1969 in Austin:
The famous Chuck Wagon police riot
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / February 17, 2010
‘…Another hero of the revolution stepped forth from the crowd and threw open the truck’s rear door, allowing our captured comrades inside to escape. The cops were mightily pissed.’
[Several Rag Bloggers who are veterans of the Sixties have contributed articles reflecting their memories from those days. This essay is part of David Pratt Hamilton’s developing memoir, working title: Lucky Guy.]
In early November 1969 the University of Texas campus in Austin experienced another upheaval, this one based more on generational rebellion against the arbitrary power of the University’s Board of Regents than on the weighty issues of war and racism that had been sweeping the world, UT included.
A growing number of street kids were hanging out — if not living — on The Drag, the bustling street that ran along the west side of the UT campus. Some of them tended to seek refuge in the Chuck Wagon, the bohemian quarter among student eating facilities. The local newspaper editorialized against this outrage, labeling the denizens of the CW “pot smokers” and “non-student scum,” and called for this situation to be “cleaned up” precipitously.
The Chuck Wagon was the principal eatery in the Student Union, cheap and located right on the Drag (known to some as Guadalupe Street). It was also very popular with leftist students. SDS radicals and counterculture types were frequently found there and it was the scene of a great deal of personal organizing as we mixed easily with other students interested in listening to our positions in a relaxed atmosphere.
It was the only place on campus where the radicals dominated, our liberated territory. If you wanted to rub shoulders with the militants, the CW was where you went.
There actually weren’t hordes of street kids there. Maybe a dozen or so regulars depending on the weather, but this somehow became a big problem for the “authorities.” Shortly after the inflammatory editorial appeared, the city police stormed in to capture a runaway known as Sunshine, the name likely derived from a then popular variety of LSD.
It would have been fair to be suspicious when a large contingent of police suddenly became so concerned with a bedraggled street urchin that they staged an aggressive assault in an environment where they know their actions would not be appreciated by most of those present.
This provocation was the opening salvo in a show of force by the Regents and assorted University elders to reclaim lost turf, knowing the police assault would spark a confrontation and that confrontations inspire new rules. In the process, they would dislodge the radicals, their real target.
Some of the street guys with Sunshine obliged by pelting the departing cop cars with bottles — or at least one bottle. This incident was a set-up for a war the University wanted to have.
Although the Student Union was supposedly governed by an autonomous board with a student majority, word came down from on high that henceforth anyone entering the Chuck Wagon would be required to show a University ID, a new rule clearly aimed at the imaginary non-student menace.
A significant number of those anti-war and SDS activists who hung out there may not have been in good standing with the University at any given moment, although virtually all those not currently enrolled had been recently and would be again, as many of us dropped in and out of school but remained a part of the university community. Despite frequent allegations to the contrary, there were no real “outside agitators” on campus other than the city’s ruling establishment.
At an emergency meeting held that Friday around midnight, the Student Union board folded to the pressure and passed the new rule dictated to them by the Regents.
My roommate Paul Spencer and I somehow heard of the decision early the next morning — it was probably on the local radio — and reflexively decided to challenge it. Since I was a registered graduate student and employee of the Government Department, our plan was for me to hit the door first to case the situation.
Early that Saturday morning I walked into the Chuck Wagon and, sure enough, was asked for an ID by some student employee standing by the entrance. I reproached him for being a collaborator with the forces of repression and left, without complying, to inform Paul who was waiting in the hall.
Paul had been a student for several semesters, but at this point was not enrolled. On principle, he wouldn’t have shown his ID anyway. Paul marched through the CW door, hurled pithy but withering verbiage at the young collaborator, and proceeded inside. There Paul was immediately confronted by the president of the University, Bryce Jordan, who sternly said, “Paul, you know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
Of course, it was completely astounding that the president of the university, a Frank Erwin flunky [Frank Erwin was the chairman of the UT Board of Regents and a close crony of Lyndon Johnson] was in the Chuck Wagon before 9 a.m. to personally help enforce a minor rule enacted only hours earlier by a board that was supposed to be autonomous of his control.
Even more revealing was that Prez Jordan knew Paul’s name and status. Clearly, the University’s rulers were orchestrating this power play and were way ahead of us in preparation. Regardless, we went for the bait.
Prez Jordan was backed up by two not particularly imposing campus cops. I don’t think they even had guns, a testament to the unmilitarized atmosphere of that earlier era, a condition that has been totally rectified since. Were a similar incident to occur now, the Prez would have 40 fully decked-out riot police waiting in the kitchen, a SWAT team in a room down the hall, the National Guard on call, and would be packin’ heat himself.
Although I was standing right beside Paul and had shown no ID either, Prez ignored me, probably because he knew that I was in good standing. Paul began to offer the Prez his take on the illegitimate nature of the dictate put forth by the tyrannical Regents to the Student Union Board. Not surprisingly, Prez Jordan did not want to get involved in a debate with someone much smarter than he was and who also had the advantage of being fundamentally correct and who was surrounded by 200 or so skeptical and judgmental students.
Hence, he precipitously escalated to the physical plane by motioning for the cops to step in, since Paul failed to respond quickly to his order to leave. They grabbed Paul. That was a tactical error. Although only weighing about 165 pounds, Paul was an excellent athlete and in his physical prime. They were not.
Together, the two cops couldn’t pen him. It was all they could do to hang on. Some student decided to help the cops until I propelled him through a couple of tables. Then I unsuccessfully exhorted the crowd to liberate Paul. But while talking the talk, I was unwilling to walk the walk. I choked at leading them by example.
In retrospect, I’ve always wished that I had just jumped on Prez Jordan, whereupon the cops would have had to come to his rescue, perhaps allowing Paul and me to both escape. But, despite my having spent the previous year “on the barricades” with hard-core types, I was unwilling to jump in and mix it up with the two rather vulnerable cops who already had their hands full.
Collectively the students could have freed Paul easily, but I didn’t provide the leadership in doing it. Since the Prez knew who we were, my inaction in this regard kept me temporarily out of jail, and in school, but hardly covered me in glory. More cops showed up shortly and Paul was carted away. To cover for my failure, I ran off to find a lawyer and raise his bail money.
The following Monday, the first day of classes after this first incident, there was a big lunch hour protest demonstration on the West Mall just outside the Student Union that drew a sizable crowd ready for action. After an hour of rousing speeches concerning the abuse of our rights by the dictatorial Regents, hundreds of us marched into the building and entered the CW en masse without showing ID’s. It was an occupation.
Paul, having already been arrested once — and only recently getting out of jail — stayed in the background and didn’t speak at the rally or come inside the CW during the occupation. The University had its military on call, hordes of city cops geared up for action. They surrounded the building outside the CW and gave us a deadline to get out by 4 p.m. This allowed us a couple of hours to decide how to respond.
Some civil disobedience volunteers decided that they would stay inside and get arrested in nonviolent protest while the rest of us, having pledged to bail them out, left in time to make the deadline. No such luck. In a paradigm of the cop-riot fashion of the day, the police stormed in at exactly 4 p.m. through the same two glass doors that the protesters inside were clearly using to leave.
The cops could have simply come through the outside door of the kitchen and been patient while all the people who were trying to leave did so. Instead, their frontal assault trapped lots of people inside trying to get out. Naturally, there developed a wild, panic-stricken bottleneck around the two heavily congested exits with MACE spraying, chairs flying, and glass breaking.
Those of us who had exited ahead of the cops’ charge turned around to converge on them from their rear. I grabbed a screaming young woman who had been hit directly in the face with MACE and couldn’t see and took her to get first aid at the University Y across the street.
In the meantime, the police had brought in a large panel truck to haul away prisoners. They had succeeded in rounding up some of the protesters and putting them inside it when some heroic comrade slit one of the truck’s tires. This rendered it unable to proceed to the jailhouse except on the rim, the alternative being to change the tire on the spot while surrounded by hundreds of angry students hurling verbal abuse if not more tangible articles.
In their confusion, the police left the rear door of the truck momentarily unguarded. Another hero of the revolution stepped forth from the crowd at that crucial moment and threw open the truck’s rear door, allowing our captured comrades inside to escape.
The cops were mightily pissed. They then formed a phalanx that plunged into the crowd with the specific goal of grabbing Paul. He had been doing nothing beyond standing in the middle of a large crowd outside — perhaps chanting — and had not participated in the occupation, but they arrested him again anyway.
A few weeks later, 21 of us were indicted by the Travis County Grand Jury as co-conspirators in the felonious destruction of public property, to wit, one truck tire worth $200. We became known as “the Chuckwagon 21” and a minor local cause célébre. It was my first local arrest, but number three for Paul. The cops came to my door to arrest me while I was smoking a joint, but luckily they failed to notice.
This was the only time in my life that I spent time locked up in a jail cell. Actually, I was only inside about 10 hours before we were bailed out, but it made a big negative impression on me regardless. The high point was getting a mug shot taken that later appeared in my FBI files wherein I was identified as an “SDS organizer.” It will forever be one of my proudest possessions.
Among those arrested besides Paul and me were Bill Meacham and a couple of the “motherfuckers,” Jay and Randy. The motherfuckers [the group was actually called “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker”] were an SDS offshoot, militantly dedicated to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and anarchy.
As an expression of their dedication to radical leveling and their alienation from the prevailing order, they all used Motherfucker as a last name. Hence, my comrade Jay McGee became Jay Motherfucker. He was in jail with us and some years later became my first wife Diane’s second husband with my blessing.
Having the Motherfuckers involved provided lots of energy and style, but somewhat complicated our public image at that trying moment when we were technically facing up to 20 years in prison.
Fighting the charges against us became our political work over the next several months. We bemoaned that fact at the time, realizing the forces of evil were tying us up in this sideshow so we could not continue to oppose their more serious crimes.
Miraculously, several very prominent liberal lawyers volunteered to serve as our defense team pro bono. They included the then famous criminal defense attorney from Odessa, Warren Burnett, a “whiskey-swigging, Shakespeare-quoting Texas lawyer who achieved near-legendary status” according to his New York Times obituary.
Famed San Antonio lawyer and politician Maury Maverick, Jr. and David Richards, constitutional law professor at UT and husband of future governor Ann Richards, also signed on, mainly just for a show of strength.
One of our defense arguments was to ask why we could all be held responsible for damage done by one person to one truck tire. The state said we had all conspired to commit this crime by our participation in the events. Constitutional issues of free speech and questions of procedure were also raised in our defense. Most of the actual legal work was done by young local progressive lawyers, Jim Simons and Cam Cunningham.
The DA, Bob Smith, had only recently been very publicly embarrassed when Burnett had successfully defended local writer Gary Cartwright on a pot possession charge. Not wanting to be again subjected to Burnett’s superior legal abilities, Smith was appropriately intimidated and dropped the charges altogether, at least against those of us he didn’t have something else on. So my charges were dropped, but he refused to drop those against Paul for assaulting a cop.
The DA wanted a plea bargain for 30 days in jail and probation. Paul, believing that he had been the one assaulted and that he had acted appropriately in support of lawful procedure, wouldn’t buy the deal and eventually bolted. They never chased him. Running him out of town was a sufficient victory for them. Austin’s loss was great.
[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the late 1960s when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper.]