Police riot of ’70 still echoes today

The Kent State Massacre, which shocked the nation on May 4, 1970, sparked a movement at universities nationwide, including at Portland State, to force a decision on the Vietnam War. During a peaceful student protest on May 11—40 years ago today—police attempted to violently disperse crowds on the South Park Blocks.

The Kent State Massacre, which shocked the nation on May 4, 1970, sparked a movement at universities nationwide, including at Portland State, to force a decision on the Vietnam War. During a peaceful student protest on May 11—40 years ago today—police attempted to violently disperse crowds on the South Park Blocks.

Even before the deaths at Kent State, the political climate at PSU was tense, and students seemed to be waiting for the climactic moment that would gain critical mass and make a broader statement.

As early as November 1969, PSU students were protesting and blockading military recruitment, as well as beginning to speak out against the U.S. Army’s forays into Cambodia and Laos, as a result of its involvement in Vietnam.

“It was an awful time in many ways,” said David Horowitz, an associate professor of history at the time. “The government had lost control of itself.”

In the eyes of those individuals involved in protest, Horowitz said there was “no other way to impact public policy but to be disruptive in the confines of nonviolence and civil disobedience.” 

“Nobody thought we were going to stop the war,” he said.

During the week following the Kent State shootings, PSU became part of a movement, alongside 400 other universities, which temporarily shut down campuses across the nation in protest of the war and the government’s reaction to dissent.

“By 1970 young people had been actively protesting this war on a mass scale for six years in every way peacefully possible, only to wake up on April 30, 1970 and see Nixon on TV announcing that he was invading Cambodia,” said Doug Weiskopf, a 1970 graduate of PSU.

Only a few days later, on May 4, it was reported that the Ohio National Guard had shot 11 students at Kent State University, killing four of them, according to Weiskopf.

“All hell broke loose across the country, including Portland,” he said. “Kent State created a sense of emergency and people felt they had to do something about it.”

At PSU, students occupied the university on Wednesday night, May 6, and remained in the Smith Center—now known as Smith Memorial Student Union—through Friday, May 8, the same day of nationwide memorials held for those killed at Kent State.

Gregory Wolfe, PSU’s president at the time, was very accommodating of the students and faculty who chose to strike. Roughly 134 faculty members and 500 students participated throughout the entire week.

The administration resisted closing the university as long as possible throughout the strike and protests, but Wolfe ultimately made the decision to shut down PSU on the days leading up to the memorials, making PSU the only Oregon university that officially closed.  

Throughout the week leading up to May 11, the unrest at PSU among the anti-war students and faculty began to spread beyond campus borders, as marches brought hundreds of students to bear on City Hall and Mayor Terry Schrunk.

As protests continued, students set up barricades and a hospital tent in the Park Blocks to aid the injured, as well as to put further pressure on the university to release a public statement about the Vietnam War.

The tent, which was located near Smith, became a symbol of the protest and of solidarity, Horowitz said.

Tensions continued to rise on campus, and on May 11, Mayor Schrunk gave in to pressure from the city, ordering the police to disband the protestors who were occupying the Park Blocks. 

According to Tom Geil, who worked for the Vanguard at the time, his office was notified that there was a mass of police marching up the Park Blocks toward the hospital tent, so he immediately went to the roof of the Smith building with his camera at the ready.

Students in the park became quickly aware of a police presence, and banded together around the tent to protect those inside and to stand up for what they viewed as an integral cause of their movement, according to the articles found in the Vanguard archives.

Stories from the archives and from individuals who were present on that day explain that the police formed a large wedge-shaped marching block, with the riot police at the head. Shortly after the battalion arrived at the front lines of the student blockade, someone called for the police to take on the students and chaos erupted.

“Blood-drenched clothing, severe gashes, screaming, crying—that morning had it all,” Geil said. “All I knew was that unexpectedly the police began marching methodically forward, jabbing their batons forward to knock the air out of anyone standing in their way.”

Geil, who attempted to remain impartial at the time, said that upon seeing what was happening to his fellow classmates and professors down below, could not possibly stand by and watch as the police beat people down. He ran to join the fray, and his pictures from the time clearly show this change in perspective.

Professor Horowitz, who was very heavily involved as well, explained that he was trying to help rescue an individual who had been struck down in the violence.

Though the entire ordeal only lasted for two minutes, 27 people were hospitalized, 11 of them being PSU students or faculty members.

After the police riot, as it is now referred to in popular memory, students and community members alike banded together for a 3,000-person march to City Hall to call for Mayor Schrunk’s resignation, due to his order to take down the peaceful student protestors. All accounts say that he did not appear on that day.

After the march, much of the uproar about the brutality seemed to die down, according to Geil.

Weiskopf, however, has a different perspective.

“I believe it can be said that national student strike of May ’70 had the profound effect of preventing the Indochina war from becoming much more horrible, much more costly in terms of lost lives on all sides, and to have been fought even longer than the decade it ultimately lasted,” he said.

Ultimately, Weiskopf and Horowitz agreed that their generation had the drive, but perhaps not the sophistication, necessary to truly push for major change.

“Our anger was overwhelming,” Horowitz said. “It became kind of dysfunctional after a while.”

“I think what resonates with me today is how disappointing all of our dreams for the future turned out,” he said. “We were going to have a peaceful world full of humanity…I realize that we not only failed to make things better, but also failed to keep them from getting worse.”