50 Years Ago: DU Thrust into the National Spotlight with Woodstock West

On May 4, 1970, 1,500 DU students gathered on the University of Denver campus to publicly mourn four students at Kent State University in Ohio who were shot and killed by national guardsmen. The protest also centered on President Richard Nixon’s foray into Cambodia which risked an extension of the Vietnam War. 

This was a surprising development because DU was not known as a politically active hotbed. The protest on campus made national news and thrust the University of Denver into the national spotlight.

On the morning of May 6th, a group of angry DU students gathered in front of the General Classroom Building (Today’s Sturm Hall) and encouraged students to boycott classes. The throng marched across Evans Avenue to what is today Carnegie Green and, then, on to Chancellor Maurice Mitchell’s office. Chancellor Mitchell responded to the protest by plainly stating, “no one is free to interfere with the scholarly activity here”, according to the Denver Post.

But the student throng was undeterred by Mitchell’s statements. The editorial board of the Clarion came out with a one-line editorial: “On Strike, Shut it Down.”

The students began to formulate various forms of protest. A firebomb was thrown into John Greene Hall on the south end of campus and the University called a convocation on May 8th to recognize the growing unrest. Later that day, students started to erect makeshift camps on both sides of Evans Avenue that started with several hundred students, and added outsiders, community activists and radicals and grew to 2,000 participants. Marijuana flowed freely and one area of the camp was designated as ‘camp mellow’. Thus, the label ‘Woodstock West’.

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Photo: History.DenverLibrary.org

By May 10th, over 80% of the protestors were non-students and Mitchell called in local police to break up the camps. Early the next morning, 200 local troopers and 40 Denver police were called in to surround the camp and demolish tents and structures. According to Denver Magazine, 18 DU students were arrested along with two faculty members.

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Photo: National Guard troops called to the University of Denver campus. The old Carnegie Library (pictured) was the DU bookstore in the 1970s and was later torn down to what is now Carnegie Green, Courtesy of Denver Public Library

The encampment was once again resurrected soon after and was dubbed, ‘Woodstock II‘.

The students demanded a permanent outdoor forum, academic reform, and establish a Woodstock residential area. But, the students and administration failed to reach an agreement. On the morning of May 13th, Chancellor Mitchell, working with then-Governor John Love, secured the National Guard to enter the camp for a second time, tear down the tents and structures and dispose of the shanty village. The university ordered front-end loaders and dump trucks to clear the grounds. During the duration of the entire protest, sources estimate the crowd ranged anywhere between 5,000-12,000 with students, faculty, and outside participants.

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Photo: Chancellor Maurice Mitchell fields questions at DU Arena. Courtesy of History.DenverLibrary.org

In the span of fewer than 10 days, the public insurrection came to an end.

At graduation, about 60% of the students wore armbands, displayed peace symbols, and refused to wear caps and gowns. Maurice Mitchell kept a healthy distance from the newly awarded graduates to reduce the incidence of any public conflict.

While no significant visible changes were made on campus following Woodstock West, politicians were witness to the discontent and frustration on college campuses. The US withdrew from the Cambodia incursions on July 18th, 1970. On January 23rd, 1973, President Richard Nixon finally called an end to the Vietnam War and withdrew US troops.

Top photo source: Wikipedia.com

5 thoughts on “50 Years Ago: DU Thrust into the National Spotlight with Woodstock West”

  1. As a DU student during these turbulent times and a first hand observer and sometimes participant of/in these activities, I can tell you that the news media, including the Clarion, blew this event way out of proportion. (Just as they continue to do with many ‘news’ events today.)

    In large part, the DU students viewed this more as a celebration of spring than a true protest. (Remembering the DU spring ‘riots’ of 1965 when the administration took away the daily coffee break.) Though they found some student sympathizers, the force behind this activity was initiated and perpetuated by outside radicals who were NOT DU students.

    When the decision was made to call out the national guard, it was amusing to many of us, as we had friends serving in the guard (having joined primarily as a way to avoid serving in Viet Nam) who were called up to stand watch over their classmates.

    At no time did the crowd grow anywhere near the 12,000 people estimated by some. It was also an exaggeration that 60% of the graduates wore black arm bands, though Chancellor Mitchell, who wasn’t liked by many for several other reasons, was definitely not front and center during the commencement ceremony.

    In the end, everyone seemed to have a good time. We all went back to classes and life got back to normal. No real harm done.

    1. Thanks for the first-hand account. Always interesting to get some first-hand stories sharing DU’s history. Thanks for taking the time!

  2. Woodstock West had a profound effect on me. Unlike most of my peers, I was challenged with paying my entire way through DU. Even back in the “good old days” DU tuition wasn’t cheap. When you throw in housing, I was way underwater most quarters. Since I was paying my own ride, I wasn’t going to waste my academic time getting caught up this uprising.

    I was on my way to my Finance class in the Biz Ad building when I was met by four of the protesters, none of who attended DU. They told me that they were shutting down the school and I couldn’t attend class. I told them that I paid for that class and I had not intention of missing it. With that, they began to beat me almost senseless. I ended up in Denver General for a couple of days.

    They never caught the thugs. I suspect that had accomplished their goal and moved on to some other uprising. Denver police had no interest in pursuing it and DU security didn’t have the resources to pursue it. All I ended up with as a broken jaw, broken ribs and a couple of black eyes.

  3. Having traveled there from the CU – Boulder campus, I recall peacefully observing the goings on where large machinery – I think there were bulldozers came and we had to either flee or get crushed as the makeshift structures were ‘cleared’.

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