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Seattle Police Vigilantes: May 1970, An Eyewitness Account

HistoryLink.org Essay 2313 : Printer-Friendly Format

David Wilma was a University Police Officer during the protests that broke out in early May 1970 in response to the United States entry into Cambodia, a neutral country, and in response to the killing of four students at Kent State. In this account, Wilma recalls the scene resulting on May 7, 1970, when the Seattle Police Department deployed plainclothes officers as "vigilantes" to assault citizens in an effort to quell unrest in the University District.

David Wilma's Account

In 1970, I was a policeman at the University of Washington, having become a full-time staff member after a couple of years as a student parking attendant and dispatcher. After 10 months on the job, I had yet to attend an academy and I had only rudimentary training in police procedures. When the students were killed at Kent State [on May 4, 1970], the University Police went to double shifts which meant that in addition to your regular hours, you worked all during the day to respond to protests.

My usual post of duty was to man a command center during the day. On the 7th (?), protesters began blocking the entrances to the campus with debris. Campus cops played a cat and mouse game all day removing the roadblocks. In the afternoon, more protesters arrived and officers couldn't keep the gates open.

University President Charles Odegaard determined (I was there, I saw him make his decision) that if the gates were closed, the University would close, and that was unacceptable. He formally asked the police to clear the gates. He then left the room.

Not So Quiet Riot

Campus officers in riot gear (just helmets and riot batons in those days) "cleared" the 40th Street entrance under a shower of rocks, and were backed up by Seattle PD (I watched this from the 4th floor of the Administration Building). This triggered general rioting in the U District which was outside our jurisdiction and handled by the Seattle PD.

The command center closed and I moved to a patrol car with two other officers. In spite of the rocks and bottles and burning trash cans in the U District, things on campus were pretty tame. Later that evening we got reports on the radio that vigilantes were beating people in the area. The prior summer there were also riots in the U District and we heard the same reports. I was later told by my sergeant -- over beer -- that this was an organized Seattle PD unit in plain clothes and was a standard procedure that started during unrest in the Central Area. I assumed that the vigilantes were part of a sanctioned police operation.

Then we got a radio report that the vigilantes were beating people on "Hippie Hill," the grassy area on campus north of Parrington Hall at NE 43rd St. Without receiving orders to do so, I drove to the parking lot just north of there where other campus officers were assembling. There was no one in charge, but I could see the other officers running through the bushes south onto Hippie Hill. I followed with my riot baton and with my helmet visor down. I should have kept it clean.

Vigilantes on Hippy Hill

On the grassy area, I saw a group of white males in civilian clothes all spread out. The men were carrying sticks and moving south. I also saw people on the ground apparently injured. One woman tending a man with a head injury pointed to the men saying that they were beating people. The University Police Officers just ran onto the area. We had no instructions and I no personal plan of action. I ran at one man who was carrying what I recognized as a police patrol baton (a billy club, about 18 inches long verses the 36 inch riot baton I carried). The man turned at me and I ordered him to drop it.

He said, "We're police officers."

I screamed - and I mean screamed, I was excited and frightened and had been running - for him to drop it.

He said, "OK, we're police officers," and he dropped the club.

"Let me see it!" I shouted (I had my face shield down which amplified my voice to me, but probably muffled it to him).

He reached into his pocket and produced a Seattle Police Badge. Not being in any position to arrest the man (I'm not sure I knew how then) and assuming that his presence on campus was planned and approved by the Seattle Police Department, I shouted to the other officers that they were police, it's okay. Let's get back to the cars.

As I was returning to my car, I saw one of the plainclothes men face down on the ground and one of the University officers standing over him with his baton. I got into the car with my two partners and drove around listening to reports on the radio of more rioting and of police breaking into the Terry Hall dormitory on Campus Parkway. The plainclothes men drifted down to the University Hospital emergency room where the injured officer was taken and our radio instructions were to "stay away from them."

Silenced

The University Chief of Police placed an immediate clamp on us discussing the matter. The assistant chief assured me personally that if I ever violated that order he would find me, no matter where I was. We gave written statements and waited for answers. I saw very little in the press except that the Seattle PD major who ordered the deployment of the plainclothes men was reduced in rank. The use of plainclothes men to indiscriminately beat people was, to my knowledge, never investigated by the press or the City of Seattle.

The officer who was injured was Detective Leroy P. Reed who, reportedly, was not part of the goon squad but was tracking the conduct of those officers. He was clubbed by an untrained, frightened campus cop. Reed sued the officer and the University for having his teeth knocked out and I testified at the trial in 1973 (after I left the University Police). Reed collected $25,000 from the University's insurance company, all that he had asked for.

Sources:
David Wilma was a University Police Officer during the protests that broke out in early May 1970.


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HistoryLink Staff Historian David Wilma (lower right) and fellow University Police Officers during basic training, 1970
Courtesy David W. Wilma


 
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