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Mary Rice ’92

Students at UW-Madison are well known for their political activism, and the Commerce Building incident you mentioned is no exception. During the 1960s, the campus was rife with turmoil over the Vietnam War, and students frequently staged protests to voice their opinions. When they learned that the Dow Chemical Corporation was recruiting on campus, they staged a sit-in at the Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall) in protest of the company’s policy on manufacturing napalm for the war. Napalm is an incendiary weapon now considered inhumane by many because it causes untreatable burns and horrific pain in its victims.

On the morning of Oct. 18, 1967, students crowded into a narrow hallway of the Commerce Building near the room where Dow Chemical was holding interviews to block the way for anyone who wanted to pass through. The protest started out as peaceful civil disobedience. Within a few hours, more than 1,000 people had gathered outside the Commerce Building in support of the protest. That afternoon, the police arrived to try to break up the protest, telling the students that they were in violation of university regulations and needed to disperse.

The students held their ground, the situation worsened and the protest turned into a riot. Students clashed with police, and a number of them resisted arrest and were forcibly carried out of the building. There were reports of some protesters being beaten by police with nightsticks. Finally, police threw canisters of tear gas into the building to break up the crowd. By 5:30 p.m. the police and students had all left the area. Then-Chancellor Bill Sewell said in a statement, “I deeply regret that it was necessary to bring police onto the campus to maintain the operations of the university. I regret that students and police were injured. This must not be repeated.”

If you’d like to read a full account of that fateful day, Pulitzer Prize-winning UW alumnus David Maraniss wrote a book called They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America, October 1967, which details the events of the Dow Chemical protests.

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