Campus & Community / DU History / History

DU’s ‘Woodstock of the West’

In 1970, students established Woodstock West on campus to protest the Vietnam War and the killing of students at Kent State University. Photo courtesy of the DU Archives.

On May 4, 1970, a group of DU students gathered in the student union to discuss the invasion of Cambodia, a regional expansion of the Vietnam War, announced by President Richard Nixon four days earlier on April 30. The students formed the Ad Hoc Committee to End the War and proposed a two-day university strike.

At the same time, after three consecutive days of violent anti-war demonstrations at Kent State University in Ohio, bullets fired by members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others.

The Kent State shootings set off a chain reaction of protest on college and university campuses across the country.

“When kids get shot in your own country, by your own people — by other kids, really — that’s hard to ignore,” says Mark DeFoe (PhD ’75). “It’s not something you expect to happen in America.”

But the realities of the America DeFoe lived in — an America consumed by communist paranoia and unglued from years of social upheaval — had already compelled the 28-year-old English student to avoid the draft by joining the Colorado National Guard. He would soon be required to stand against his peers for trying to further a cause he supported.

On May 5, 1970, Bruce Russell, president of the Colorado Collegiate Association, proposed a statewide college and university strike to protest the war in Vietnam and serve as “a period of mourning for individuals who have died in combat and for our fellow students who died in the cause for peace at Kent State,” according to the Denver Post.

Students at DU enacted that plan early in the morning on May 6, forming picket lines outside the General Classroom Building and urging their peers to boycott classes. That afternoon, what began as a strike rally on Carnegie Lawn ended in a march on DU Chancellor Maurice Mitchell’s office. The day before, Mitchell had issued a statement refusing to acknowledge the validity of the strike efforts and asserted that “no one is free to interfere with the ongoing scholarly activities here,” according to the Post.

Mitchell’s public rebuff of the student movement “was like throwing gasoline on a burning fire,” says Jim Kauffman (EdD ’71), then director of student activities.

“I don’t think Mitchell was aware, nor were any of us in the administration aware, how big this issue was going to get.”

Increasing support for strike efforts and escalating forms of protest — which included a homemade firebomb being thrown through a window of John Greene Hall — compelled the administration to hold a University convocation.

While the May 8 convocation attracted approximately 5,000 people, it failed to quell the students’ passionate sentiments.

“The emotions were so high. We needed a release,” recalls Susan (Foster) Gould (BA ’71). “There was so much frustration about not being able to do anything about the war and feeling like no one was listening to us.”

After the convocation, several hundred students marched from the arena to Carnegie Lawn. As the crowd deliberated on the next course of action, with much talk of burning buildings, it was suggested that the students build rather than burn, according to a report compiled by Jim Wagenlander (BA ’70) during the summer of 1970.

That afternoon students began constructing the first edifices of the commune, which they dubbed Woodstock West. The encampment expanded over the weekend, covering approximately 7,000 square feet on both sides of Evans Avenue with a population that fluctuated between several hundred and as many as 2,000 inhabitants.

“It was like one huge seminar,” says Pamela Walker (BA ’72) of her Woodstock West experience, which consisted of wandering from tent to tent talking with people.

“The purpose of Woodstock was multifaceted,” Wagenlander says. “For some it was to show the anger students had. Others exploited it as a an excuse to hang out and smoke dope on campus, and there were other radicals who wished to use it for radical purposes.”

As the movement gained power and attention, student leaders emerged to help manage the situation.

“The motivating factor for student leaders and marshals was to show this was a responsible demonstration, to show it was a genuine expression of anger and frustration,” Wagenlander says.

The Kappa Sigma fraternity lent its house to the cause, allowing the second floor to serve as a communications center while members of the Alpine Club transformed the first floor into a first aid station where, according to the Clarion, they handled several bad drug trips.

Militant activists began arriving on campus a few days into the strike, according to Walker.

“[The radicals] felt that unless we showed that we were willing to put our lives on the line we weren’t going to get attention. We felt like what we were doing was being taken over and their message wasn’t our message,” she says.

On May 10, amid unconfirmed reports that up to 80 percent of Woodstock West’s residents were not DU students, Mitchell decided to call in the Denver police.

Administrators notified students that night, and shortly before 7 the next morning a force of 200 Denver police and 40 state troopers moved students out of the encampment and formed a barricade around the perimeter while maintenance crews tore the structures down. Police arrested 18 DU students and two faculty members, according to the Denver Post.

Once the police left, students began building “Woodstock West II,” moving several teepees, which had remained untouched near the library, onto the main area of the former encampment and retrieving the remains of Woodstock West I from the dump. That afternoon, Chancellor Mitchell held a press conference in which he referenced the police chief’s earlier statement that the National Guard would have to be called up to prevent the rebuilding of the tent city, according to Wagenlander’s report.

Tuesday afternoon, Gov. John Love (BA ’39, LLB ’41) visited campus and told Woodstock West’s residents: “If we are to settle our differences in the streets, I fear not only for all of you, but for all our nation.”

But no agreement could be reached between the administration and students, whose demands included construction of a permanent outdoor forum, academic reform and the establishment of a Woodstock residential area in keeping with the law. Consequently, Chancellor Mitchell contacted the governor later that night and conceded that he no longer had control of the situation on campus.

When the Colorado National Guard arrived on campus early the morning of May 13, only a stray dog and one sleeping student occupied the encampment. Prior to the Guard’s arrival, students evacuated the area.

“I really wanted to make my statement rather than have someone with power who wouldn’t even listen to us come in and move us,” says Walker, whose initial refusal to leave resulted in her friends forcibly carrying her from the camp.

National Guardsman William Baird (MSW ’71), like his fellow members of the 220th military police unit, carried live ammunition.

“I thought that was crazy after Kent State,” says Baird’s fellow guardsman DeFoe, given that the atmosphere on campus that morning was serious but not hostile.

In a replay of May 11’s events, the National Guard cordoned off the Woodstock West area on both sides of Evans Avenue while three dump trucks and a front-end loader tore down the tent city.

“It was a show of force, a power-play,” Baird says of the event. “We felt like we’d been misused.”

To ensure that Woodstock West III did not spring up, a police unit monitored the area night and day until May 18, according to Wagenlander’s report.

At Commencement, approximately 60 percent of the senior class wore either armbands with peace insignias or chose not to wear caps and gowns. Chancellor Mitchell did not shake hands with the graduates or personally sign their diplomas, in an effort to avoid incidents.

“Something came alive for some members of this university community — some said that a real community came into being. It is surely possible. It is also regrettable that this had to be the mechanism,” Mitchell would later say in an Aug. 9 interview that appeared in the Denver Post.

The passion and energy that engulfed DU and campuses across the country during the spring of 1970 had dissipated by fall.

“I don’t think there was a great change and there wasn’t a great rejection,” Wagenlander says of the aftermath. “It was just over.”

For some the spring of 1970 remains a bittersweet memory.

“A lot of people glamorize the ’60s and ’70s. It was a rich and complex time but also very painful,” says Nancy (Donkin) Young (BSBA ’70). “There isn’t anything fabulous about protesting and seeing your friend’s head bashed in.”

But for many it remains a significant lesson in the power of one and the might of many.

“It was a time when you started to think for yourself and realize you don’t have to fit into anyone else’s image of you,” Gould says. “It was good for us to see what we were capable of, and I think that demonstrations like this eventually stopped the war.”

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