Seattle’s University District has long been known as a locus for student-led protests, both for various causes and against various grievances. Some of these protest events have been large enough to at least temporarily shut down University Way Northeast — popularly also known as “The Ave” — one of the city’s major stretches of retail storefront property. The first such major protest event in the U District, uncannily enough, was a protest against the U District business community — specifically, against its collective discriminatory stance towards Seattle’s counterculture, and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) harassment which, at the time, was aggressively enforcing such discrimination.
Circa spring 1967, Seattle’s countercultural community had clearly established the U District as its physical and spiritual home, and the consequential conflict between the fringies and the U District business community was already approaching a boiling point. At issue at the time was the latter’s recent attempts to expel fringies, homeless people, racial minorities, and other apparent undesirables from the neighborhood by means both superficially civil — such as lobbying Seattle City Hall and the UW administration — and more direct. The latter means included the aforementioned police harassment, which consisted of discretionary ticketing of jaywalkers, detainment and arresting of fringies for frivolous charges, and other, more brutal forms of harassment — all considered by its target group to be sanctioned, de facto if not de jure, by the University District Chamber of Commerce (UDCC).
Organized opposition to such harassment arrived in the form of the University District Movement (UDM), an ad hoc coalition of activists crucially co-led by Robby Stern, then a 23-year-old UW law student and a key member of the UW chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The UDM’s immediate goal was to document instances of SPD harassment of alleged undesirables in the U District, along with cases of direct discrimination by rental agencies, restaurants, and other such businesses. Working with the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the UDM gathered affidavits aimed at convincing the UDCC to formally cease the harassment and discrimination in question.
On April 11, the UDM, with recent editorial support from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, met with the UDCC board of directors to discuss the UDM’s demands. Along with a prepared opening statement, they brought with them a pile of petitions bearing roughly eight thousand signatures in support of their goals. The UDCC’s formal response was politely hostile: they read a five-page prepared statement effectively rejecting the UDM’s demands, and refused to let UDM leaders speak further in counter-response. They did, however, pledge that a UDCC committee would meet with UDM leaders at a later, undetermined date.
Later that afternoon, the UDM met with some five hundred UW students in front of UW’s Husky Union Building (HUB) to discuss the UDM’s next potential step. Stern told the crowd, “We need the eight thousand who signed the petitions to rally tomorrow to tell them we’re tired and we’re mad. Who’ll say, ‘We care, we want our district for us’?”
The crowd was not completely united: some vocally supported the UDM, while others supported the UDCC, with one student proclaiming, “What’s wrong with the police putting on a little pressure to clean [the U District] up?”
On April 12 — the date in focus here — the UDM met with a group of six U District merchants, who tentatively agreed to the UDM’s demands, with minor changes in language and no guarantee of approval by the UDCC. Later that afternoon, another rally, called the day before and comprising some two thousand persons, was held in front of the HUB to discuss a potential solution to the UDM-UDCC standoff. Just as on the day before, a rift developed between supporters of a potential compromise with the UDCC and more assertive supporters of the UDM. A vote was taken to decide whether the group should march down The Ave as a show of strength to the UDCC — a move the UDM had been warned might alienate the UDCC and thus jeopardize their chances of achieving a meaningful solution to the UDM’s grievances.
The vote was narrowly in favor of marching, and a debate began between the pros and the cons in the crowd. At a particularly tense moment, Stern spontaneously proclaimed, “I’m marching down The Ave, and anyone who wants to join me is welcome to follow.”
And so they did so — roughly 1,500 of them, thus introducing the U District to an activist tactic that would see even more spectacular use there during the next half-decade. The UDCC’s immediate reaction to the march was predictably negative, with at least one U District merchant proclaiming the UDM’s action a “breach of faith.” While negotiations still continued between the UDCC and the UDM, the UDM’s grievances would also continue. Among the UDM’s last acts before disbanding that summer was to document many further instances of SPD harassment and present them to Seattle City Hall at a downtown rally that May.
Sources: Susan Slettvet, “UDM Dominates UW Scene,” University of Washington Daily, April 12, 1967, p. 1; Bruce Edmonson, “CC Cool To UDM,” University of Washington Daily, April 12, 1967, p. 1; Sue Lockett, “Kirk Cautions UDM,” University of Washington Daily, April 12, 1967, p. 1; Sue Catlin, “Marchers Irk Ave Merchants,” University of Washington Daily, April 13, 1967, p. 1; Jack Jarvis, “1,500 Students Stage March In U District,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 13, 1967, p. 1; “U. District Firms Charge ‘Bad Faith’,” The Seattle Times, April 13, 1967, p. 13; “UDM May Go Out To Dinner,” University of Washington Daily, April 14, 1967, p. 1; Susan Slettvet, “UDM March Was Against Nobody, Stern Claims,” University of Washington Daily, April 14, 1967, p. 6; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995).