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Decades ago, UT Austin students camped out to save dozens of trees. Then police were called in.

Police officers in the branches of a tree, trying to remove someone
Daily Texan
Police arrested 27 people for protesting the removal of trees along Waller Creek on the UT Austin campus on Oct. 21, 1969.

Dozens of people protested on the UT Austin campus. Some of them slept there overnight. State and local police were called in to drag protesters away. There was a standoff. Twenty-seven people were arrested.

“Arrest all the people you have to,” said the guy in charge.

The confrontation didn’t happen in 2024, but 55 years ago.

A huge construction project had been approved that would include building what’s now Bellmont Hall (along with a new upper deck at Memorial Stadium) and change the alignment of San Jacinto Boulevard as it passes the stadium. Many students first learned about the project in The Daily Texan, where a front-page headline on Oct. 8, 1969, read: “Pact OK’d For Stadium Enlargement.”

A map of part of the UT campus near Memorial Stadium showing where San Jacinto Boulevard would be moved and several dozen trees removed.
Daily Texan
A map of the 1969 Waller Creek project area, showing where San Jacinto Boulevard would be relocated and which trees would be removed.

The project meant cutting down 39 trees along Waller Creek, which ran alongside San Jacinto. That’s where the trouble began.

You could argue the stakes were lower then, but the response from university administrators was the same.

Antiwar protests sweep the country

The 1960s were, of course, rife with activism. Civil rights marches, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a burgeoning environmental movement. And then there was the Vietnam War, which was going very badly for the U.S. by the late ’60s.

In March 1968, students at Columbia University in New York took over campus buildings to protest the war and the construction of a segregated gymnasium. Police violently cleared those buildings, injuring more than 100 student protesters. More than 700 people were arrested.

The next year was no different. There were huge antiwar demonstrations across the country — on campuses from Berkeley to Harvard. Each drew thousands upon thousands. On Oct. 15, there was the first Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a nationwide day of action aimed at pressuring the U.S. to pull out. Some UT professors canceled classes, and there were marches, teach-ins and debates.

Student protesters at UT, one holding a sign that reads "Bring the GIs Home Now"
John Yates
Daily Texan
Protesters demonstrate at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on the UT Austin campus on Oct. 15, 1969.

About 4,500 students gathered on UT’s Main Mall for a rally at noon that day.

“Unthinking support of one’s country's policies — whether right or wrong — is not patriotic,” UT government professor David Edwards told the attendees, according to the Daily Texan.

All in all, it went peacefully.

'Save our trees'

It was in that atmosphere that a group of students decided to stop the university from cutting down three-dozen trees to make way for an expanded stadium.

A protester holds a sign that reads "Trees give more shade than alumni seats... Save our trees!"
Daily Texan
Daily Texan
A student protests the removal of trees along Waller Creek.

On Oct. 20, the students stood along Waller Creek with signs that read, “Save our trees!” They blocked workers from getting to the trees for about an hour, until police showed up to shoo them away.

Eight big trees were taken down.

Still, the students came back the next day and again blocked construction workers from reaching the trees.

The next day, a group of about 85 students gathered at the University Union to discuss their plans. Time was running out; the construction company was in a hurry to cut down all the trees so it could stay on schedule.

With the help of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the students filed for a restraining order to stop construction, but it would take time.

“We want as many as can be down on the creek tomorrow but be prepared to be arrested, suspended from the University and maybe even get your head busted if police are called to the scene,” the Daily Texan quoted one protester as saying at the meeting.

But some weren’t willing to wait. A group went back to the creek that night, climbed into the trees and camped out.

When the sun rose, more tree-climbing protesters joined. As the bulldozers were being readied around 7 a.m., the workers saw they had a problem.

‘The Emperor of UT’

Enter Frank Erwin, the no-nonsense chair of UT’s Board of Regents. His devotion to the university was legendary (they’d later name the basketball arena/concert venue after him). He was sometimes called “The Emperor of UT.” But he was also controversial among students.

Erwin had made his feelings about protesters clear during a birthday party for President Lyndon B. Johnson at UT’s gym in 1967, when LBJ was confronted by a Vietnam war protester.

“I am disturbed because a bunch of dirty nothings can disrupt the workings of a great university in the name of academic freedom,” he’s quoted as saying. “When it comes to the point where 300 armed policemen are needed to keep from embarrassing the president, we need to re-examine the goals of higher education.”

Five police officers with a ladder attempt to pull a protester out of a tree
Daily Texan
Daily Texan
Police use a ladder to arrest a person protesting the destruction of trees.

Erwin wasn’t to be trifled with. Especially when it came to the trees. He dashed over to the construction site, ready to battle the tree-climbing protesters.

He brought state, local and UT police with him.

“Arrest all the people you have to," Erwin told the officers. “Once these trees are down, there won't be anything to protest."

Ladders went up and so did the police officers, to drag the protesters down. The protesters climbed higher. But there was only so high they could go.

“A female student, dressed in a soft, red dress, climbed to the edge of a limb as policemen tried to grab her and hung suspended over a deep crevice,“ the Daily Texan reported. “She was finally removed when policemen handcuffed her ankles and one man anchored her to his belt and carried her down.”

One by one, the protesters were pulled out of the trees. They raged at Frank Erwin.

"I don't give a shit what you think," Erwin told the students, according to one account.

Twenty-seven people were arrested for disturbing the peace.

A man being lowered out of a tree by two police officers
Daily Texan
Daily Texan
Police remove a protester from a tree.

Then the bulldozers moved in. As the workers cut, mangled and destroyed the trees, Erwin looked on, applauding.

Enraged, the protesters dragged pieces of the felled trees to the UT Tower, dumping them in front of the entrance. They called for then-UT President Norman Hackerman, who had so far that day remained silent. He agreed to arrange a meeting the next day with student representatives and Erwin.

That meeting did not go well, with Erwin declining to get charges dropped against the protesters and committing to none of the students’ demands for what would come next for the project.

A few condemned trees did get saved, however, and UT scrapped plans to line the creek with concrete, turning it into a big drainage ditch.

Erwin’s standing among students and faculty did not survive, though. While the trees weren’t the only factor, demands for his resignation reached a breaking point and he stepped down as chairman of the Board of Regents in 1971 (though he stayed on as a member of the board until the end of his term in 1975).

“This was the first time anyone had ever used police on this campus on any large scale to suppress dissent… and the city and state police had always avoided the campus,” UT student Larry Grisham wrote for the Harvard student newspaper in December 1969. “Erwin had broken the non-violent tradition on this campus by, for the first time, using force and outside force at that.”

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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