Stu Levitan: Don’t blame Vietnam war protesters for campus killings

March 7, 2018 GMT

In his column on Sunday, “Killers on campus,” Michael Arntfield tries to tie a series of unsolved murders of young women at UW-Madison to the student protests against the war in Vietnam. His thesis — that three serial killers were able to operate because “the white noise of activism and political agitation … obfuscate(d) their presence” is reprehensible and ludicrous.

Because Arntfield made such a convincing case last fall in his book “Mad City” that it was medical student Niels Jorgensen who killed Christine Rothschild in May, 1968, I’ll accept his misstatement here that her murder happened “in the spring of ’67” as just a silly mistake. And I’ll overlook his exaggerating the number of people “permanently maimed” in the tragic bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center.

But his attempt to link Rothschild’s fetishistic murder with the bombing of the AMRC is clearly intellectually dishonest.

Arntfield writes that Jorgensen arrived in Madison without attracting attention because he came “amid the hunt” for the perpetrators of the bombing, during a time when “rioting became a weekly occurrence.”

What Arntfield conceals is that widespread rioting didn’t start until 1970, with the Army Math bombing in August — three years after Jorgensen came to the still peaceful Madison in 1967. Arntfield doesn’t explain how 1970 events could affect events of 1967. Nor does he acknowledge the war ended in 1975, seven years before the murder of Donna Mraz.

Arntfield’s facts are as wrong as his chronology.

With some research, the Canadian criminologist would have learned that the campus was “relatively calm” that spring, the protests “peaceful and uneventful.” That’s how State Journal reporter Roger A. Gribble described the situation in an analysis published the very morning of Rothschild’s murder under the headline “Why Peace Now Prevails at UW.”

The real action that spring was in civil rights. Students demanded the university sell its 3,300 shares of Chase Manhattan stock because the bank had made loans to the apartheid government of South Africa (which the university did, in 1969). Fifteen thousand marched — peacefully — up State Street to mourn Martin Luther King. Muhammad Ali, appealing his five-year sentence for draft evasion, gave a Black Muslim talk at the Stock Pavilion. Mayor Otto Festge led a city drive for equal opportunity hiring by private employers. Edwin Hill Jr. became the first black candidate for the Madison City Council (he lost). George Vukelich produced an hour-long documentary for the city on “Madison’s Black Middle Class.”

In his haste to slur the anti-war movement, Arntfield ignores violence against the same students he now blames. Local teen-agers were beating so many students that student leaders proposed self-defense patrols. Campus area Ald. Paul Soglin, now the city’s mayor, warned against vigilantism, but declared “something has to be done.”

University police chief Ralph Hanson agreed, and assigned extra officers for weekend patrols. Yet by Arntfield’s own account, Jorgensen was able to stalk Rothschild and even watch her sleep. You can’t blame protesters for that, or for any of the other unsolved murders that plagued the campus over the next 15 years.

It’s a shame Arntfield has cast doubt on the quality of “Mad City” with this misleading and sensationalistic commentary.