If you attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), you’re memory of life on campus is a bucolic montage of uniform stately buildings that projected solid traditionalism, meticulously groomed green grass and trees on open spaces, and thousands of students happily passing each other on the way to classes and some taking a relaxing break on a nearby bench.
With two exceptions.
There are two unequivocal and surrealistic episodes in the history of UIUC that punctured the serene bubble of campus life that we all know and love, and locked down and took control of campus if only for an existential moment in history. One happened over half a century ago, and one is happening now.
The first surreal experience was brilliantly chronicled in the recent Illinois Alumni Magazine article Flash Point by Michael Metz, which tells the story of the student protest movement of the 1970s, particularly the week of May 4. I remember that week like it was yesterday when many campus intersections had a Jeep and two national guardsmen standing guard with bayoneted rifles. I suspect some of those soldiers were a year older than me, having joined the Guard to avoid the draft and ending up in Vietnam. A student today would find that surreal scene an impossible vision to believe.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Crosby Stills Nash & Young
It’s taken me 53 years, but now I want to say “thank you” to those courageous students who stood on the front lines of those protests and shouted “Enough is enough!” with respect to the endless war in Vietnam. You could take issue with the violence and damage that was done, but I believe the students were on the right side of history having been frustrated by the losing endless war in Vietnam and so many lives needlessly lost on both sides. Sadly, in spite of the painful and tragic lessons of that history, we are still plagued by endless wars to this day.
Fast forward to 2020 and the second most surreal event in UIUC’s history, and that is the shutdown of the campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the evacuation of students, and the self-quarantine status of C-U and towns across the U.S. The other day I took my typical run across campus which is now an absolute ghost town. Typically on a warm spring day campus would be buzzing with students walking to class, playing games and sports, or just laying out in the sun and enjoying the day. I did not see a soul except for one solitary couple walking furtively across campus wearing masks like a strange scene from a dystopian sci-fi novel. COVID-19 has put a stranglehold on campus and effectively shut down most operations as it has in towns, states, our country and indeed the world. We’ve never seen anything like this before in our lifetimes.
While it is a surreal site to see, the silent and empty streets and shops are the manifestation of a raging war against the Coronavirus going on inside the hospitals. This time around, I think our Illinois Governor and campus administrators are on the right side of history in solidarity with most of America. But unlike the Vietnam war where the lessons of history are now sharper and more obvious after half a century, the enemy in this war is a mutation of nature that we don’t yet fully understand, and not a war we created, but a war we must fight.
The COVID-19 story is just beginning and the leadership decisions, American response, and lessons of history are all ahead of us.
In the meantime, hunker down, stay safe, and stay healthy.