UC Berkeley is famous for its student protests during the Vietnam War era, but students protested all over the Bay Area.

Stanford students rioted to kick the ROTC program off-campus. San Francisco State University students gained notoriety for going on strike in 1968 to demand ethnic studies classes, but the campus was also a hotbed for anti-war protest.

And San Jose State University students garnered national headlines with a couple dynamic protests, like the one over campus recruiting by Dow Chemical.

Dow Chemical was a major manufacturer of napalm, a reviled weapon used extensively by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and on Nov. 20, 1967, roughly 3,000 people filled the plaza outside the administration building at San Jose State to protest the company’s presence.

The university’s archives contain footage of that protest:

San Jose State journalism professor Gordon Greb reported on the chaotic scene, injecting some commentary that today belies what you can observe in the video footage. Many people who marched against the Vietnam War will tell you the media at that time tended to downplay the size of crowds and focus their reports on violence. (This demonstration had been peaceful for hours before the scene on this video.)

That was the perspective of one shy physics major who was part of the crowd that day, Gil Villagran. Today, Villagran’s hair is short and white. He walks with a cane. But on that day in 1967, Villagran was an obvious target for police photographers looking to identify troublemakers. He wore his hair long, and on top, a Che Guevera-style red beret, with a yellow felt star he’d sewn on himself.

People around Villagran spotted the photographers on the roof of the engineering building overlooking the plaza. “Somebody said, ‘Look, it’s the cops taking pictures of us. Wave to the cops.’”

Gil Villagran's long hair and beard caught the eye of police photographers in 1967. He's trimmed since then, but his fervor for political protest remains strong.
Gil Villagran’s long hair and beard caught the eye of police photographers in 1967. He’s trimmed since then, but his fervor for political protest remains strong. (Photo: Courtesy of Gil Villagran)

Those photos would lead to his expulsion, making Villagran one of a handful of demonstrators who paid a price for putting San Jose State in the national headlines. Later that week, a letter arrived, special delivery, at his parents’ home in Santa Clara.

It reads: “The Governor of the state of California, Ronald Reagan, the trustees of the California State University system, the president of the university, have determined that your presence on this campus is a danger to faculty, students and staff.”

“I’ve never seen my mother so distraught,” Villagran said.

His parents were not happy about his penchant for political protest. Villagran’s father was a bracero, a farmworker from Mexico. Villagran was the first in his family to go to college. They wanted him to focus on his studies. They also worried for his physical safety.

But in 1967 Villlagran felt there was nothing more important than the war: a war he felt was unjust, unconstitutional and a horrific waste of human life.

“Two of my friends were dead. And I was a very bitter young man about that,” he says.

Villagran was already annoying less politically charged students by turning every class he attended into a seminar on the war.

“And many students would get very upset,” he says. “‘Hey, I came here to learn psychology. Why are we talking about this fucking war?’”

The Dow Chemical protest of 1967 was covered by the Spartan Daily.
The Dow Chemical protest of 1967 was covered by the Spartan Daily. (Photo: Courtesy of San José State University Special Collections & Archives)

That’s when Villagran was still going to class. He admits he attended fewer and fewer classes, as the immediacy of the war gnawed on him. Almost every day, he says, there was a teach-in on the plaza by the administration building, or planning meetings for protests and marches at San Jose State. Underground newsletters like Sedition and The Red Eye kept student activists apprised of the latest news.

Villagran traveled with friends to other campuses to see famous people, including Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, Harry Edwards, Bobby Kennedy and Ralph Nader. But the 23,000 student campus at San Jose also pulled in top-line anti-war speakers and performers, including Joan Baez, who offered to sing a song for the first student who promised to burn his draft card should one come in the mail.

Villagran volunteered.

San Jose State students made national headlines again in 1970, when they marched to the San Jose Civic Auditorium, where President Richard Nixon’s motorcade left through a crowd of angry demonstrators. GOP advertisements then used images of the scene to drum up political support for Republican candidates that election season.

San Jose State sociology Professor Emeritus Bob Gliner was also protesting the war back then. He says anti-war demonstrators were always a vocal minority on campus. In the decades since the Vietnam War, student activism has generally been episodic.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, they grew out of it, or they grew up.’ But I think, if we want to have a vibrant democracy, it’s not something you grow out of,” Gliner says. “It’s something you integrate into your day to day life, to be conscious of world events and to do something about problems that really bother you.”

Villagran, now 69, speaks proudly of a lifetime of political activism. After he was expelled in 1967, he returned to San Jose State to earn a masters degree. He became a social worker and returned to San Jose State to teach in the School of Social Work, where he’s still an emeritus lecturer.

Over the years, he’s written articles and opinion pieces for local papers and blogs. His interests range from current politics, like the presidency of Donald Trump, to the historical, like this essay on four San Jose women who attempted to block the loading of napalm bombs headed for Vietnam in 1966. Currently, Villagran is focused on highlighting the Latino history of the South Bay with a group called the La Raza Historical Society of Santa Clara Valley.

Villagran says he would like the university to mark the area where students angrily protested Dow Chemical with a monument outside the administration building.

“There should be something here like that. Right here. Because that’s where it all happened,” he said.

To read more of KQED’s series of articles regarding the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar

Vietnam War Inspires a Lifetime of Political Activism in San Jose 18 September,2017Rachael Myrow

  • virgil

    Villagran and his comrades are the one’s that cost us the war in Vietnam—they stabbed the army in the back!!!

    • Linda Ling

      Just a little curious as to how old you are, Virgil.

      • virgil

        62—that make some kind of a difference??/

  • JR

    Get a history book Virgil. The reason we lost the Vietnam conflict (not a war) is because of both very flawed political and military decision making. Protestors and supporters of the conflict either protested or supported US efforts however it was poor military and political leadership that led to the final result. You can now go back to blaming Jane Fonda or you can study the facts.

    • virgil

      The very fact you think there is some one history book with all the answers tells me you are an amateur to start with. Second, I am 100 percent certain I have more books on Vietnam War in my personal library than you will ever see in your life. Third I wrote my MA thesis on Eisenhower and Operation Vulture (look it up dude). Finally, the NLF was in fact in regular contact with the anti war movement (as it was called—I prefer to call it what it was the Fifth Column) and its leaders. Hanoi did in fact calculate the effect of the anti war protests (so called) on their strategy. Failure to recognize that fact reveals that you cant tell the difference between a river in Egypt from Denial . (P.s. If Eisenhower had implemented Vulture we would not even be having this discussion!!

    • virgil

      Entertaining the troops…….wrong troops at least I think they were the wrong troops,,,but they must have been your comrades!!


    • virgil

      OK you win I will read a history book…..oh here is one Micheal Lind’ s case for the war!!


  • phixit

    Gil, thank you for your service to our democracy and the many sacrifices that you made!

    • virgil

      Yes !!! You are one of Ho Chi Minh’s heroes.

  • Point of view is everything. I was there and have another version.

    I left class at noon and got lunch at the cafeteria on 7th Street. I left because tear gas was clinging to people coming in. The “plaza” the reporters were looking out was 7th Street where it ran through the campus. Students had to go through this area every day. When I came out I saw a small group walking back and forth in front of the administration building. The vast majority of people were going to and from classes and we were standing around watching.

    The cops in riot gear marched south on 7th and the crowd parted and closed. They then they got the crowd in San Fernando Street and decided to move them back. My next class was canceled because the instructor was teargassed.

    I saw a small number of actual protesters and a mass of people who had to cross the campus on legitimate business. There was no cohesive mob and many spectators. The news that night did not match my experience nor did the reporting included here.
    I recall knowing one or two of the protesters at the time. I was a Psychology major and a partner in May (Loves You) on San Fernando Street.

    I did not see any violence on the part of the students. I was told that a balloon of chicken blood was thrown at the Administration Building Door. The cops also stamped their feet a lot and kicked a chair in the street. The SJPD changed tactics for protest after that. It was amazingly calm considering what went on. There was no riot and no mob with a common purpose other than getting lunch and getting to the next class. The foot traffic in the middle of the day was always heavy.

    For people reading the description of the event remember that the campus has changed. 7th Street was blocked off but it was still a street not a plaza as it is now. 9th Street was not blocked off and the larger Student Union did not exist. The cafeteria was on 7th Street. Engineering was there but not the current building. The campus was smaller.


Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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