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This Week in MIT History

By Katie Jeffreys

This week in 1957 rioting students protested a hike in dormitory rent as well as unsatisfactory food served in Baker Dining. Hundreds of students joined the protest; twenty-nine were arrested. The riots joined East and West Campus, and ultimately changed the Baker Dining caterer. Twenty-one students were found guilty in a trial at the Third District Court of the City of Cambridge. The case was later appealed at the Superior Court.

The following is an excerpt [“Student Riots Rock Campus,” March 5, 1957] describing the riots themselves.

What began as a small crowd of chanting students turned into a full-scale riot last Saturday night as residents of Baker, Burton, and East Campus demonstrated against the Institute’s announcement of an increase in dormitory rent next term.

Waving home-made posters declaring “We protest” and “lower rent,” the students milled about in front of Dean Fassett’s home shooting off occasional firecrackers and tossing snowballs. Then, as hi-fi sets blasted music from open windows, the rioters began to block traffic along Memorial Drive with sheets of flame.

Excitement heightened as three fire trucks and four police cars arrived. Shouts of protests came from the rooms in Baker; public address systems blared.

The appearance of a paddy wagon on the scene added to the general confusion. Police from both the Cambridge and Metropolitan District began arresting groups of students, and as the police approached Baker, the electricity went off.

Each new paddy wagon on the scene was greeted with loud cheers and shouts of “Let’s go to jail!” Police entered the dorm and picked up boys who were heckling from open windows.

At 1:00 a.m., after more than an hour of confusion, police were still picking up students and the power was off.

By 1:30 West Campus was strangely quiet, but in East Campus the riot spirit gained new footholds. A large bonfire blazed between the parallel and a P.A. system blared reports if the activity on West Campus.

A little after 2:00, a march of several hundred students started down Memorial Drive, stopping traffic on the way. Upon reaching Baker House, they spread rubbish across both lanes on Memorial Drive and set fire to it, completely blocking traffic. After fifteen or twenty minutes, several squad cars arrived, followed by fire fighting equipment.

For some fifteen minutes after the arrival of patrol cars, the policemen were bombarded with snow, ice and bottles, but made only a few arrests. At 2:55 a.m. a warning was circulated that doors to the dorm would be locked in five minutes, and that all outside at that time would be arrested. The crowd failed to diminish, and the terrace outside the dining room was crowded with about one hundred observers. Suddenly police search lights flashed onto the area, and policemen vaulted the wall and headed for the terrace where they arrested as many of the fleeing students as they could.

Twenty-seven students were piled into the waiting paddy wagons and sent to the Lower Basin MDC police station where they were jailed until bail was paid for them several hours later. The bail ranged from $25 to $111 depending on the charge.

The students let out on bail appeared in Cambridge District at 9:00 Monday morning for various charges: disrupting the peace, inciting riot, breaking glass, refusing to follow reasonable instructions from an officer, and resisting arrest. Many of the men were not directly involved with the rioting -- passers by, onlookers and fraternity men were picked up along with the active demonstrators.

Dean Fassett, in a taped interview over WTBS, said, “I hope that those who have not involved themselves will continue to keep out of being involved, and that those who have involved themselves so heavily as to be arrested will come off as easily as possible.”