By Sam Levin
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"My view is that they wanted to give (Mechanic) five years in jail for throwing a cherry bomb, while they were giving Medals of Honor to people who were dropping cluster bombs and napalm on Vietnamese children," says Revard. "I thought that it was an outrage then, and I think now that it's an outrage."
Despite growing opposition to the Vietnam War, President Richard Milhous Nixon stunned Americans by announcing on April 30, 1970, that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. Within minutes, anti-war activists took to the streets, and within days more than 60 colleges had been shut down by student strikes. On May 4, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into a crowd of 200 students, wounding nine and killing four. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, state troopers fired more than 300 bullets into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding 12 others. Students reacted by attacking and damaging ROTC buildings at more than 30 colleges across the country. One of those schools was Washington University. Incensed by the Kent State killings, as many as 3,000 students attended a May 4 strike rally held in the university's quadrangle. The crowd then marched on the Air Force ROTC building. The military presence on campus had long been the focus of student protests, but nothing matched the fervor exhibited that night.
Around 12:30 a.m., several of the demonstrators entered the ROTC center with torches and set the building on fire. When firefighters arrived, the mob jeered and pelted them with rocks. Although more than 1,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the violence, only seven were charged. But it was no accident that Mechanic was one of the seven.
Long before the police busted him for throwing a cherry bomb, Mechanic had been targeted by the judicial system and police.
His name is listed in a 1970 congressional report as being among those St. Louisans suspected of traveling to Chicago in October 1969 to take part in an anti-war demonstration called the Days of Rage. The protest turned violent and resulted in massive property damage in downtown Chicago. Six protesters were shot by Chicago police, and more than two dozen cops were injured. The FBI's target in this case was the sponsor of the protest, the Weathermen, a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Weathermen took their name from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Other congressional testimony in 1969 shows that the St. Louis Police Department had been monitoring student politics at Washington University long before Mechanic ever enrolled at the university, using informants to spy on left-wing student organizations. Police estimated the ranks of the university's SDS chapter at no more than 20. Although Mechanic was not linked directly to SDS in the testimony, he was alleged to be a close associate of an SDS member who led a local draft-resistance group.
An earlier fire that gutted the Army ROTC headquarters in the spring semester of 1970, combined with other campus unrest, resulted in a crackdown by the university administration. The university obtained a court order naming Mechanic and six other student demonstrators, including SDS organizer Terry Koch and Devereaux Kennedy, former student-body president. The broad injunction, signed by St. Louis County Circuit Judge George E. Schaaf on March 24, 1970, identified the seven protesters as representatives of a "whole class of defendants" and thereby made them accountable for any future disturbances on campus.
Within hours of the May 4 and 5 rioting, deputized campus police arrested Mechanic. He and other participants in the demonstration had been identified from St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographs surrendered by the newspaper to the FBI. Less than a month later, Schaaf found seven defendants guilty of criminal contempt for violating the restraining order. Mechanic and Koch received the stiffest sentences -- six months in jail and $500 fines. But Mechanic's legal problems were just beginning. The feds were after him for the same crime. In October 1970, Mechanic became the first person convicted by a federal jury of violating the anti-riot law, which had been tacked on as a rider to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Interfering with the duties of firefighters was deemed a federal offense because the Air Force ROTC building was considered federal property. Judge Meredith meted out the maximum sentence -- five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Mechanic appealed, unsuccessfully. In upholding the conviction in Dec. 1971, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed reservations about Mechanic's being tried both in state and federal court for different charges stemming from the same offense. But the possibility that Mechanic had been subjected to double jeopardy wasn't enough to cause the conviction to be set aside, the appeals court ruled.
"They were trying to get anybody who they thought was a student leader -- anybody who they thought was fomenting demonstrations. They had Howard down as one of those guys," says Revard, the English professor who put his house up as collateral for Mechanic's $10,000 bond. When Mechanic didn't show up to begin serving his sentence on May 24, 1972, Meredith started forfeiture proceedings. Revard relied on contributions from fellow faculty members to pay off the bond.
Unlike Mechanic, Napoleon Bland didn't avoid incarceration. Bland, now a Muslim who has changed his name to Napoleon A. Rahim, ended up serving four-and-half years in federal prison for his part in the disturbance. In 1970, Rahim worked at Barnes Hospital and attended Washington University part-time. As a youth, he took an active interest in the civil-rights movement and in Urban League and NAACP-sponsored activities, and, for a brief period, he belonged to the militant Black Liberators group. In the wake of the Kent State massacre, he found himself swept up in the fiery protest that erupted at Washington University.
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