History

May 5, 1970: The UW Freeway March

Marchers on I-5, Seattle, May 5, 1970 Museum of History & Industry
Antiwar marchers on I-5, Seattle, May 5, 1970
Museum of History & Industry

Was the Kent State Massacre not a sufficient wake-up call for a complacent nation?

During that event, on May 4, 1970, four students at Ohio’s Kent State University were fatally shot by National Guardsmen during a protest against the previous week’s United States military invasion of Cambodia. That tragedy should have served to sound an efficient alarm for any American citizen still in denial about how our absurd military involvement in Southeast Asia had politically divided the nation during the otherwise prosperous 1960s. For the remaining still slumbering, the nationwide and passionate campus reaction the following day — namely, the date in focus here — was surely the test to separate the merely politically timid from the hopelessly complacent.

This was especially the case in Seattle, where several thousand University of Washington students, faculty, and staff members spontaneously marched from the UW campus onto Interstate 5 as part of a nationwide student strike against the Vietnam War — thus instigating the first antiwar freeway occupation in U.S. history.

As student strikes and campus building occupations ensued that day at more than 100 universities and colleges across the United States, nearly 7,000 UW students participated in a strike that would last throughout the month of May. The inaugural strike demonstration began at 10:30 a.m. in front of the UW’s Husky Union Building. There, striking students and faculty members overwhelmingly approved a list of demands to be presented to the UW administration, including a pledge by UW President Charles Odegaard never to call National Guard troops onto the UW campus, and an end to University complicity with the war effort, including military recruiting, ROTC, and war-oriented research.

After a long, serpentine march through campus, the strikers arrived at the UW Administration Building around noon. There, Odegaard, while expressing outrage over the Kent State killings, refused the strikers’ demands. In response, the students voted to begin marching en masse off campus and through the University District. Eventually, marching north on University Way Northeast, some 5,000 of the strikers reached Northeast 45th Street. When some of the strike leaders began chanting, “Freeway!,” the march spontaneously but swiftly surged towards Interstate 5. Reaching the freeway just before 2 p.m., still 3,000 strong, they spilled out onto I-5 from both sides and began marching south towards downtown, blocking southbound traffic for over an hour, and for several miles, in the process. By all accounts, there were no serious confrontations between marchers and motorists, with many motorists reportedly honking and flashing peace signs in approval.

Near the Roanoke Street exit, the march was confronted by about 30 riot-gear-clad Washington State Patrol troopers. After voting to stage a freeway sit-in that lasted roughly one half-hour, the marchers then voted to leave the freeway and continue south on Eastlake Avenue East. They eventually reached the Federal Courthouse downtown at about 4 p.m., where they were joined by striking students from several other local colleges and high schools for an hour-long rally.

The following day, a much larger group of strikers would again march from the UW campus to downtown, this time through the Montlake and Central Area neighborhoods. They would again occupy I-5, this time downtown, meeting with much more resistance from police, who used tear gas and clubs to move the strikers from the freeway. The remainder of that week would see random outbreaks of violence in the U District related to the strike, including attacks on antiwar protesters by right-wing vigilantes — some of whom would later be revealed to be off-duty Seattle police officers. Overall, though, the strike was a largely peaceful affair — on campus, at least.

The 1970 UW student strike would continue throughout the month of May. The strike would eventually lose its momentum and power as the UW administration began to clamp down on both the strike itself and coverage of the strike in the UW Daily and on KUOW-FM, at the time still a student-run station and often host to radical journalistic voices.

Sources: Greg Albertson, “Morning Mass Meeting Called,” University of Washington Daily, May 5, 1970, p. 1; Don Hannula, “5,000 U.W. Protesters Block Traffic on Freeway,” The Seattle Times, May 5, 1970, p. 1; Julie Emery, “U.W. Tense as Students Strike Over War, Kent State Killings,” The Seattle Times, May 5, 1970, p. A10; Bruce Johansen, “War Protests Begin,” University of Washington Daily, May 6, 1970, p. 2; Frank Herbert, Larry McCarten and George McDowell, “Thousands Block Freeway; UW Marchers Join U.S. College ‘Strike’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 1970, p. 1; “UW War Protest ‘Loud but Peaceful’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 1970, p. B; Frank Herbert, “‘My God–We’ve Got the Freeway’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 1970, p. B; “Protesters March on City Hall; U.W. to Close On Friday,” The Seattle Times, May 6, 1970, p. 1; Marty Loken, “U.W. Strike Day; Violence Shunned as Thousands Demonstrate,” The Seattle Times, May 6, 1970, p. E17; Don Hannula, “Rally, Freeway March Mark U.W. Student Strike,” The Seattle Times, May 6, 1970, p. E19; Mike Cassidy, “Peaceful Start: Gas & Clubs Mark Finale,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 2; Bruce Olson, “Raising The Stakes,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 4; Marc Krasnowsky, “A View from the Freeway,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 4; Bruce Johansen, “‘Oh My God, Here They Come’,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 7; Kim Reich, “Student Strike: Some Went & Others Didn’t,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 8; Dan Greenberg, “Lower Campus:,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 8; Dave Rea, “‘They Make Excuses . . .,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 8; Eric Lacitis, “Confrontation on Interstate 5,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 9; Greg Albertson, “No Mass Blockade,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 9; George Arthur, “Northwest Region Schools Join Student War Protest,” University of Washington Daily, May 7, 1970, p. 10; Walt Crowley, “On Strike,” Helix, May 7, 1970, p. 3; “Shut It Down,” Helix, May 7, 1970, p. 4; “10,000 Block Freeway Again,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 7, 1970, p. 1; “Odegaard Meets Demand Partially,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 7, 1970, p. B; Richard Simmons, “Peace March Brings Them All Together,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 7, 1970, p. B; Don Hannula, “More Protests Due; 4,000 Rally at U.W.,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. 1; “Support Pledged By Mayor’s Office,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. 1; Marty Loken, “Some Hurt, 7 Held as Students Occupy Freeway,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. A8; Don Hannula, “Students Skip Campus Buildings, Invade Freeway,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. A9; John Hinterberger, “Students Clubbed Leaving Freeway,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. A10; “‘Join Us!, Join Us!’: Student Strikers Move Into U.W. Classrooms,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. B1; “Lawyer’s Class at U.W. Invaded,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. B1; “Protest Groups Unite, Call Demonstration,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p. B1; “Destructive Binge In U District,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8, 1970, p. 1; Martin Works and John deYonge, “U District a ‘Fluid Battleground’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8, 1970, p. B; “U Students Urge Shutdown,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8, 1970, p. 2; Don Hannula, “Downtown Protest Peaceful; Freeway Again Disrupted,” The Seattle Times, May 8, 1970, p. 1; “Unruly Bands Roam U. District; 8 Injured,” The Seattle Times, May 8, 1970, p. 1; Marty Loken, “Students Clubbed by Vigilantes,” The Seattle Times, May 8, 1970, p. 1; “HELP Group Denies Using Force at U.W.,” The Seattle Times, May 8, 1970, p. A4; Don Hannula, “City Calm as Protests Subside,” The Seattle Times, May 9, 1970, p. 1; Greg Albertson, Dan Greenberg, Kim Reich, “Strike Still On, But Campus Open,” University of Washington Daily, May 12, 1970, p. 1; Greg Albertson, “Students Pause, Strike Fizzles,” University of Washington Daily, May 13, 1970, p. 1; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).