Occupying Portland History. Occupying Our Future.

Portland's riot squad moves into formation before clubbing students during the PSU Student Strike on May 11, 1970. (Photo by Tom Geil)Echoes of angry Occupy Portland protesters filled the streets and caromed off downtown towers last week. There were echoes, too, of passionate and angry voices of a different time. 

Last week was not the first time protesters in Portland seized city park blocks and obstructed traffic. Nor was it the first time police in riot gear forcefully cleared protesters from city park blocks. And the scene of angry protesters shouting down the mayor in front of city hall and then marching to the Portland State University campus was not new.

But it hasn’t happened since May 1970, when students closed down the Portland State University campus for seven days, occupying the South Park Blocks and barricading streets. Those were the days of rage against the war in Southeast Asia, racism and distrust of an unpopular president.

More than 450 university, college and high school campuses across the country were shut down by student strikes and both violent and non-violent protests that involved more than 4 million students, according to Wikipedia.

There are intriguing similarities between the PSU Student Strike of 40 years ago and the Occupy Portland movement of today. How did city managers cope with these incidents? What is or will be their legacies?

What happened at PSU?

Opposition to the Vietnam War reached a higher pitch in Portland at the outset of the 1969-1970 academic year. The city experienced numerous marches and protests. In one of many incidents before May, the Portland police riot squad was called in, but not pressed into action, when an anti-military recruiting confrontation erupted on campus.

By late April, a small core of activists began planning a strike of PSU students. They wanted to shut down the campus as a protest against the war’s escalation. Organizers were at their tasks when suddenly there were “four dead in Ohio,” as the nation was stunned by the National Guard shootings at Kent State. More students were killed days later at Jackson State in Mississippi.

Fueled by the shootings, the PSU strike took off at full throttle. Protesting students and others disrupted or boycotted classes.  The university closed its doors the week of May 4. In those days, cars could travel and park on Park next to PSU. But strikers barricaded Southwest Park Avenue, using park benches and whatever they could find to keep out traffic. The barricades were turned into makeshift huts as students camped out.

Protesters used PSU as a base while groups fanned out through downtown to march or block traffic. The feeling of revolution was infectious. So was resentment by “the jocks.” There were tensions and confrontations.

Public officials did a slow burn as the defiant students continued to occupy the theater in the Park Blocks. Pressure was building to punish the strikers. Not widely known at the time, Governor Tom McCall was prepared to send in the National Guard, only to be resisted by PSU President Gregory Wolfe.

The strike lost momentum and a week after it started it quietly ended. By May 11, the barricades were gone, the streets reopened and classes resumed. The remaining symbol of defiance was a medical tent in the park opposite Smith Memorial Center, licensed by the city.

As the strike dissipated on May 11, the police TAC squad showed up. Club-wielding officers in riot gear were ordered into the Park Blocks. They targeted the medical tent and bashed heads when students attempted to block the way. Twenty-seven persons were hospitalized at first report.

The next day “3,000 march on city hall as mayor hides out,” proclaimed the PSU Vanguard (May 16, 1970.) Mayor Terry Schrunk had given a cold shoulder to the angry students and citizens who had come to complain about the “police riot.”

A struggling student was pulled away by the hair as Portland's riot squad clubbed students during the PSU Student Strike on May 11, 1970. (Photo by Tom Geil)Similarities and differences

There are some intriguing contrasts and comparisons between the 1970 strike and today’s events:

Long-simmering pots boil over: Both uprisings were distinctively Portland versions of protests occurring across the country.

The student strike could be described as the tipping over of a long- boiling pot. Anti-war opposition and political rage had been building since the mid ‘60s. The rage intensified with the events of 1968: The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, urban riots and the confrontations in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

The general public was divided. No doubt more “average” citizens would have joined the movement had it not been connected to a strong cultural revolution ­– hippies, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – that coincided with opinions about the war. (We see some of the same cultural divide today with the Occupy movement.)

The rise of the Occupy movement follows a similar path of epic events. The financial calamities of 2008 and events since then fuels the new rage: We’ve experienced a national despair over the recession, high unemployment, a sense of betrayal, political gridlock in Congress and growing anti-war feelings, all of which feed the Occupy movement.

City Hall and police handled it differently: There is a major contrast in how City Hall handled the strike and the recent Occupy protests. 

The state’s leadership in 1970 was not sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. City Hall was embarrassed and seething. The decision to belatedly send the TAC squad to PSU – dubbed a “police riot” by students – was viewed as clueless at best and vindictive punishment by many.

Today, whether you agree or disagree with how Portland police have used force to clear out Chapman Square and Lowndsdale Square, you have to admit City Hall has played a restrained game of cat and mouse. Far more people could have been hurt if 1970 tactics had been used last week.

Unlike Mayor Schrunk and the strikers, Mayor Sam Adams proclaimed to be in harmony with the Occupy movement’s goals. Nonetheless, he called for the encampment in the parks to be shut down because of safety and health reasons.

As the protests continue into this week, you have to admire the persistence and passion of the Occupiers, as well as be impressed by the restraint and well-planned moves –­ for the most part – of police. It certainly leaves a strong impression when a pair of troop carriers ­– SUVs with eight or so deputies standing on the running boards – leads a half dozen police cruisers and the mounted horse patrol down Fifth Avenue. That’s Portland’s version of gunboat diplomacy.

Public reactions differ: In 1970, a small, liberal segment of the public supported the striking PSU students and more were outraged by the “police riot.” But, most likely, the majority of Portlanders supported City Hall’s hard line.

In 2011, the general public truly has mixed feelings about the park evictions, but a majority of residents has grown weary of the siege and wants to see the movement move on or go away. Still, there seems to be a growing level of support for the movement’s goals. The feeling may intensify this week if Congress fails to reach a compromise on the budget.

Legacies of both protests?

With the 1970 PSU student strike over, organizers began looking for new venues to protest the war. A small core went to work plotting the Peoples’ Army Jamboree to protest the American Legion’s national convention set for Portland that summer.

The vision of a possible 30,000 protesters in downtown truly frightened the FBI. In Salem, Tom McCall’s creative response was to throw the ” Governor’s Pot Party” at McIver State Park far out in the countryside. Police stood by and did little to interfere with the rock concert, believing it was drawing potential protesters away from the Jamboree. The heat was turned down under the pressure cooker.

Ironically, the concrete legacy of the PSU student strike was the renovation of the South Park Blocks adjacent to the university. Not long after the strike, the streets were permanently closed to autos, sidewalks improved and the tree-lined park area made over. In a way, the reborn park symbolized a maturing of PSU as an urban university.

Perhaps there could be a similar better future for Chapman and Lowndsdale squares.

These neighboring parks divided by Southwest Main Street are drab and uninviting. Once informally known as the Men’s and Women’s Blocks, the squares were filled with pensioners from nearby apartments playing checkers and chess while chatting with friends. That was 40 years or so ago. Tall government buildings have replaced the aging apartment house and a less-friendly crowd hangs out in the parks. Some renovation beyond restoring the status quo is due for these parks in the heart of downtown.

Occupying tomorrow

The real question is, what is the future of the Occupy movement? Wars are hard to end, as in the case of Vietnam. But Vietnam ended and so will our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is harder is Wall Street and banking reforms, fixing the mortgage mess, ending the recession, growing the economy, putting people back to work and restoring faith in government.

What’s the next step for the Occupy movement?

There’s only one way to turn a grassroots movement into a political movement, says Robert Reich, former Clinton Administration labor secretary. He was interviewed by CBS Evening News November 16. “That is through political organizing…It’s much harder to go from moral outrage to really practical change. But I expect that this movement will be coalescing.”

Or as Tom Hayden, a legendary political activist of the 1960s said in the same interview: “Prepare for a long zigzag struggle.”

Links:


Robert Reich interview

Student strikes of 1970