Monday, April 1, 2013
April 15-18, 1969: Protesting in a Tree at the University of Arkansas
The year 1969 was full of events providing evidence that big changes were occurring at the University of Arkansas – a shift in thinking and power relations. Two of the big 1969 events were described in previous blog posts. The first was the Muhammad Ali controversy when, in March, the University administration was not intimidated by an Arkansas State Senate resolution opposing his speech, and students laughed at the senators who proposed it. (See http://www.eclecticatbest.com/2013/01/arkansass-old-guard-takes-on-muhammad.html)
The second event was later in the year when a decision was made to stop playing Dixie at athletic events. The decision came after a vote by the student senate to recommend against playing it the song; that vote was used by the band director to justify an action he had long wanted to take. (see http://www.eclecticatbest.com/2011/05/december-2-1969-night-we-drove-ole.html )
A third event, providing more evidence of the changing times, came in April 1969. It was a strange episode, verging on the absurd, and it added to a sense of excitement and ferment among many UA students. Also it showed that some students (and non-students on the edge of campus) opposed and even resented the new thinking that was taking hold: it looked to them as if the hippies, liberals, and maybe, even communists were taking over the campus.
This event started at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, April 15 when a 22-year-old man, a former student not enrolled at U of A that spring semester because of financial difficulties, climbed up into a tree and vowed to stay there until noon on Friday, April 18th. He put in place a crude platform middle way up the sprawling Cyprus tree located in front of the Arkansas Student Union building and he brought with him some supplies (he vowed to consume only water and bread during his time in the tree) and a utility bucket.
Before his trip up to his perch in the tree, the man, Stephen R. Pollard Jr., nailed a handwritten message to the tree trunk to explain what he was doing and why. His explanation was partly a New Age message and partly political. In his Age of Aquarius mode, Pollard wrote that he was “totally disgusted in a world where there is no love between people” and that he had decided to “make this small stand to emphasize my beliefs. Being in this tree symbolizes, to me, an escape from the humanity into the world of nature.” He concluded, “I sincerely hope that my actions will inspire the University of Arkansas population to take note of the world situation and forget their selfishness and quest for personal gains and strive for a better world for all.”
Addressing political issues, Pollard wrote that he totally disagreed with United States involvement in Vietnam, with the policies of the military-industrial complex, and with the presence of military training on the U of A campus. He also said he was opposed to discriminating against minority groups in the country.
That morning of Tuesday, March 15th, I had to be in the Student Union at about 8:30 a.m. for a meeting concerning student elections to be held on Thursday. I walked sleepily by the Cyprus tree, noticing nothing unusual. Little did I know what was about to happen there.
The guy in the tree did not remain undiscovered for long. By midmorning, word was spreading about him, and curious students were trooping over take a look. Coincidently, that morning a group of about 30 student protesters had assembled on the lawn in front of Old Main where Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets were doing their weekly drills (at the time ROTC was still mandatory for all male freshmen and sophomores). The protestors did a bunch of silly things on the periphery of where the cadets were marching, including playing croquet to distract cadets. Only one of interfered directly with the ROTC activities
The group announced that on Thursday it would have a picnic in front of the library to protest mandatory ROTC. A student advisory vote on mandatory ROTC participation was scheduled as part of a student election to be held on Thursday.
As reporters got word about the guy in the tree, they quizzed university officials about what they were going to do. Dean of Students William F. Denman told them, citing university regulations, that Pollard would not be removed from the tree as long as he did nothing obstructive.
That day I spent some time at the tree in the late afternoon and early evening, stopping by as I was going to the library. Lots of students were passing by or milling around. Like me, some were curious about what the heck was happening. Some were cheered by the spectacle and supportive of Pollard: more than forty people signed and posted to the tree a proclamation agreeing with his message. Other students were cynical (one noted, eyeing the crowd: what a place for a guy to go if he wants to escape humanity). Apparently, although I did not notice it at the time, some people were angered by what was going on and were plotting ways to disrupt it.
Later in the evening, the darker side of the campus emerged. Newspaper accounts of Tuesday night told of two different incidents. The first one involved a jeering group of about 50 people who surrounded the tree and about ten of Pollard’s supporters, shouting derogatory and threatening remarks at them, and throwing eggs, bottles, and water-filled balloons.
A second, more dangerous, event came later, after midnight when about 20 persons, “apparently not students” (according to the Arkansas Gazette) arrived and threatened Pollard’s life. Four of them, with knives, ran to the tree and started trying to climb it. One made it high enough to cut a rope holding some supplies. However, two separate newspapers reported, a student who identified himself as an athlete, who had climbed the tree to talk to Pollard, stopped the attack on Pollard. The campus newspaper reported that one person was cut with a knife, though it did not identify who. Apparently, this threat ended when the city and campus police arrived and the would-be assailants quickly left the scene.
After what happened Tuesday night, University administrators decided that Pollard would not be permitted to stay in the tree. The university issued a statement calling the situation dangerous, and said that it had information from UA faculty members that an attempt would be made Wednesday night to forcibly remove Pollard from the tree. Also it reported receiving anonymous telephone calls threatening Pollard. The university statement said the situation on Tuesday night was one in which “a clear and impending threat was presented to the safety of individuals.”
Throughout Wednesday, large numbers of students continued to congregate around the Cyprus tree to support, heckle, or simply watch what was going on. Those there at about 3:00 p.m. saw Dean Denman climb into the tree to ask Pollard to leave the tree. Pollard replied that he could not in good conscience leave unless he was removed by legal authorities.
After Denman returned to the ground, he filed a trespassing complaint with city police, who arrived at about 5 p.m. The two officers who came to the scene were Assistant Police Chief Wayne Stout, the father of a childhood friend and Jefferson Elementary School classmate, Larry Stout, and John Paul Davis. Officer Stout climbed up a ladder to get nearer to Pollard to tell him that he was under arrest and order him to come down from the tree. A picture by Ken Good of Pollard descending the tree on a ladder with Stout watching him was on the front page of the Northwest Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Traveler, plus on page 6A of the Arkansas Gazette.
After his arrest, Pollard was taken to the city police department where he was booked for trespassing and released on $500 bail. Denman explained that Pollard was removed from U of A property to forestall possible injury or damage to university property. He said, “To our knowledge this was our only recourse and it was his wish to be arrested….If there was any other alternative we would have used it.”
Soon after Pollard came down from the tree, Joe Saunders, a campus activist with long hair and one gold earring, climbed up to take Pollard’s place in the tree and vowed that he would stay there “indefinitely.” He explained “If I continue, it will at least look like there is support for what Steve is doing…If I get hurt, it will just show what a messed-up place this is.” University officials decided they would not remove U of A students who chose to sit in the tree.
Wednesday night was again tense. During the evening, until around 1:00 a.m., about 250 supporters and onlookers were at the tree. About 30 supporters circled the tree to defend it. They sat singing songs “with a mixed protest, patriotism and spiritual flavor” and talked among themselves and with a people who the Arkansas Traveler called “agitators.” This later group yelled at Saunders and his supporters. Some of them threw eggs, firecrackers, and a smoke bomb toward the tree. Much of the crowd dispersed when rains came in the early morning.
Thursday was a busy day around the tree. A student election was being held, and large numbers of students came to the Student Union to cast their votes for student officers and on the referendum concerning the continuation of mandatory ROTC. Also, the students protesting ROTC moved its picnic from another part of campus to the tree because “it was easier to move the picnic than the tree.”
On Thursday afternoon, Saunders decided that he did not want to spend another night in the tree, and climbed down from the tree at about 4 p.m. on Thursday. He told reporters he got out of the tree because he was scared. He said he had heard threatening remarks made against him by some people near the bottom of the tree and felt that organized groups on the campus were out to get him: “I’m extremely paranoid,” Saunders said, adding that he wasn’t interested in publicity and believed that 23 hours aloft had proven his enthusiasm for Pollard’s position.
Saunders place in the tree was taken over by several students who each went to the perch in the tree for an hour or two at a time. The first shift in the tree was taken by John Little of Releigh, Miss., a graduate assistant in the English Department and Tommy Snow, a student from Mountain Home.
Little told a reporter, “We are here because we believe that tree climbing is part of the American tradition….I believe that people ought to be able to climb trees without bearing the brunt of any redneck who happens to have a raw egg in his hands.”
Fred McCuiston, a student from Little Rock, took the second shift after about an hour. He said he was “for a guy’s right to climb a tree – to dissent.” Five other students were to follow him throughout the night and the following morning.
At one point in early evening about 500 people were at the tree. Again, some came to support, some to watch, and some to heckle. They listened to a rock band, the American Music Festival that showed up to play in support of the tree sitters. The band dedicated songs to “any suppressed people” on the campus and to “that awful looking tree over there [the cypress].”
The spectators also saw “morality plays” put on by supporters to entertain the audience. The final one had Pollard as the star. It was a courtroom scene in which Pollard knelt before a bearded judge, who wore a straw hat and pounded a gavel. The “judge” told Pollard “to stay out of any tree you don’t want to be hung out of.”
Some of the crowd disappeared in early evening, when it came time for the results of the student election to be announced. Usually the results were read in the lobby of the student union, but because of tree hubbub, the announcement was moved up the street to the lobby of the old library.
Thursday night was mostly uneventful. However, it had a little excitement, including the explosion of a firecracker attached to arrow that was shot in the general area of the tree. Also, at about 2:00 a.m. an unidentified person charged the tree and climbed into the lower limbs, then ran away when campus security arrived. Cold and rain caused the crowds to thin as time passed. Early Friday morning, a Northwest Arkansas Times reporter visited the site, finding two people in the tree perch and two people sitting at the base of the tree.
As originally scheduled, the tree sitting ended at noon on Friday when Pollard climbed up the tree a last time to disassemble the platform he had pieced together and lower the boards, along with remaining supplies, to the ground. He was the final person to descend from the tree, to the applause of many of the 100 people watching from below. The observers were singing “We shall overcome.”
Pollard argued that his actions had been an exercise of his right to dissent. His critics said that his actions suggested that he was a communist and that his protest was damaging to the country and to the University’s “prestige around the country.”
An article in the Friday, April 18th edition of the Arkansas Gazette had a story headlined, “Students Using Techniques of Communists.” It quoted Rep. John Ashbrook, a member of the House Committee on Internal Security, telling the 30th annual meeting of the Freedom Forum at Harding College that “Student radicals are creating campus disorders today by using a time-tested ‘confrontational’ technique that was perfected by Communists.”
In response to questions, Pollard said he was not a Communist and was opposed to the Communist form of government. He emphasized that he supported United States’ fighting men in Vietnam, but not the policy that sent them there.
Pollard said he viewed the demonstration as a success:
It engendered emotions, good and bad, among University students who I thought were apathetic towards very important issues….It seemed to me before that the only emotions they knew were laughing and crying.”
Pollard said he was gratified that students had openly discussed the issues, both pro and con.
R. D. Rucker, a student from Newport, circulated a petition requesting that the University drop trespassing charges against Pollard. The petitions, with about 300 signatures, were presented on Friday morning to the University of Arkansas’ Office of Student Affairs. The charges were not dropped, and on May 8th, Pollard was convicted on trespassing. Judge V. James Ptak fined him $25 for the offense, plus $13 costs. He gave him a 10 day suspended sentence. The fine and costs were paid by coins and bills contributed by the 25 to 30 supporters of Pollard who attended the trial.
For a while, Pollard was something of a campus celebrity, but things soon turned bad for him. On December 4, 1970, he and his wife were arrested by Fayetteville police on drug charges. Then, almost exactly two years after his trespassing trial, on May 2, 1971, he was convicted of two serious felony drug charges and give the maximum sentences for each: consecutive terms of five and ten years in the state penitentiary (See Northwest Arkansas Times, May 3, 1971, p. 2).
In the aftermath of this strange tree sitting event, some students – like me – were a bit puzzled by what had happened, but were glad it had. Most students, I think, were appalled by the attempts to harm Pollard and his successors, and wondered who had done those things. Ultimately, I and my friends on campus were glad that the voices of tolerance had won again on campus. Personally, I though it all was quite a bit of fun that U or A had become a “happening place.”
Afterword: On Thursday night, April 17, as a band played and hippies sang under the Cyprus tree, the results of the student election were announced to a crowd of nicely dressed students crammed into the entry hall of the old library. It was announced that Jo Martin, an off campus student unaffiliated with a sorority, had been elected president of Associated Students at U of A, defeating Tom Boe, a fraternity member whose candidacy had been supported by the Greeks on campus. She was the first female elected to that position.
Also students had voted in favor of a resolution calling for the abolition of mandatory ROTC at the University of Arkansas.
The summary of events at the Cyprus tree and all related quotes were taken from the following newspaper articles:
Youth Settles in a Tree as UA Students Protest Campus ROTC Program. April 16, 1969 (Wednesday), Arkansas Gazette, p. 4A.
U of A’s Tree-Sitter Removed by Police After Threats Made. April 17, 1969 (Thursday). Arkansas Gazette, p. 9A
Tree Sitter Ousted From Perch, Charged by U of A Officials. April 17, 1969 (Thursday). Northwest Arkansas Times, pp. 1-2.
Brenda Blagg. April 16, 1969 [sic] (Thursday). Protester arrested by Police: Student Takes Indefinite Perch. Arkansas Traveler, pp. 1-2.
U of A’s Tree-Sitter Removed by Police After Threats Made. April 17, 1969 (Thursday). Arkansas Gazette, p.
Student Ends Vigil in Tree, 2 Replace Him. April 18, 1969 (Friday). Arkansas Gazette, p. 13a
Cold, Rainy Weather Cools Fervor of UA Tree Sitters. April 18, 1969 (Friday). Northwest Arkansas Times, p. 1.
Four-Day ‘Perch-In” a U of A End; Originator Says Project a Success. April 19, 1969 (Saturday). Arkansas Gazette, p. 2A