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Our Parents Were Better Than Us at Protesting

by Jim Varga 4 years ago in history
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The 1970 UW-Milwaukee protests put "Occupy Wall Street" to shame.

Hand-Written copy of a telegram sent to the white house hangs on the outside of Mitchell Hall at UWM.

The atmosphere was tense.

It was May 6, 1970, as the fresh spring dew from the Mitchell Hall lawn began to soak through the shoes of the roughly 3000 protesters gathered on UWM's campus that day. They barely spoke, they didn't need to, the time for their voices to be heard would come later; for the time being their goal is simple—disrupt administrative activities in Mitchell Hall and draw police attention to create an opportunity for a smaller group of about 300 students to occupy and shut down the library and the power plant.

Around noon students occupying the library watch as the lights dim and go dark, most of campus falls silent. Milwaukee police arrive en masse. Using clubs and dogs they disperse the protest, arresting two people. The 3000 students who had gathered in front of Mitchell take up their belongings and head back to their darkened dorms. The protest is only beginning.

The next morning, as a 1000-person demonstration begins, this time with signs and megaphones, comprised of students and faculty, the protesters occupying the library and power plant are relieved of their duty and replaced by a fresh group of students.

Chancellor Klotsche, watching from his office on the third floor of Mitchell Hall, considers his options. Over the course of his term as chancellor he has already brought UWM from a small, derelict, institution called the Milwaukee State Teacher's College, to a thriving urban university on track to rival universities in Chicago and New York, and yet the view out his window shows him a campus in upheaval, largely without electricity, with over 70 percent of its classes on hold until further notice, unable to tend to its necessary services, garbage already beginning to pour over containers, as the trucks scheduled for pickup on wednesday had been unable to enter the campus.

Nobody had been able to breach the library or power plant to assess damages. The lights in his own office dim and brighten with the throbbing hum of the gasoline generator outside. Even his electric typewriter refuses to cooperate as he furiously types out a declaration of a State of Emergency.

On may 8, the Student Union Policy Board requests that the union be closed, as students had "demoralized the workers" and safety could no longer be guaranteed within the building. That evening all food service within the building was declared closed until further notice, and janitorial and maintenance staff were instructed that they need not arrive for work.

Milwaukee Police successfully clear the first two levels of the building, but are met with resistance around floor three. It's decided not worth it to clear the higher levels as the safety of the workers has been restored, and the students are, for the time being, allowed to remain.

With the next morning comes the surrender of the UWM library back to faculty control. Damage assessment finds that, surprisingly, the library has suffered no significant damage, save for the disappearance of a portrait of Richard Nixon from its frame. The portrait was never found. Also on this day, the protesters in the power plant turn the campus's electricity back on, seemingly a response to the faculty's support.

Early in the morning on May 11, protesters successfully manage to breach the Mitchel Hall basement, destroying an IBM Type 704 mainframe computer. The protestors also break windows and graffiti walls. These actions are, within a few hours, denounced by the local SDS organizers.

However, with the destruction of the mainframe comes the destruction of class rosters, grades, attendance information, and tuition data. By the end of the day the library is again closed, this time by faculty, who announce that students will not be punished for their participation.

On May 12, Milwaukee Police Department tactical squads, with the assistance of the Wisconsin National Guard and several UWM ROTC student volunteers, clear the student union of it's remaining protesters, and manage to dislodge protesters from the University Power Plant.

For the first time, Klotsche meets with protest organizers. No record has been kept of what was discussed but the next morning SDS organizers declare the protest dead. John Cummins, a TA at the time, says "This protest has destroyed the myth that students could not be rallied around political issues at (UWM)."

With the exception of a small demonstration later that year during disciplinary hearings for professors who had endorsed the protest, business as usual resumed at UWM. In the years that followed UWM would put together its own police force, then comprised mostly of ROTC students and officered by retired Milwaukee police officers, and complete a series of new university structures and renovations to existing buildings, all built to be riot-proof.


About the author

Jim Varga

Student. Filmmaker.

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