Riot set stage for “Governor’s Pot Party”
By Finn J.D. John
(Editor’s note: This is one of three articles about this event.)
Around midsummer in 1970, Ed Westerdahl finally agreed to talk to the two scruffy hippies who’d been politely pestering him for the previous week.
The hippies — Robert Wehe and Glen Swift — had come to Salem from Portland in an old Opel Kadett. They wanted to talk to the governor, Tom McCall, and Westerdahl was McCall’s chief of staff. Westerdahl had initially blown them off, hoping they’d give up and go away, but they’d shown no sign of doing so. And so, no doubt with a heavy sigh, Westerdahl had them come in to talk to him.
The proposal Wehe and Swift laid on Westerdahl that day was straight-cut dynamite. It was, to put it mildly, phenomenally controversial. It would lead directly to the first and only dope-smokey folk festival ever sponsored and financed by a state government — under a Republican governor, no less. It would foil the plans of several schemers — including, quite possibly, the President of the United States — each of whom thought an outbreak of bloody violence in Portland would work to his advantage. And it would get the governor re-elected in a landslide several months later.
To understand the particular brilliance of the hippies’ crazy scheme, it’s necessary to spend some time on backstory: The summer of 1970 was a wild time in America, particularly in college towns.
That whole late-1960s cornucopia of social and political upheavals had been raging for three years. It had just started showing a few signs of simmering down when, in April, President Nixon decided to invade Cambodia.
This decision was not popular on American college campuses, which were full of people of military age, many of whom had come to college hoping by the time they graduated the war would be over. Now it looked like Nixon was just deploying Phase 2. All across the country, campuses exploded, and at one of them — Kent State University in Ohio — soldiers actually killed four students. This was on May 4, 1970.
After Kent State, there was a nationwide coordinated call for students to go on strike. Across the country, 21 campuses in 16 states closed down.
In Oregon, there were violent protests at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and a thousand students howled in fury and hurled rocks and bricks at the ROTC building. At Oregon State University in Corvallis, the ROTC building was bombed.
Both these universities stayed open during the strike.
But it was at the state’s newest university, which just one year before had been known as Portland State College, that things got really intense.
At PSU, a large cohort of students responded immediately to the strike, and 135 professors canceled their classes in solidarity. University President Gregory Wolfe initially kept PSU open, but he did try to head off conflict by taking out permits for the park blocks where the protesters had positioned themselves — hoping to avoid confrontations between protesters and police.
As the week ground on, things got more and more out of control. The students blocked off streets around the park blocks and occupied the student center, which some of their number joyfully trashed and looted in full view of everyone.
On May 7, Wolfe closed campus down for a cooling-off period.
It didn’t work. If anything, things heated up. For the next four days, other students and local rowdies attracted to the action swelled the ranks of protesters.
By Monday, May 11, when PSU’s permits expired, Portland Mayor Terry Schrunk and Parks Commissioner Frank Ivancie were fed up with the scene, and itching to meet the disorderly students with a firm show of force.
So bright and early the next morning, cops and sanitation workers moved in and dismantled the barricades. The students promptly rebuilt them, so the cops came back around noon — wearing riot gear. Their orders this time: Clear out the park.
“The leader ordered us to disband or be arrested,” PSU professor David Horowitz recalled in an interview with historian Doug Kenck-Crispin. “And I think we booed or something like that ... and then they methodically moved in, and they just basically started clubbing people, very methodically.”
In the end, about 31 protesters needed medical care, and the most militant among the anti-war people — a group calling itself the “People’s Army Jamboree” — had a new rallying cry. They also had more members, because resentment of the cops’ brutality had radicalized some of the more peaceful ones — many of the people the cops had clubbed had been waiting passively to be arrested, so the force seemed gratuitous to most onlookers.
As the Jamboree moved quickly to take advantage of the opportunity, it got help from an unexpected quarter: The American Legion, the socially conservative organization of American veterans. On May 25, the Jamboree members learned that the Legion was holding its annual national convention in Portland in late August, and that Richard Nixon — their bête noire — would be there.
What an opportunity, right?
Breathless newspaper stories started appearing as May ripened into June and the Jamboree’s leaders talked blithely of a “confrontation” with 50,000 angry rock-throwing hippies squaring off with 25,000 Legion members in the streets of Portland as Dick Nixon himself looked on in shock and dismay.
Word started getting around that Portland was to be the scene, the place where the revolution would start. Local Legion members rose to the occasion, boasting on TV about their eagerness to thrash those dirty long-haired pinkos. And as for Commissioner Ivancie, Mayor Shrunk and the other Portland police leaders — well, everybody pretty much knew what kind of role they were looking forward to playing.
Meanwhile, Governor McCall, after contacting all the parties to the brewing war, started to realize that none of them really wanted to avoid it. The Nixon administration, it seemed to him, welcomed the prospect of big, scary riots in a faraway city in a fourth-tier state; they’d be just the ticket to drive home the president’s re-election message that law and order were at risk of a full-on breakdown. The People’s Army Jamboree was hoping the prospect of conflict would shore up its support among the less pugnacious of the anti-war activists, whose ardor was fading noticeably as time passed. And the Legion just wanted to put those hippies in their place and show them it would not be pushed around by any crowd of longhairs.
As time marched on, the governor realized he was in a trap. There was nothing he could do, it seemed, but activate the National Guard and wait and hope Portland would somehow fail to explode.
Nothing, that is, until those two hippies in the Opel Kadett wore down
Westerdahl’s defenses and got their proposal in front of him.
We’ll talk about the hippies’ proposal, the governor’s reaction, and the
resulting Vortex I music festival in next week’s column. (Editor’s note: This appeared in the June 12, 2014 edition)
(Sources: Walth, Brent. Fire at Eden’s Gate. Portland: OHS Press, 1994; Staley, Brandon. “The Park Blocks Riot,” PSU Vanguard, 31 Mar 2014; Lindberg, Andrew and Kenck-Crispin, Doug. “Park Blocks Riot,” Kick Ass Oregon History, 3 May 2012)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Images: 1970 PSU Yearbook Protesters at the Park Blocks face the oncoming riot police, mocking them with Hitler salutes, during the riot.
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