In this time of rioting and broad-brush condemnation of America’s police, both of which I find deeply troubling, I’d like to lighten the mood with a recollection of rioting as I witnessed it in “olden times.”
When I was a student at Yale (1962–66), riots were a joyful tradition. Entirely apolitical, they were simply an expression of youthful exuberance. And they damaged neither property nor life and limb. They would occur, like clockwork, every spring and fall.
The fall riots always took place on a Saturday afternoon in November, well after the glorious New England foliage had given way to leaden skies and, underfoot, wet, muddy grass. The occasion: the mysterious appearance of the “bladderball,” a roughly six-foot spheroid clad (as best I could tell from a distance) in loose, dirty canvas.
An amusing explanation of the “game” can be found on Wikipedia, but all I personally remember is what I witnessed: a mob of students vying for possession of the ball, lifting it overhead like a gargantuan volleyball and pushing it this way and that around the Old Campus, with no discernable goal or purpose other than to let off steam and have fun. On at least one or two of the occasions when I watched — I always stayed well clear of the scrum — the game ended when the ball was lofted over the fence and onto a city street, where the campus cops took control and spirited the thing away.
Spring riots were even more disorganized. They always seemed to take place on a warm evening shortly before final exam week. There would be no signal or alert that “tonight’s the night.” People wanting to get away from their books and enjoy the evening air would simply find themselves in a spontaneous gathering that eventually grew to “critical mass,” metamorphosing into a high-spirited mob. All that would then typically take place was a lot of yelling and spilling out onto city streets, intermittently blocking traffic.
Campus cops would vainly try to disperse the crowd. I remember one occasion when a dean I knew warned me and several others to go back to our rooms. I ignored him, and as a result, my parents got a letter a few weeks later expressing official disapproval of my participation in a disturbance. These spring riots would always peter out after probably not much more than 30 minutes.
The most memorable spring riot, for me, was the one in my senior year. This was the only one I recall that eventually developed a purpose. Of course, it didn’t start out that way, but at one point someone yelled out the name of the dorm that housed the only female students on campus, Hadley Hall, built expressly for graduate students since it wasn’t until 1969 that Yale admitted its first undergraduate women.
That shout galvanized the mob, which went purposefully streaming several blocks till we were all standing in front of the women’s dorm, hootin’ and hollerin’. A number of women came to the windows, clearly amused, and smiled down at us. After a few minutes, one of them tossed a bra out the window. Someone snagged it in midair and started running back toward the main part of the campus, brandishing the thing, with the rest of us in enthusiastic pursuit.
And that, folks, is the sum total of my riotous career.