Two generations of Madison protest culture collide
Written by Will Cioci
William A. Draves arrived at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War.
A transfer student from a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, he had been looking for firsthand experience in the co-ops he had studied in class and found one on the shores of Lake Mendota. The campus was an epicenter for social revolution then, Draves remembers, where the progressive “counterculture” of the time was really, perhaps, the majority philosophy.
The anti-war movement was in full swing. Protests were ubiquitous, and Draves was eager to help. He says he was “half observer and half on the second line” of the protests. He organized an event in his hometown of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, and invited his cousin, Peter Tork of the Monkees, to speak about the Vietnamese national liberation movement. He traveled to Washington with a group of other students to protest the federal government. He made sandwiches for striking teaching assistants.
“I was torn between going to class and going out on the streets. Not to do something so much on the streets, but to learn something,” Draves says.
Now, half a century after that movement for peace culminated in a deadly bombing at the university’s Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall, the UW–Madison campus once again finds itself in the midst of a social revolution. Sparked by the killing of George Floyd in late May and sustained through the summer and beyond by relentless devotion and a string of new violence at the hands of police officers, protests have wracked the city and the country in a reckoning over racial injustice. A new generation of students have stepped into their roles as citizens and changemakers, walking in the footsteps of those that came before them and grappling with a foe that, to them, feels larger and more deeply rooted than the war abroad.
Like Draves, current UW–Madison senior Tarah Stangler transferred to Wisconsin in search of something new. From a small town in Minnesota, the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a white American, she has always been active in protests and social justice movements. At college in Chicago, Stangler was struggling to find the community and opportunities she had hoped for when the Wisconsin Idea — the university’s guiding notion that education from the school should influence the world beyond the classroom — piqued her interest.
Stangler was living on State Street in Madison when George Floyd was killed by police in her home state. As crowds of protesters and police gathered outside her window, she got a call from a friend in her community and nonprofit leadership program who knew she had training as a street medic. She did not hesitate.
“You make community really fast when you’re trying to scrub each other’s eyes out from the pepper spray,” Stangler says.
Looking back now, Draves sees the 1960s peace movement’s story as a success, if not a perfect victory. In the end, he says, students’ efforts to end the war made a difference. Their clear-cut demands — an end to the war — make for an easy way to measure that success.
“The protests saved thousands of American lives, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives,” Draves says.
Troy Reeves sees things differently.
Reeves has been head of the oral history program at the UW–Madison Archives since 2007. As part of his job, he interviews alumni and community members to get their account of campus events like the anti-war protests and the Sterling Hall bombing. He views the protests as one aspect of a broader movement for students’ rights to be part of the university’s decision making — such as the choice to allow recruiters for Dow Chemical Company, which made napalm for the war — onto campus. Also included in that era is the 1969 Black Student Strike, which led to the creation of the university’s African American studies department and little else, despite a considerable list of demands. In his mind, students did not achieve the change they were after.
“In the end, I think the structures that were in power before the war stayed in power,” Reeves says. “It’s still a faculty- and administration-driven campus. It was in 1964, it was in 1974 and it is in 2020.”
The question of how students seek to be heard and taken seriously on such a campus is a contentious one with a tragic history at UW–Madison.
On Aug. 24, 1970, at 3:42 a.m., a bomb set by four students in a stolen university van exploded outside Sterling Hall. The target was the Army Mathematics Research Center, which was housed in the building. The explosion destroyed almost everything but the math lab, and killed Robert Fassnacht, a 33-year-old postdoctoral researcher and father of three.
Reeves says that in his interviews, almost everyone can recount the sound of the blast. One subject claims to have heard it from 17 miles away. Draves was instantly awake.
“We did know immediately upon hearing of [Fassnacht’s] death, that this was different, and not good for the peace movement,” Draves says. “Protests kept going, but they were more sober, and we were no longer perceived by others as being all right and all perfect.”
Draves says he doesn’t believe the bombing was justified, although in his view the crimes committed by the U.S. government during the war far outweigh those of the peace movement. Though unintended, Fassnacht’s death changed the meaning of the bombing for many, including some in Draves’ circle.
“When they heard the explosion, they went over to see it. And they just assumed nobody was injured, so they were kind of laughing, because I think there’s all sorts of documentation on the war-related things that some people were doing in this building, resulting in who knows how many Vietnamese deaths,” Draves says of some of his friends at the time. “So they were kind of laughing — until a police officer informed them.”
Students and residents of Madison faced a similar dilemma, though to lesser extremes, this summer as some protests against racial injustice and police brutality turned violent. On one night in June, demonstrators toppled iconic statues around the Wisconsin State Capitol and assaulted a state senator. That mode of protest makes some students, like Jayda Griffin, uncomfortable.
“There’s a lot of people that are going out and being violent, which I can understand the frustration, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily the right way to approach a situation,” says Griffin, a UW–Madison junior from Racine and a member of the Wisconsin Black Student Union.
But to both Griffin and Draves, public perceptions of their respective activist movements were unfairly colored by bad actors and what Draves calls a “guilt-trip on a generation” after the Sterling Hall bombing.
“I feel like with any movement, somehow we get skewed out of proportion, because there are people that take it way too far,” Griffin says.
For Stangler’s part, on-campus activism is about making noise. Near the end of the summer she and a number of other UW–Madison students organized a local march to coincide with the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The university took notice of the event, and the students decided “then and there” to be a formal activist group, the UW BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) Coalition, in order to “utilize [that] moment and attention that we had gotten as organizers to uplift BIPOC voices on campus.”
While the coalition has a list of 10 specific demands — one of which is for the university to revisit the unfulfilled demands of the 1969 Black Student Strike — their overall goal is a bit more difficult to itemize and act upon.
“The biggest enemy we have to fight is the comfortability that people have with accepting systems of white supremacy,” Stangler says.
The breadth of that goal, in her mind, sets the current movement apart from the anti-war protests of half a century ago.
“They knew that they wanted out of the war. There wasn’t a simple way to get there but it was a simple ask. And for us, what we’re asking is for the university to address the history of white supremacy,” she says. “We’re asking for people to change a way of life that has existed in this country for so long. It’s not like we’re just saying, ‘We want the war on BIPOC people to end.’ Well, what does that look like? We don’t know what a time when there isn’t racism in the country looks like.”
Translating those lofty goals into tangible change is challenging. With so much ground to cover, there is plenty of room for disagreement and sticking points. Some of the coalition’s demands, like the removal of the university’s iconic Abraham Lincoln statue at the top of Bascom Hill, or abolishing the campus police force, have been met with strong pushback from other segments of the student body.
“I know that I want police reform. But there’s some people out there that want the police completely abolished, which I don’t think is right,” Griffin says. “I don’t know the common goal of people right now. I think that’s a problem.”
For all the difficulties in fighting back against systemic racism, Stangler seems optimistic. She says the coalition, thus far, has been successful in building its platform and the necessary relationships to make change. The group takes inspiration from the campus’ past protest movements, she says.
“It leaves a legacy behind that is something that future student activists can look back on or look at and think: They were able to do this,” Stangler says. “They were able to organize, even if it meant that their words weren’t heard. They made enough of an impact that I can be here today still hearing about these things.”
Draves reflects on the group of students he lived and worked with amidst the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s, and comes up with some defining traits.
“One, we were and still are optimistic. Two, change-oriented. And then three, democratic and embracing diversity,” he says.
He sees all of those things in the young people on the streets today.