movements. We are still campaigning against racism, poverty and pollution. Now this generation has entered middle age, it could well start having a power and influence in society. Maybe, our time has yet to come.

© Written by Chris Ratcliffe sometime in the eighties


Vietnam demo