‘We knew we couldn’t win’

Kiera Manion-Fischer

Thirty years ago, trustees and protesters faced off over the Gym Annex construction

Protesters climb through the fence around the gym site in 1977. PHOTO COURTESY OF KSU SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES

Credit: DKS Editors

Thirty years ago this summer, Kent State was embroiled in a controversy that had students pitted against university officials and culminated in 193 arrests.

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Gym Annex controversy or “Tent City,” when students camped out for two months in 1977 to protest building an addition to the Memorial Gym on part of the May 4 site.

Nancy Grim, Kent resident and attorney, was a member of the student government at the time, then called the Student Caucus. She was also involved in the protests.

Grim was one of the first to present student concerns about the proposed construction to the Kent State Board of Trustees in November 1976.

George Janik, then chairman of the Board, said plans for the building had been on the table since 1967.

The speakers at the May 4 commemoration in 1977, however, “really catalyzed things,” Grim said.

Alan and his sister Roseann “Chic” Canfora both spoke at the commemoration. They were witnesses to May 4, 1970 and Alan Canfora was wounded.

Many of the speakers told the audience to protest building the gym.

They said things such as “If they’re gonna build that gym, they’ll build it over my dead body,” Alan Canfora said.

Chic Canfora said she was outraged when she first heard of the plans to build the gym.

“It was to us a sacred site where our friends died,” she said.

More than 1,000 audience members marched in protest.

After the commemoration and march, students learned the Trustees were meeting in Rockwell Hall where the administrative offices were.

About 250 protesters stayed inside the building until 2 a.m.

“That was a really good discussion that night,” Grim said. “People took turns facilitating discussion and formulating – what do we want out of this and what are our demands.”

The May 4 Coalition was formed and the students made a list of eight demands, which included making no alteration to the May 4 site, canceling classes on May 4 and naming buildings after the four students who had been killed.

“We didn’t want to stop the gym, we wanted to move the gym,” Alan Canfora said.

Janik said the Board of Trustees spent months trying to resolve the problem. For example, the Board suggested rotating the planned construction so it would cover less of the site. He said the state wouldn’t fund moving the gym and the Board would have had to reapply for funding.

“Kent State didn’t have the money back then,” Janik said.

On May 12, the Coalition presented its demands to the Board of Trustees, which rejected the demand to never alter the site.

That day, the first protesters, including Alan Canfora, set up tents and camped on Blanket Hill. He said a great sense of community and camaraderie developed over the two months. Campers cooked together and there were even several marriages.

“We were living on the land that we sought to protect,” Alan Canfora said.

By July 12, there were nearly a hundred tents.

Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology and witness to the shootings, said he taught the protesters non-violent techniques of resisting arrest. For example, he told them to all link arms.

“I was helpful in the negotiations on making sure the police weren’t armed,” Lewis said.

He said he did not want another confrontation similar to May 4, 1970.

On July 12, 193 protesters were arrested for disobeying a restraining order obtained by the university and Tent City was disassembled. Police confiscated the tents and arrested the campers.

“We were booked into jail and then released,” Grim said.

The coalition continued to hold nightly meetings and rallies. Even after construction began, protesters continued to scale the fence and occupy the site.

“We knew we couldn’t win,” Alan Canfora said. “The intent was to be able to strike militantly at the university to make them pay a price for building that gym.”

The protest movement failed and the gym was built, but in some sense the movement succeeded.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for the outpouring of support we got from everyone around the country,” Chic Canfora said.

The gym movement became an issue of national significance.

“The university as an institution and the administration developed a much more positive view of its own history,” Grim said.

She said the administration now recognizes May 4, 1970 as part of Kent State’s history and the history of political protest in general.

Before the issue of the gym arose, Grim said the attitude of the administration had been “We need to talk about this as little as possible.”

Grim said she did not want to see the gym built, but she said if the building is being used, it ought to stay.

“Part of learning the history of Kent (and) May 4 is being able to look at the site and visualize what happened,” she said.

Lewis said he also sees the historical importance of the area.

“I would love to see that gym torn down and the site restored,” Lewis said.

Contact principal reporter Kiera Manion-Fischer at [email protected].