At 4:20 a.m. on April 7, 1990, Presidents William Chace’s office burst into flames after two Molotov cocktails were hurled in through the window. The event unfurled into a year-long police investigation that held Kofi Taha ’92 and Nick Haddad ’92, the campus’s two most prominent political activists at the time, as its chief suspects. While Taha was arrested a year after the incident leading to a four-month trial, he was ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury after it became clear that Haddad, murdered two months after the incident, had been the culprit.
“Everyone suspected those two when the bombing happened,” Professor of History Emeritus Richard Elphick, who taught at the University during the bombing, explained in an interview with The Argus. “Especially I did, because I’d had them both as my students and knew them outside the classroom. They were known on campus for being utterly ruthless. The campus radicals.”
The last installment of this series looked at Taha’s political activity on campus, influenced by the uncompromising, separatist ideology that actualized several demonstrations against the University’s divestment policies and insufficient funding given to the African American Studies program. However, Taha is described by most administrators and professors from the time as moderate or at least tempered and driven by more realistic goals when compared to Haddad.
Taha being painted as the more pragmatic of the two is significant, considering what he once wrote in an essay for his publication, The Afrikan Nation, regarding acceptable tactics for protesting.
“Malcolm dropped crazy knowledge when he stated that, ‘the biggest mistake the white man made was letting me read his history books,’ for when we check out the foundations of the United Hates, we see nothing more than the primordial instinct of violence which white folks monopolized in the old days and perpetuate today,” Taha wrote. “Where does ‘peaceful change’ fit in this Amerikkkan portrait?”
Haddad was a different brand of political figure on campus. He collected guns in his dorm room, which was an openly known fact within the community, by students and professors alike. He also advocated for violent revolution, and his political ideology fluctuated at the drop of a hat. Many students were terrified of him due to his anarchic behavior, and he was considered unstable by most who knew him.
“I’ll never forget,” recalled former Professor of African American Studies Jerry Watts as covered in Caroline Fox ’12’s senior thesis, which delved into the firebombing. “There were rumors going around a Black barbershop in Hartford I went to once. And they were like, ‘Look, there’s some fool coming in here, man, talking about how he wants to buy guns and shit…and he’s from down there where you are, at Wesleyan!’”
Watts laughed. He immediately knew who the barber was referring to. Haddad’s fascination with guns, armory, and revolution, however, was a third attempt to attract a political following on campus. Haddad arrived on campus a self-proclaimed Catholic fascist and openly supported the Lebanese Phalangist party. In classes, he espoused right-wing views and stirred controversy throughout campus after a series of articles that he wrote for the Wesleyan Review, the campus’s foremost conservative publication at the time. Not surprisingly, these positions were not very popular with the student body and didn’t garner him the cult following he was looking for.
“If I have a perspective, there is a sadness, because he was so clearly looking for a place to fit, and a way to make sense, and if it wasn’t going be the right-wing paper on campus it was going to be the whole hog,” said Matt Reed ’92 in Fox’s thesis.
During a tumultuous first year for Haddad, he eventually made a transition to the left through the divestment movement. In the midst of this political realignment, he also rewrote his personal narrative.
“After his phase as a fascist agitator, he couldn’t find anyone at Wesleyan who was interested in that so he remade himself into an anti-Semite,” Elphick recalled. “He became anti-Zionist. Now today it’s very common for Jewish students to be critical of Zionism, but it wasn’t then, and he found that there wasn’t really any market for that. So he made himself a third time into a Black—he was dark-skinned so he invented an African mother.”
As is the experience with Elphick, most people who thought they knew Haddad would eventually come to realize that he had misled them about his past.
“Nick claimed to be a Muslim from Beirut, he claimed that his father was Lebanese and his mother a Sudanese,” Elphick said. “He would tell me he had to go to New York every weekend to go to the Sudanese consulate to the United Nations because they’re trying to find his mother who had been kidnapped, and I only knew the third persona, that he was a Muslim and half Black.”
Haddad, who took a class with Elphick, would frequently come to his office hours for long periods of time to discuss political topics and recount personal stories about his life.
“He was a sad, slightly overweight student who needed love and that’s why he would come talk to me or my wife,” Elphick recounted. “He liked me and wanted to confide in me these totally false stories about his sad life. I, in part, thought he was a somewhat pathetic kid who is riding a whirlwind and doesn’t know how to handle it. As a professor, you often deal with students who are troubled, and you try to straighten them out and help—he was listening to me and liked having a sympathetic professor who he could bounce ideas off.”
Elphick wasn’t the only professor that Haddad confided in. In fact, many of his professors recounted similar relationships with him but received different versions of his life story. In an interview with Fox, his advisor, Writing Certificate Coordinator and Professor of English Anne Greene, offered a starkly different perspective on the chaotic college experience that Haddad was undergoing, gauged largely from conversations over frequent dinners with him at her and her husband’s house.
“He wanted desperately to attach himself to friendly faculty members,” said Greene, who had been led to believe that he was half African and from Lebanon, in 2012. “So I had this student who was tormented in his dorm and called a ‘sand n*****,’ and Black students didn’t think he was Black and made fun of him, and white students, of course, thought he was Black. And it wasn’t fashionable to be biracial, [but] it was fashionable, in the sort of social circles in which [underclassmen] talked about, being…an activist leader.”
Despite claiming to various professors that he was experiencing racial prejudice, Haddad appropriated an African identity that capitalized upon the political climate of the time. This move successfully gained him a following of supporters as he became the political leader of the divestment movement along with Taha. However, many of his supporters who aligned with his radical politics were terrified of him. After a hunger strike that took place in April, which was one of the most successful attempts by student activists to urge the University to completely divest, Haddad, who organized the event, threatened one of the hunger strikers with physical violence if she stopped fasting.
Following the firebombing, Haddad’s political tactics became increasingly violent, and more reports emerged that he had continued to amass his gun collection to hold a revolution. Toward the end of a year plagued by political conflicts between the administration and student activists, Chace held an open forum for students and faculty to discuss their concerns at the Alumni Fieldhouse, also known as “the cage.”
Halfway through the forum, Haddad appeared at the entrance to the building with a long bulky coat that Elphick recalled thinking looked as if it could have been concealing weapons. Haddad walked right up to Chace, slammed a bullet shell casing directly on President’s podium, and shouted “The ballot or the bullet!” (quoting Malcolm X’s famous speech from 1964). He proceeded to yell, “African Nation, follow me out! Comrades, depart!”
And Haddad left the cage. No one followed him out.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.