Madison – May, 1967. The Bus Lane Protest
By the spring of 1967. many campuses were having demonstrations against the war, the draft, and the CIA. But only Madison had a disruptive protest over a bus lane.
In 1960 the city announced a ten-year plan to improve University Avenue from Bassett Street to Old Middleton Road, the first phase focused on the campus area — four lanes heading west and one lane heading east, reserved for buses. Nobody objected. But when the new road finally opens in November 1966, the entire university community is up in arms about potential dangers. Several intersections don’t have traffic lights, and students focused on crossing the four lanes heading west sometimes forget about the one lane heading east.
That’s what happens on March 1, 1967 when sophomore Donna Schueler, recently named Miss Lakeshore Halls, walks into the side of a bus and is injured so badly her left leg has to be amputated. Students, faculty, the administration, and regents all plead with the city to move the buses lane to the just expanded, one-way eastbound Johnson Street. The city refuses.
There’s talk of a protest. Chancellor Robben Fleming warns that “challeng[ing] the city’s authority will encourage retaliatory measures.” He’s right – the council fast track consideration of a new $200 fine for obstructing a bus. “Every time a group disagrees with something,” says northside Ald. Richard Kopp, “there is an immediate move today to lay their bodies in the street, to march and to demonstrate, instead of negotiate.” The measure fails on a tie vote, 11-11, with Mayor Otto Festge then voting no just for good measure.
It’s actually a professor who plans the demonstration, computer sciences professor Leonard Uhr, on behalf of the Committee to Save the Bus Lane for Bicycles. It’s to be a lawful demonstration, with students massed at the intersections of University Avenue and Brooks and Charter Streets, where the lack of a traffic light gives pedestrians the right-of-way; when a bus approaches, they’ll pack the crosswalk.
The demonstration begins at 3 p.m. on May 17 – just about the time on May 17, 1966 that the anti-draft sit-in began in the administration building. Professor Uhr and a few hundred students walk west on the University Avenue sidewalks, then cross— slowly—at every intersection to hold up traffic. Suddenly, a vanguard breaks away to face an eastbound bus at Brooks Street. Chanting “illegal and immoral,” several students drop their bikes to block the bus and get on the ground themselves. Hundreds of reinforcements rush up in support, both on their feet and on the ground. Police force open a path for the bus to escape, and arrest fifteen, including philosophy grad student Bob Cohen – his third protest arrest since October 1965 As the crowd of supportive onlookers grows to about three thousand, about 300 students keep using their bodies and their bicycles to slow traffic and block the buses; they even block the buses when they are rerouted to Johnson Street, which had been proposed as the better route.
Police make another ten arrests, including Cohen (again) and history grad student Paul Soglin, who recently resigned from the WSA Student Senate to become a columnist for the Daily Cardinal, and Ken Mate, a future writer for Madison’s most radical tabloid, TakeOver . Some are arrested for blocking buses, some for cursing out the cops. And the kids push back – a group of three hundred surrounds a squad car and accosts the officer inside, leading to six more arrests. Most end up paying small fines.
Late that night, about three hundred boisterous young men stage a panty raid that grows into a march to the Capitol. They rock a city bus, break a window, and block University Avenue. There are no arrests.
On Thursday, May 18, the City Traffic Commission votes unanimously to continue the bus lane, with new safeguards—two new traffic lights, a wider walkway, and a barrier to prevent midblock crossing.
Unfortunately for the protesters, another panty raid that night grows into the biggest campus disorder in several years. A mob of up to twenty-five hundred students smashes lights on State Street and at the State Capitol, invades women’s dorms, and disrupts traffic throughout down-town. Police make six arrests. Although this second disturbance is entirely unrelated to the bus demonstration, neither the public nor politicians make any distinction.
When demonstrations and disruptions continue Friday morning, Teamster union officials order the bus drivers not to drive through campus, and the company routes buses down Regent Street instead. At about 2:30 p.m., with chaos still raging, they stop driving all routes—a complete shutdown of all bus service throughout the city until Saturday morning, when cops on every corner restore order.
“The people of the city are furious at the university,” says liberal Mayor Festge, perhaps regretting his symbolic vote against the Kopp measure a week earlier. The Common Council certainly is furious, unanimously adopting resolutions demanding the university discipline students and reimburse the city $2,717 for special police services.
Reflecting the growing political threat from the legislature, the State Assembly jumps in, voting 86–9 for its own harshly worded resolution condemning both students and the administration.
And at least one powerful regent wants the administration to discipline Professor Uhr. “We may not have the legal right to discipline,” says Regent Dr. James Nellen, team physician for the Green Bay Packers, “we have the moral right” to do so. “A completely shocking concept,” replies Regent Arthur DeBardeleben.
Festge again demands the university discipline the students arrested, and says police will “crack their heads together” if necessary to restore order. Fleming, who’s already announced he’s leaving to become president of the University of Michigan, says he will neither discipline students for non-academic offenses nor crack their heads.
A week later, the council votes to retain the bus lane and implement the commission’s safety recommendations. In June—seven months after the wrong-way bus lane opened, more than three months after Donna Schueler lost her leg— the city finally installs traffic lights at Charter and Brooks Streets.
The wrong-way bus lane continues until 1985, when it is converted to … a wrong-way bike lane, as it remains to this day.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Skip Heine photo for The Capital Times, courtesy Capital Newspapers