UCLA Student Rampage of 1966 Shuts Down the San Diego Freeway (I-405 Northbound)
News Items for November 22, 1966
On July 14, 2011, as the impending three-day closure of the I-405 Freeway known as Carmageddon loomed, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jerry Crowe blogged, “To the idea of shutting down the San Diego Freeway on the Westside, as will happen this weekend, a group of former UCLA students can say, “Been there, done that.”
In November 1966, as The Times reported under the headline, “UCLA RAMPAGE,” thousands of students stormed off campus. Initial disbelief turned into a disorganized, but effective protest of UCLA's surprising Rose Bowl snub in favor of USC. Twice, students marched onto the freeway and briefly stopped northbound traffic. On that Tuesday, only days after backup quarterback Norman Dow (in his first and only start) led the Bruins to an upset of USC at the Coliseum, The Times reported, obscenity-shouting protesters “left a trail of shocked and bewildered spectators.”
The year 1966 was my first at UCLA and watching our underdog Bruins vanquish Troy was epic. To Bruin fans, the L.A. Coliseum felt like its counterpart in ancient Rome. After the victory, we left the Coliseum chanting “Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl”.
Despite the UCLA win and otherwise equal records that season, a technicality bequeathed the Pac-8 title and a coveted berth in the Rose Bowl that year. Later the Pac-8 became the more familiar Pac-10. More recently, the conference morphed into an ambiguous NCAA entity known as the Pac-12. If the original Pac-8, then known as the Pacific Coast Conference had at least something to do with geography, the Pac-12 can make no such claim. Since many saw Arizona as another politically conservative suburb of Los Angeles, it was easy enough to rationalize stretching the Pacific Ocean into the Desert Southwest. However, even the most brazen sports fan would have a hard time making the case for the Pacific Ocean being anywhere near Utah or Colorado, where the 2011 conference additions dwell.
Major Leonids Meteor Showers occur in thirty-three year cycles. Major closings of the I-405 are rarer still, with this one happening forty-six years later. Since 1998, the Rose Bowl has vaporized like a comet into the mind-numbing Bowl Championship Series (BCS). In January 2011, the TCU Horned Frogs played the Wisconsin Badgers at the Rose Bowl. Only the teams, their diehard fans and inveterate sports bettors know who won that game. Rather than being about geography, history and proud tradition, the Rose Bowl somehow morphed into a financial institution. Whether it is in support of sports betting or cold cash for the Tournament of Roses, it is all about the money now. Still, motorists on the I-405 can rest easy about a recurrence of the “UCLA Rampage” of 1966. Thanks to the BCS, it is unlikely that a victory in any future UCLA vs. USC game will affect commuters as they trundle up Sepulveda Pass toward The Valley. Will anyone in that line of cars chant, "Go Horned Frogs, go".
On the afternoon of November 22, 1966, word got out on campus that UCLA “had been robbed” of their Rose Bowl berth. Almost immediately, spontaneous demonstrations started on campus. Using tiredness as my excuse, I declined my friend Leonard’s fervent invitation to join the demonstrations. Instead, I studied for a while and then fell asleep on an unmade bed in my dorm room.
In that time of increasing political tension and sporadic campus violence, UCLA students were restive. Still, our campus had not yet experienced any organized protests, as had happened up north at Berkeley. From the drumbeat of Sgt. Barry Sadler’s Number one hit of 1966, “Ballad of the Green Berets”, we knew that an American war raged on in Vietnam. Still contested among LA riot aficianados is whether the 1996 UCLA Rampage was larger than the summer of 1966 Sunset Strip Curfew Riots. Those riots, associated with the closing of the nefarious Pandora's Box nightclub became world famous in 1967 when Steven Stills and the rock group Buffalo Springfield released their song, “For What it’s Worth”. In the late fall of 1966, group consciousness on campus was looking for any excuse to get out of hand. An unfair ruling by a commission of unnamed sports officials became the flash point for mob action.
In the early afternoon, a call to action swept through campus, with students yelling, “To the freeway. Shut it down”. After the I-405 freeway closure, bonfires had flared into the night at campus demonstrations against the oh-so-important Rose Bowl berth. Near midnight on November 22, 1966, Leonard came crashing into my room, still red-cheeked and sweaty from a long run uphill to the dorm. Today, Leonard is a distinguished college math instructor and a published author. That night, as I listened to his story, I wondered whether he had been one of the provocateurs.
Interstate 405 is located over a mile from the UCLA campus, but undeterred by that distance; the demonstrators began their unruly march. Down Westwood Blvd. they surged, and then west along Wilshire Blvd. to the freeway. Once there, the mob scrambled straight up steep banks, or marched up the on-ramps and off-ramps to the San Diego Freeway.
In the glare of afternoon sun, startled northbound motorists saw hundreds of young people chanting along the side of the freeway. Soon after their arrival, demonstrators began flagging down anyone who would stop. In the interest of safety, traffic slowed, and then one driver came to a halt in the slow lane. Lane, by lane, the budding anarchists proceeded, until all four northbound lanes of the I-405 freeway came to a complete stop. Soon, highway patrol and LA Police arrived, threatening to arrest anyone who did not disperse. Like a school of fish, the crowds dispersed, and then reformed and retook the freeway. As more LAPD reinforcements arrived, officers with bull horns herded the crowd back to Wilshire Blvd. and then followed them on their long walk home.
Custom Google Map of the I-405 Closure Areas. For further information, click on route or icons.
View I-405 Shutdown Map in a larger map
In my dorm room that night, Leonard was exultant. Mobs could rule. People had power. He had been part of something bigger than himself, even if it was an anarchistic mob. In an act of benevolent avoidance, my higher self had gently put me to sleep for the duration of events. In that early version of what we now call a “flash mob”, there were no arrests or criminal charges filed. With impending wide scale protests against the Vietnam War, future demonstrations across the country were often less peaceful.
With the benefit of forty-seven years of reflection, I believe that something important happened at both the UCLA Rampage and the more recent I-405 Carmageddon closures. Despite the divergent reasons for the closures, in each a bridge captured the public imagination. In 2011, California spent millions to topple half of a bridge, simply to add a carpool lane to the northbound side. In 1966, students discovered an energy bridge to their own future. Did stardust energy from Comet Tempel-Tuttle assist them in their peaceful, if raucous closing of the I-405?
Dec. 4, 2012 - Reader Tom Conerly's comment:
Thanks for posting the I-405 freeway photo from 1966. I searched for it to show my son in law. However, you might want to expand your blog...it was not just student unrest. After the announcement picking USC for the Rose Bowl, a bunch of us from Trojan Hall decided to do a victory lap, along UCLA's fraternity row.
I was in the back seat of my roommate's Chevy Malibu SS 396 holding a speaker out the window, blasting the USC fight song. Behind us were at least 20 cars full of USC red and gold. As we made our second lap, hundreds of guys flooded out of the fraternities and chased us down Wilshire Boulevard. I remember running at least two red lights and barely escaping.
Later after being radicalized, I did my best to "burn down USC", and married a UCLA girl, but that day in Westwood still stands out. All I mean from “burn down” was that I quickly lost any rah rah feelings for USC. I spent a lot of time at UCLA (Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the Janss Steps at noon for free) and always liked it there.
See if you can find a pic of another of my seared memories-the 500 cop cars parked on the hill by the dorms in 1970.
Dec. 4, 2012 - Jim McGillis' Response:
Perhaps you are referring to the afternoon that fire alarms sounded almost simultaneously at Dykstra, Sproul, Rieber and Hedrick residence halls. Every police cruiser and fire truck in West Los Angeles headed for the dorms. There was so much apparatus on the streets that they created their own traffic jam. When first responders arrived, nothing was amiss, except for the sabotaged fire alarms.
If we both recall the same episode, I wrote about that in my eBook. To keep the riff-raff out, I charge $.99 for the book. If you are not completely satisfied, the book has a 101% money-back guarantee. Ha!
Although I will not disclose my sources, I knew both of the fire-alarm commandos. Although no one asked me to participate, I did little to discourage those who did. When four alarms sounded, the dispatchers at police and fire headquarters gave us everything that they had. Their heroic, yet futile response left me with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Today, we might refer to such an act as domestic terrorism. Had the plot unraveled, there would have been several expulsions from UCLA that year, perhaps including me. How long is the statute of limitations on a crime like that?
During the Radical 1960’s, many of us perpetrated antisocial acts against the institutions around us, sometimes even our schools. Looking back on it, there is no excuse for such antisocial activities.