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The way we were: 1970

Even for people who were alive in the 1960s -- as I barely was (although not in the same way I'm barely alive today) -- there can be a forgetfulness of how crazy things were, now America really was a nation on the brink. I think there's a disconnect -- today in 2012 we write so much about a nation that seems hopelessly divided, but then you remember -- well, this old thing, for one -- but also how much anger and violence, including riots and numerous political assassinations, took place in America less than a half-century ago. Sure, today there's Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party (actually, there's no Tea Party but let's not digress) and gridlock on Capitol Hill and an out-of-control media egging folks on, but really, how can you compare anything so far in the 21st Century to this:

As the Vietnam War raged overseas, aftershocks were felt down Oread Avenue. The town and University were in turmoil. The activists armed themselves with guns, firebombs and rage — temporarily turning Lawrence into a war zone. In 1970 alone, the Union was burned down in April, the Military Science building stoned in May and the Computation Lab bombed in December. The National Guard came in to help local law enforcement control the town-in-resist. Rick "Tiger" Dowdell, 19-year-old active member of the black-rights community, fled down an alley and was shot in the back of the head by Officer William Garret. In response, 18-year-old freshman Nick Rice was shot and killed. The ignored African-American community had an armed response in East Lawrence and student activists turned the University's surrounding area into an armed camp. The Oread neighborhood became a true "Student Ghetto." Students lined alleys with barbed wire and piano wire to keep the police out. From rooftops, student snipers shot the tires of police cars.

"Police cars would drive through with their headlights off, and they would still get shot at," recalls 1970s student activist Christine Smith. She says she was shocked to see her friends carrying guns. Then-Kansas Governor Robert Docking implemented a sundown curfew on all residents.

KU graduate Lorraine Hilleary-Alber remembers hearing a recording made during the riots: Her father and a friend blasted Silent Night on their electric guitars, and gunshots rang in the background.

In August 1970, Richard Nixon's political commission on campus unrest sent a team to "investigate the sources of violence and unrest in Lawrence," which lasted full-force through the end of 1971.

Yes, you read that right. Lawrence. As in Lawrence, Kamsas, home of the University of Kansas. Not Berkeley. Not Columbia. But the American Heartland, the center of the Bible Belt, the "red states," "flyover country." No matter what your political viewpoint, I think we can all hope things never get like this again. The greatest gains for social good in the country -- most famously the civil rights movement of the early and mid-1960s -- succeeded with, and because of, a non-violent approach.

Indeed, one reason I've written mostly favorably about Occupy Wall Street so far is that one of the stated goals of the movement is non-violence, and except for a couple of window-breaking knuckleheads they've so far kept it that way. I'm not expecting much from them for tomorrow's hyped May Day protests, but hopefully whatevere does happen will keep up that peaceful track record.

But mainly I post this because a) frankly I was a little shocked to read how things were in Kansas (originally inspired by this) and b) it's hard to understand where we're going unless we remember where we've been. It's a long strange trip, for sure.