Last week, Slate published my piece on the Spring Riot of 1963, a pivotal event in the history of undergraduate unrest. The rioters—thousands of college boys acting out against institutionalized sexual repression—closed the door on the carefree hijinx of the panty raid’s golden age and raised the curtain on the era of violent campus revolt. I’m happy with the piece, but there was a lacuna where there should have been an exclamation point in a gothic font. I realized this only after a reader linked to the story on Twitter and wondered what was happening at Georgetown University during this episode of Ivy League weirdness. Answer: Setting fire to faculty housing, in a remarkable two-night rampage that began 50 years ago today.
A decade on, the chairman of the school’s theology department reflected on the affair in an interview with The Hoya: “It was after Brown and Princeton had rioted in 1963, and I guess our kids wanted to show they were just as good.” On May 15, several hundred of them attempted panty raids at a junior college and at an all-girls prep school. The cops stepped in, as did the Vatican, automatically: The prep school was Georgetown Visitation, which is joined to a convent. In storming a dorm, the would-be panty raiders were assaulting a cloister, and committing a crime against Canon Law. The first night’s tally: Nine arrests, a few hundred ipso facto excommunications.
The next night, a thousand kids—some expressing considered grievances, some protesting earlier arrests, some just looking for trouble—assembled to commit a tragic farce. They started a riot to protest the cafeteria food, which was indeed lousy, but this act, like the many bomb threats called in that night, was a mere diversion. Its object was to draw the authorities’ attention away from 37th and O Streets, where a group set fire to a faculty housing unit scheduled for demolition. One of the firemen responding to the scene died of a heart attack, and it was clear that the temperature of the culture was transforming the old college prank. That joke wasn’t funny anymore.