Vietnam War Inspires a Lifetime of Political Activism in San Jose

Now an emeritus lecturer at San Jose State University, Gil Villagran was expelled as an undergraduate for protesting against the Vietnam War outside this campus administration building. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

UC Berkeley is famous for its student protests during the Vietnam War era, but students protested all over the Bay Area.

Stanford students rioted to kick the ROTC program off-campus. San Francisco State University students gained notoriety for going on strike in 1968 to demand ethnic studies classes, but the campus was also a hotbed for anti-war protest.

And San Jose State University students garnered national headlines with a couple dynamic protests, like the one over campus recruiting by Dow Chemical.

Dow Chemical was a major manufacturer of napalm, a reviled weapon used extensively by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and on Nov. 20, 1967, roughly 3,000 people filled the plaza outside the administration building at San Jose State to protest the company's presence.

The university's archives contain footage of that protest:

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San Jose State journalism professor Gordon Greb reported on the chaotic scene, injecting some commentary that today belies what you can observe in the video footage. Many people who marched against the Vietnam War will tell you the media at that time tended to downplay the size of crowds and focus their reports on violence. (This demonstration had been peaceful for hours before the scene on this video.)

That was the perspective of one shy physics major who was part of the crowd that day, Gil Villagran. Today, Villagran’s hair is short and white. He walks with a cane. But on that day in 1967, Villagran was an obvious target for police photographers looking to identify troublemakers. He wore his hair long, and on top, a Che Guevera-style red beret, with a yellow felt star he’d sewn on himself.

People around Villagran spotted the photographers on the roof of the engineering building overlooking the plaza. "Somebody said, 'Look, it’s the cops taking pictures of us. Wave to the cops.'”

Gil Villagran's long hair and beard caught the eye of police photographers in 1967. He's trimmed since then, but his fervor for political protest remains strong.
Gil Villagran's long hair and beard caught the eye of police photographers in 1967. He's trimmed since then, but his fervor for political protest remains strong. (Photo: Courtesy of Gil Villagran)

Those photos would lead to his expulsion, making Villagran one of a handful of demonstrators who paid a price for putting San Jose State in the national headlines. Later that week, a letter arrived, special delivery, at his parents’ home in Santa Clara.

It reads: "The Governor of the state of California, Ronald Reagan, the trustees of the California State University system, the president of the university, have determined that your presence on this campus is a danger to faculty, students and staff."

"I’ve never seen my mother so distraught," Villagran said.

His parents were not happy about his penchant for political protest. Villagran's father was a bracero, a farmworker from Mexico. Villagran was the first in his family to go to college. They wanted him to focus on his studies. They also worried for his physical safety.

But in 1967 Villlagran felt there was nothing more important than the war: a war he felt was unjust, unconstitutional and a horrific waste of human life.

"Two of my friends were dead. And I was a very bitter young man about that," he says.

Villagran was already annoying less politically charged students by turning every class he attended into a seminar on the war.

"And many students would get very upset," he says. "'Hey, I came here to learn psychology. Why are we talking about this fucking war?'”

The Dow Chemical protest of 1967 was covered by the Spartan Daily.
The Dow Chemical protest of 1967 was covered by the Spartan Daily. (Photo: Courtesy of San José State University Special Collections & Archives)

That's when Villagran was still going to class. He admits he attended fewer and fewer classes, as the immediacy of the war gnawed on him. Almost every day, he says, there was a teach-in on the plaza by the administration building, or planning meetings for protests and marches at San Jose State. Underground newsletters like Sedition and The Red Eye kept student activists apprised of the latest news.

Villagran traveled with friends to other campuses to see famous people, including Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, Harry Edwards, Bobby Kennedy and Ralph Nader. But the 23,000 student campus at San Jose also pulled in top-line anti-war speakers and performers, including Joan Baez, who offered to sing a song for the first student who promised to burn his draft card should one come in the mail.

Villagran volunteered.

San Jose State students made national headlines again in 1970, when they marched to the San Jose Civic Auditorium, where President Richard Nixon’s motorcade left through a crowd of angry demonstrators. GOP advertisements then used images of the scene to drum up political support for Republican candidates that election season.

San Jose State sociology Professor Emeritus Bob Gliner was also protesting the war back then. He says anti-war demonstrators were always a vocal minority on campus. In the decades since the Vietnam War, student activism has generally been episodic.

"Some people say, 'Oh, they grew out of it, or they grew up.' But I think, if we want to have a vibrant democracy, it’s not something you grow out of," Gliner says. "It’s something you integrate into your day to day life, to be conscious of world events and to do something about problems that really bother you."

Villagran, now 69, speaks proudly of a lifetime of political activism. After he was expelled in 1967, he returned to San Jose State to earn a masters degree. He became a social worker and returned to San Jose State to teach in the School of Social Work, where he's still an emeritus lecturer.

Over the years, he's written articles and opinion pieces for local papers and blogs. His interests range from current politics, like the presidency of Donald Trump, to the historical, like this essay on four San Jose women who attempted to block the loading of napalm bombs headed for Vietnam in 1966. Currently, Villagran is focused on highlighting the Latino history of the South Bay with a group called the La Raza Historical Society of Santa Clara Valley.

Villagran says he would like the university to mark the area where students angrily protested Dow Chemical with a monument outside the administration building.

"There should be something here like that. Right here. Because that’s where it all happened," he said.

To read more of KQED's series of articles regarding the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar

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