Revisiting the protest movements at the University of Texas

Pro-Palestinian supporters watch as law enforcement begins to remove demonstrators from an encampment set up in support of Palestine on UT campus Monday, April 29, 2024, in Austin. (Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan, Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan)

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During the last week of April, hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators called for the University of Texas at Austin and other schools to divest from companies with ties to Israel or the manufacturing of arms.

On April 24, during the first major protest on the UT-Austin campus, police arrested 57 protesters. Five days later, police used pepper spray and flash bangs to break up an encampment on campus ground, arresting 79 people.

Protests have been a century-long tradition at UT-Austin, and The Daily Texan, the student-operated university newspaper, has faithfully covered and recorded these significant historical events.

UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell, in an op-ed following the protests, defended the university’s response and also acknowledged the university’s long, proud history of protest. He recognized the campus as a place where “students, faculty and staff care deeply enough about community, national and world events to rally around those causes.”

Various protests across the university’s history set precedents for modern demonstrations and university policies like encampment bans. Here’s a look back at some of those protests.

1944: The first recorded protest

UT-Austin’s history of campus protests began in 1944 when the Board of Regents fired then-President Homer Rainey after he pushed back against the regents’ suppression of the teaching of “USA” by John Dos Passos. In early November, some 8,000 students marched to call for Rainey’s reinstatement, which, despite its failure, established Rainey as a national symbol for academic freedom.

The front page of The Daily Texan on Nov. 3, 1944. Credit: Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

Students marched from the South Lawn to the Texas Capitol, setting a precedent for future protests that would follow the same route.

1969: The Battle of Waller Creek 

When the university announced plans to expand the football stadium, it called for the removal of live cypress and oak trees that lined Waller Creek, which flows next to the stadium. A protest ensued, which became known as the Battle of Waller Creek and came to a head on Oct. 22, 1969, when students climbed into the trees to delay their removal.

Frank Erwin, then the president of the Board of Regents, called Austin police, who arrested 27 students to make way for bulldozers that were already on site. The bulldozer shovels hoisted police to persuade protesters to leave or to remove them from the trees.

The front page of The Daily Texan on Oct. 23, 1969. Credit: Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

“Arrest all the people you have to," The Daily Texan reported Erwin saying. “Once these trees are down, there won't be anything to protest."

In the following days, about 400 students used the fallen timber to barricade the Main Building, which led to 37 arrests.

1970: Police force at protests

In May 1970, The Daily Texan chronicled the use of tear gas and mace to break up a group of antiwar demonstrators at a march.

Despite the city refusing to grant them a permit to march outside of campus, 2,500 to 3,000 people headed from the university toward the Capitol, protesting the death of four students who were shot by the U.S. National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio.

The front page of the The Daily Texan on May 6, 1970. Credit: Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

Cliff Avery, a news editor at The Daily Texan at the time, followed the protesters to the Capitol, chasing them into the North Hall. Officers broke up the demonstration and, overcome by tear gas, Avery fell on the north steps of the Capitol building.

“I remember a cop coming by with a carbine [rifle] and a gas mask,” he said. “He looked down at me and I was trying to say 'press' and 'reach for my press pass,' but I couldn't say anything and he just walked on.”

A grid of images showing a protest at the Capitol printed on the front page of The Daily Texan on May 6, 1970. Credit: Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

John Reetz, who also covered the protests as a student reporter at The Daily Texan, recalled the way tear gas floated through the Capitol dome for hours until city police and officers broke up the protest in the early morning hours.

“It was seen to be done more for political purposes and showmanship by the governor than the desire to break up the crowds,” Reetz said.

The march later turned into a vigil for those killed at Kent State. Five days later, a federal restraining order against the city allowed 20,000 people to spill into the streets and, free of opposition, march to the Capitol.

The 2024 protests represented only one-hundredth of that crowd size but saw a larger police presence. In response to the 1970 protests and vigil, UT added concrete blocks and landscaping to the West Mall to keep large groups from congregating. The landscaping still stands today, leaving the South Mall as the only open space near the Tower, the heart of UT-Austin’s campus, for large groups of demonstrators.

1980s: Pro-Palestinian movement on campus

UT-Austin has a past with pro-Palestinian demonstrations that goes back to the 1980s, during the Intifada.

Jane Moore, a ninth-generation Texan, participated in protests in the early 1980s, but noted the demonstrations were smaller, with 50 to 70 people climbing on concrete planters that once covered the West Mall.

“Whenever you're in a protest like that, you have a real sense of the community that's just right there around you, elbow to elbow,” Moore said. “It does become a voice of union.”

Despite her protesting in support of Palestinians and against the Vietnam War in her youth, at 72, Moore said the lack of change and progress toward divestment has worn down her perspective and she doesn’t think anti-war movements will make any progress in America.

1999: A successful movement

Following the university's decision to postpone the opening of an Asian American Studies Center, students took a stand. They gathered at the West Mall and staged a five-hour sit-in, a peaceful act of protest that resulted in the arrest of 10 students, now famously known as the UT 10. This event sparked a heated campus debate, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Center for Asian American Studies and the Asian American Studies major by the following fall.

Asian American studies professor Arnold Jin started as a student at the university in 1999 after the protests and became UT’s fifth Asian American Studies graduate.

Newspaper cutouts of The Daily Texan on May 4, 1999 showing images of students getting arrested during a rally. Credit: Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

Like the protests this year, which followed demonstrations at other universities across the country, Jin said the 1999 protests also drew inspiration from California schools looking to establish ethnic studies programs.

“The kind of protesting that happened, that's the type of speech or conduct that we see is very integral a lot of times in getting institutions like UT to recognize the need for these programs and how student activism can play a significant role in shaping that discourse and, ultimately, effectuating some of those goals,” Jin said.

No protests this year have involved sit-ins, unlike pro-Palestinian movements in some schools like Vanderbilt. Jin said what protesters are asking for in 2024 will take more time.

A 2017 Texas law bans major companies that contract with the government from boycotting Israel, which makes it unlikely for companies or universities to divest from weapons manufacturing or the country.

2012: Establishing the camping ban

At a Faculty Council meeting in January 2012, UT-Austin announced a plan to prohibit camping on university property, which still bars protesters from forming encampments today. The Daily Texan editorial board in 2012 argued the camping ban came as a direct result of encampments at other campuses across the country.

Lucian Villaseñor took part in the 2012 protests as a member of Occupy UT. The organization tried alternatives to protesting like participating in the Student Government’s Legislative Day, which took students to the Capitol to share their grievances with legislators.

Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor, a Mexican-American Studies senior, leads group members down to Kealing Park for the Student Forum on Education on Jan. 17, 2012. Credit: Elisabeth Dillon/ Texas Student Media/The Daily Texan

“I hated going to those because it always felt like the people that you were talking to, they already had their decisions made and you're and you're just talking to a blank wall,” Villaseñor said.

In 2012, Villaseñor and 17 peers planned to go to the top of the UT Tower for a sit-in, entering with legal counsel and knowing they could get arrested — which all 18 did. Their demonstration also led to 300 people entering the Tower in protest.

While Occupy UT has since disbanded, it found strength in the early 2010s through other organizations like the Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

“I'm really proud that there's still students who are keeping up the good fight, and that there's still a thread of activism going on at UT because there were people before me, and before that, a really long history of activism at UT,” Villaseñor said.

2024 protests

Maryam Ahmed served as a breaking news reporter at The Daily Texan this spring semester. After covering the first major pro-Palestinian demonstration on April 24, she followed the stories of those arrested in the days after. She didn’t know about the encampment on April 29 until she sat down for a class in one of the university's communications buildings, preparing to take a final exam. Having seen the number of DPS officers the week before, she predicted more would be on their way.

She completed a 50-question final in just 15 minutes, turning it in to her professor’s desk. Within 10 minutes, she ran to the South Lawn to start filming the protests.

Protesters gather near a police line during a student demonstration in support of Palestine on the University of Texas campus Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Austin.

Protesters gather near a police line during a student demonstration in support of Palestine on the University of Texas campus on April 24, 2024, in Austin. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

Like Reetz 50 years before her, Ahmed took notes on the arrest numbers and the escalation of events. Reporting in the crowd, pepper spray coated her throat and flashbangs muffled her hearing for up to an hour. At Columbia University, the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” lasted nearly two weeks and a sit-in at a Vanderbilt University hall lasted 22 hours. At UT, during the first major protest, demonstrators didn’t set up any tents or stage a sit-in at any campus building before getting arrested. On the second day of major protests, Ahmed said tents stood for no more than two hours before DPS took them down and arrested protesters who had started the encampment.

Ahmed baked in the sun between classes even days after the second big round of arrests, on alert on the South Lawn. She said she learned from her coverage that even when the lawn stays silent for hours, that could change within two minutes.

“If I'm not on the ground reporting about it, then I'm thinking about it. And if I'm not thinking about it, then I'm probably sleeping. I haven't let myself really exit that space," she said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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