Palo Alto History. Org

The Stanford Medical Center Protest: Looking for Trouble

For those groups that had long been kept down in American society, the 1960s were a decade of rising expectations. The political and legal successes of African-Americans in the civil rights movement showed the way for many other groups long repressed --- women, the poor, Latinos.  These groups watched as African-
Americans laid out a blueprint for how to achieve real social change.  But the civil rights movement also raised expectations to a level that was unattainable in such a short time.  In the cities where Third World poverty continued despite promises for change, dreams were deferred and violence erupted.

As historian Anatol Rapoport explained, “It is not the people without hope who feel themselves most frustrated…but people who made some headway, who are led to expect more, and whose hopes have been disappointed.”  As it happened, the headway made by African-Americans in the early 1960s led to the riots and explosions seen in the inner-cities in the late ‘60s.  

It also resulted in higher expectations among all those who suffered injustice.  As Dr. King had said, “The time is now” and it seemed that every group with a grievance --- real or not --- suddenly came forth to demand their rights.  Many of these groups had more than reasonable complaints, but the mainstream establishment could only handle so many rebellions at one time.  Indeed, for the half of America that had
thrived during the 1950s, the next decade seemed to be spinning horribly out of control.  And by the early 1970s, students and leftists were looking for new causes to pursue.

This was the scene as students and leftist activists focused on a small but real inequity at Stanford University Medical Center --- the salary of the custodians.  The condition of the working poor was the sort of issue that galvanized students and baffled the establishment.  While students saw it as a good place to think globally and act locally, hospital administrators were caught off guard by the sudden and unexpected outrage.

The controversy began when custodian Sam Bridges was fired in late March of 1971.  Bridges had been trying to organize custodians at the hospital and discussing the merits of Black Power.  His dismissal led to condemnation among civil rights and student groups on campus.  On April 8th, 1971, 250 protesters marched to the office of hospital director Dr. Thomas Gonda to further press demands.  Finding him out to lunch, 60 of the protesters decided to stage an overnight sit-in, occupying administration offices between the hospital’s surgical clinic and blood bank.  The activists included members of campus groups and outsiders, including the Black United Front, the Black Liberation Front, Venceremos 
and the Latin Alliance.  Demands were listed that encompassed both the Bridges firing as well as another perceived injustice at the hospital --- the refusal to grant tenure to Latino doctor Jose Aguilar.

The next day as negotiations stalled at the sit-in’s 30 hour mark, Stanford officials called the Palo Alto Police Department.  Arriving in riot gear, some 70 Palo Alto cops and nearly 100 sheriff deputies congregated outside the hospital offices along with impartial observers and local press.  At 5:55 PM, Assistant Police Chief Clarence Anderson declared the sit-in to be an “unlawful assembly” and gave the protesters five minutes to disperse.  When they did not, the police prepared to forcefully clear the area.

What followed was a violent and chaotic melee.  Using a long timber as a battering ram, four police officers rushed at the barricaded office, smashing through the glass door, exposing the metal frame.  While the police charged, protesters used all available means to fight back.  One protester hurled a tape dispenser at policeman Jack Garner, knocking him out cold.  Other demonstrators managed to turn a hose on the officers, pushing them back with a barrage of rushing water.  Two policemen countered by spraying chemical mace from aerosol cans through the now open doorway.  Meanwhile, officers inquired into cutting the protesters’ water supply, but found that this would also cut water to patients throughout the hospital.

Thirty-five minutes into what was degenerating into an increasingly riotous free-for-all, the police changed tactics.  Using a bolt cutter, they attached ropes to the hinges of an office door and yanked it from its frame.  Then shouting “let’s get ‘em,” PAPD officers stormed the doorway as most demonstrators fled for a back entrance.  But officers guarding that east side exit were left undermanned.  Protesters met just a half dozen policemen there and engaged them by wildly swinging clubs made of detached furniture legs with sharp metal edges and screws. Police Chief Jim Zurcher
 later said that some of his men could see nothing but “demonstrators coming at them with clubs.”  All told, the injury count in the end stood at 13 police and a couple dozen protesters --- many of whom were wheeled down the hall to the hospital emergency room.

The damage to Medical Center property was also extensive ---some $100,000 in damages.  The Palo Alto Times described the scene the next day: “The floor was covered with water and littered with broken glass, furniture stuffing and books and papers.  Telephones and typewriters were smashed as were pencil sharpeners and glass coffee makers.”  Harry Press of the University News Service called it “absolute
devastation.”  And small eruptions of violence continued into the night as youths threw rocks at police cars and buses, 5 bomb threats were called in and three fire bombs were thrown at the campus electrical station.

Both the police and protesters condemned one another.  Chief Zurcher, who later would become known for his sensitivity to the merits of civil protest, called the Stanford Hospital assault, “the most vicious and unprovoked attack on police I have ever seen.”  Meanwhile, the Black Students Union denounced the “brutal tactics employed by Stanford University against peaceful demonstrators.”   

In truth, it was not a shining day for either side.  While demonstrators may have been fighting for the welfare of a group in need of assistance, their tactics were violently aggressive.  The police also contributed to the disorder by storming the sit-in with a battering ram rather than further attempting to defuse the conflict.

The fall-out from the April 9th incident lingered throughout 1971.  Protests and demonstrations continued as activists and students increased their demands to rehire Sam Bridges while pursuing more peaceful demonstrations such as a hospital worker “sick-in” and a brief employee strike.

Shortly after the conflict, Palo Alto police officers ransacked the offices of the Stanford Daily newspaper, attempting to recover photographs that might help convict protesters.  The Daily sued and the resulting court case, Zurcher vs. Stanford Daily
 would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court.  

Meanwhile, the trials of protesters in the April 9th incident would also make headlines throughout 1971 as 6 protesters were charged with felony assault and battery and 18 others faced misdemeanors.  

And protests began anew on June 21st when Stanford fired 5 of the workers who were involved in the April 9th incident.  This led to 100 students and workers marching outside Personnel Director Robert Nelson’s office for nearly an hour.  Two weeks later a pipe bomb exploded outside Nelson’s house nearly injuring his
teenage daughter.

Eventually, Bridges would lose his appeal to the National Labor Relations Board and the controversy would finally simmer.  Most of the protesters would plead guilty to reduced or suspended sentences and the Palo Alto Police Department would set upon a less aggressive policy in negotiating with protesters.  But for that three or four year period in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Palo Alto was continually rocked by riots, protests and marches.  Indeed, as the rising expectations of those out of power clashed with the defensive posture of those with power, such conflicts seemed nearly inevitable. []

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Jim Zurcher was the new police chief in Palo Alto during the crisis.  (PAHA) 

Damages at the Medical Center after the riot.

A rather fuzzy photo of the police using a battering ram to break into the barricaded office.