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"I was one of the few African-Americans who was caught up in this melee," says Rahim. "All I did was go down there and throw rocks and cans at the ROTC building. When they went into the building, I ran up to the building. A fellow came out and handed me a flag," says Rahim. "The next thing I know, he was torching it. They got a picture of me. They said I burned the flag."
Rahim says he received ineffectual legal representation and ended up serving his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His prison record has haunted him ever since. "Every time that comes up, (it) seems to hold a shadow over me, as if it's something recent. I felt that it was a great miscarriage of justice," says Rahim, but he doesn't hold a grudge against Mechanic for fleeing. "I'm a Muslim now, and we don't live in the past."
Rahim says Mechanic appears to have led an honorable life as Gary Tredway. "I feel it's a great miscarriage of justice to even think about putting him in jail, due to the fact he's done so much great community work where he's been at," he says.
It's a view shared by Mechanic's supporters in Phoenix. They argue that he has suffered enough and more than paid for his crime by committing himself through dedication to the community in which he lives. Others aren't so willing to forgive and forget. One of them is retired Special Agent J. Wallace LaPrade, who headed the St. Louis FBI office in 1970. "I think he violated the law, and I think he should be held accountable," says LaPrade, 73, who now lives in Virginia. "The fact that he left, I think, should increase the punishment that was rendered at the time that he fled. Leniency? Absolutely not. This individual committed a crime. He was convicted of a crime. And he should pay for the crime."
LaPrade, who moved to New York City in 1971 to head the bureau's largest field office, ironically saw his own career abruptly end, thanks to his activities fighting the anti-war movement. He was sacked as assistant director of the FBI in 1978 for failing to cooperate in the Justice Department's investigation into the FBI's illegal activities. The FBI was accused of burglarizing private residences and offices as part of its efforts to apprehend fugitive members of the Weather Underground.
After the burning of the ROTC building in 1970, a declassified FBI memo shows, LaPrade was contacted by an unidentified intermediary who had won union support to "repair all the damages caused by the (Washington University) demonstrators at no cost to the government." According to the memo, the plan was designed to garner "considerable publicity ... (and) Life magazine is among the members of the news media who have expressed an interest in this matter.... " Asked this week about the memo, LaPrade says, "I never heard of such a thing."
Washington University, however, elected to move the controversial ROTC program off-campus, and the public-relations effort flopped.
The FBI's local efforts were not always so benign. In 1975, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that the St. Louis field office had sent anonymous letters in 1969 and 1970 to two black-militant organizations in an attempt to disrupt those groups' activities by alleging marital infidelity among members.
The FBI's efforts to smash the Weathermen took on added purpose in March 1970, when the group's bomb-making efforts backfired, killing three members of the organization at a safe house in Greenwich Village. Subsequently, the Weather Underground carried out scores of bombing against targets such as Harvard University, the New York City Police headquarters, the offices of Gulf Oil, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon.
In 1971, a final attempt was made to destroy Washington University's ROTC offices, which had been moved off-campus. That year, William Danforth was named the university's chancellor, succeeding the beleaguered Thomas H. Eliot, who had struggled with waves of campus unrest.
Under Danforth, Washington University's reputation grew nationally, faculty members won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes, and the university's endowment grew 11-fold to more than $1.7 billion. Today, about 50 Wash. U. undergraduates are enrolled in ROTC. The turmoil of 1970 became a historical footnote, and Howard Mechanic was forgotten.
Danforth, now 73 and the university's chairman emeritus, has few recollections of that period and offers no opinion about the fate of the former student who spent a lifetime on the run for throwing fireworks at firemen. During a phone interview Saturday morning, Danforth interrupts his reminiscences to make sure of the safety of his granddaughter, who has wandered into the street in front of his house. "I didn't like the Vietnam War," he says. "(But) I was in the Korean War and had a great sense of patriotism." From his perspective, Danforth says, he could see both sides of the issue.
"Eventually things got worked out," says Danforth.
Howard Mechanic, however, can't say the same thing.