Act 9: Free Toby Cole

by Philip Shucet

Toby Cole had something to say.

Students with VIP administrators on the drill field, April 1970. Toby Cole in the circle. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer.)

In early April 1970, you had to push tension out of your way when you walked across the drill field at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Tucked between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, Blacksburg was slow to experience the unrest of the 1960s. In October 1965, when David Miller burned his draft card in New York City, there was barely a ripple in Blacksburg.

But in that first year of a new decade the full force of student angst was bearing down on this small college town.

Student demonstration, spring 1980. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

And Toby Cole had something to say.

Cole didn’t make a sign. He didn’t bark from a megaphone or burn anything. He didn’t mistake bravado for bravery. Toby spoke with needle and thread.

He sewed the American flag on the seat of his pants.

That Cole had the audacity to sew an American flag on the ass side of his blue jeans and walk across campus rubbed some edges raw.

I was a sophomore then, and one of the few members of the dwindling VPI Corps of Cadets. Until 1964 the Corps was mandatory for most students. But now on a campus of over 12,000, there were fewer than 500 of us who wore a uniform, woke up to reveille, and marched in formation to dinner every night. As news of Cole’s flag wearing reached the Upper Quad, cadets were incredulous. We had taken an oath to uphold the constitution and now a grub (our slang for non-cadet students) was poking a finger in the eye of America.

While cadets groused and fumed, another group on campus went into action. The Block and Bridle Club, an organization of agricultural and farming women and men, took matters into their own hands. To be precise, they took Cole into their hands. They grabbed Cole and held him captive.

As word of Cole’s capture spread, swarms of grubs marched and chanted, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole.

Cooler heads prevailed when the Blacksburg police encouraged the Block and Bridle students to release Cole. It was a short-lived citizen’s arrest. The message was clear. Don’t mess with the flag.

Bosses at the college were quick to reprimand Cole. That only sparked more unrest. Even though the Block and Bridle Club captured Cole, student ire was aimed at the Corps. To protestors the Corps’s presence on campus was a visible arm of a repressive government. On April 14 a flyer circulated calling for protests against the Corps. The flyer said, People, the Corps must go!

The next day students faced off with cadets on the drill field. The university quickly issued an injunction to stop further drill field protests, but whoever expected impassioned students to follow campus-issued injunctions was living a different reality.

Student faces off against cadets during drill, April 1970. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

Protesters lock arms to stop cadets, April 1970. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

Students face off with cadets on drill field, April 1970s. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

The Toby Cole incident and the disruption over the next few days were a whisper of things to come. On April 29 the United States invaded Cambodia. Protests began to shut down college campuses across the country.

Then, on May 4, four students were killed on the Kent State Campus, shot by members of the Ohio National Guard. Two dead were 20; two were 19. Four Dead in Ohio.

Americans killing Americans on an American campus.

The next week 107 students occupied VPI’s Williams Hall. Tolerance was short-lived. The State Police were called in, the doors of Williams Hall were yanked off their hinges, and 107 students were removed, arrested and suspended.

State police remove protesters from Williams Hall, May 1970. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

Protesters leaving Williams Hall, May 1970. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

State police arrest a protester, May 1970. (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, unidentified photographer.)

In 1970 we were pushed to pick a side. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing? That was Nixon’s America.

In 2020 Americans are still killing Americans, this time on American streets. And people are still being pushed to pick sides. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing?

The flag — and our country — can be stretched only so far before it frays and disintegrates.

This is Donald Trump’s America.

New York Times, Sept. 3, 2020. (Tannen Maury, EPA, photographer.)

This essay is republished with permission from Philip Shucet Photography.

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33 responses to “Act 9: Free Toby Cole

  1. Amen. No other words are needed.

    • No. Your words are needed too. It’s not enough to be right, you need to be right and supported.

      So, yes, Amen brother!

      Attica! Attica! Oh wait, wrong chant. Hell no, we won’t go!

  2. What was it that Yuri Bezmenov warned us of in 1984?

    Only one more step to go according to this KGB defector.

  3. I was there with you Phil, in the Spring of 1970, also a sophomore but not in the Corps. You described well the feeling to “push tension out of the way” walking across the Tech campus. My recollection is that the late 60s and early 70s were not fun times on American college campuses. And not unlike today’s current climate, people then seemed to be angry at everyone else. Within a short time, I too was wearing a military uniform, not a comfortable experience in the 1970s. Just as we endure perpetual wars overseas, so too, the culture wars seem never ending.

  4. Great work!

  5. Found my Draft Card last year in a box of papers, along with the charred half of my reclassification card from 1S to 1A.

  6. good article. thank you.

  7. Fortunately I experienced none of that being in the class of ’50 after transferring in from three years at W&M.

    The campus was largely populated by way too many vets on the GI Bill and so desecration of the flag or sit-ins wouldn’t have needed state police intervention.

  8. The irony was that by 1972, you could buy a pair of bell bottoms with American flag inserts, shirts, and ties made from flags right off the rack in a lot of stores, e.g., Fine’s mens stores.

    Ah, the American mercantile is not bound by notions of duty, honor, country, just the “in god we trust” part… all others, cash.

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I think Nixon and Elvis would have a few words to say about this.

  10. When at the Roanoke Times, one of our colleagues Chuck Hite had an authentic “strike” shirt from Columbia. He had helped shut down UVA as I recall, and then gone up to New York. Maybe the other way, came back from Columbia and led the walkout at UVA. Ooh, Ahh, what a great souvenir. Can I touch it?

    He also didn’t graduate…..

    Just missed all that. Didn’t get to college until 1972. Looking back, it is fun to remember being young and full of piss and vinegar. I sure as hell didn’t run down to volunteer for ‘Nam. My father went there on inspection tours in 1966, came back and filed his retirement papers to avoid a full assignment there, despite the likely promotion. Now 50 years later, Phil, what did it accomplish? Having failed to inflict Western-style Democracy on the Vietnamese, did it stop us from trying it again in Iraq and Afghanistan? I knew that would fail, too. “When will they ever learn….”

    Still got my 1A card somewhere, but turned 19 in 1973 and the draft was winding down.

    Nixon won in 1972 and I wouldn’t bet the farm that “law and order” won’t work again in 2020. Black Shirts last night outside a hospital trying to block wounded officers from care, shouting “we hope they die?” Even in 1970 that would have been unthinkable. To borrow another cliche, we’ve come a long way baby.

    • geeze – I thought all the piss and vinegar types joined the “fight” to repel the bad guys and bring democracy and those they did not go – became “activists” to oppose the war!

      Some people actually remember the protests in the streets back then against the war – it included moms and dads and priests and all sorts of un-American types… “rioting” in the streets, attacking the police, etc… real “law & order” issues….. then even this BLM sacrilege:

      After that settled down, we had folks talking about “post-racial” and equality and all that…

      • The real irony, and here I go again defending Trump, is he is perfectly aligned with the 1970s anti war movement. He was the same level of draft dodger as Clinton. He is trying to disengage militarily. He is trying to reduce our NATO footprint. There is serious concern he might not defend Taiwan. Many Republicans who do not like him are the interventionist neo-cons (Bolton). My god, he is in negotiations that everybody at the table knows mean the eventual Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. But no cheering from the aging anti-war folks, nope.

        History is clear that Democrats get this country into war, all the way back to Andy Jackson and Jeff Davis. (Well, McKinley….) I never blamed Nixon for Vietnam, but JFK and LBJ.

        • There’s an “anti-war” movement TODAY? where?

          I think you only got 1/2 of Trumps “foreign policy”. He’s disengaging and going into isolationist mode… not “anti-war” – he brags about going after Iran and muslim terrorists, etc.

          He policy with China and others on trade is to threaten trade wars.

          He’s basically a populist/nationalist… and he appeals to that mindset and not at all afraid to use troops on his own citizens.

        • LBJ gave the warhawks what they wanted, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. How many times since then have we written out blank checks for wars with no strategic end? I think LBJ did it to prove he was not soft on communism and throw one more mudball at the disciples of Goldwater.

        • Uh, Ike was the guy who put us there, remember? Who promised them independence?
          Who gave them back to the French?
          And who set up the Bay of Pigs?

          They’re rioting in Africa,
          They’re staving in Spain,
          There’s hurricanes in Florida,
          And Texas needs rain.

          • That was the Marshall Plan, while Ike was running with it. Truman followed it as did JFK.

            Also, you just might want to re-read history. Truman put MAAG in Vietnam in 1950.

          • But they ain’t JFK or LBJ, now is they?

          • LBJ escalated it to an all out conflict.

            Not everyone was a fortunate son like yourself.

            PS: The comment was about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which you deflected to Ike. You were wrong and there was single party control of Government in 1964 when that Resolution was passed.

          • Another colleague of Jim’s and mine at the Roanoke Times, Mike Ives, was one of the first Marines ashore in (I think) 1964 at DaNang. That’s when “advisors” became boots on the ground and hey, hey, that was LBJ.

          • Ken Burns does a decent job on that war. Not everyone agrees.

          • Oh, I’ll not argue that with you, Steve, but Truman and Eisenhower put us on the path. Just a plain fact that LBJ turned it hot. Wonder sometimes what JFK would have done in 64. On one hand, he took blame for the Bay of Pigs (his call) and he doubled the advisors in Nam, plus began bombing in the North**, but then his pucker factor went up with Turkey and Cuba. So, who knows? Nevetheless, it took Nixon to really screw it royally. So, was Nixon effing up the Peace Talks in ’68?

            **Dad was on the Oriskany in early ’63. Lost one his poker buddies when he got shot up over the North.

          • Before the Tonkin Gulf resolution? That was ’64. I’ll take your word for it but I don’t think there were air ops over the north in ’63. Trying to remember when my cousins were on Yankee Station on carriers.

          • Uh yep, Steve. And Nixon didn’t bomb Cambodia either. Vietnam was the foggiest of wars.

  11. Where were all you pacifists during Obama’s ongoing undeclared drone war against country after country?

    Over 500 drone strikes.
    Over 3,500 killed.

    Where were the protests against those robotic murders?

    When liberals murder it’s foreign policy.
    When liberals riot it’s “generally peaceful protest”

  12. This was Obama’s “foreign policy” …

    Acts of war against three countries where Congress did not declare war – Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia.

    Where were the protests against civilian deaths?

    Oh right, liberals are nothing if not hypocritical.

  13. I dunno, where were you when Ashcroft was dressing statues?

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