The threat of an American Association of University Professors strike at Portland State looms. If the professors and the administration can’t cut a deal, no one is sure exactly what Spring term will look like. This isn’t the first time the university has come close to buckling under the weight of a strike. There was another, in 1970, when the stakes were much higher, and the outcome far more dire. In light of what might happen, now is the time to look back.
The summer of 1970 was rife with conflict across American college campuses. The Vietnam War was in full swing. American civilians, many of them college age, were being drafted into a war the country did not want.
Across the United States, college campuses served as staging grounds for the anti-war movement. Students and members of innumerable anti-war organizations would gather on campuses to sing, chant, bear signs or simply stand stoically in defiance. PSU was no exception.
On May 11, over a hundred PSU students and Portland residents gathered for one such peaceful demonstration, but something went terribly wrong. What resulted was one of the most controversial altercations between Portland Police and students that the university has ever seen.
The show is over
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested issues on campus in 1970 was military recruitment. Some reasoned that if the U.S. military was the monster traipsing through Vietnam with wild abandon, then surely feeding that monster was out of the question.
On March 23, anti-recruitment protesters broke into the second-floor room of the Smith Memorial Student Union where Navy personnel were taking recruitment appointments.
The recruiters were forced to retreat to Lincoln Hall, where they locked themselves in the Placement Office. Bricks shattered the windows of the office and students surrounded the doors, but no one was injured.
Police were able to pacify the protesters, many of whom were non-student members of the White Panthers—a far-left, anti-racist, white American collective that grew out of the Black Panthers—but not before they taunted the police with shouts of “sieg heil.”
Shortly after the protests, PSU Vice President Robert Low announced that all further recruitment efforts would be based out of the Lincoln Hall Placement Office. The recruitment protest marked the first time in the university’s history when Portland Police were called on campus.
“If we can’t keep order, somebody else will have to help us do it,” Low said in a Vanguard article published after the protests.
When asked by a reporter if he thought police could be controlled if ordered into action against protesters, Low said, “No, I think once you give the signal the show is over.”
Two more weeks would prove Low right.
The student strike
On May 4, a ripple of unrest spread across American college campuses. The ripple originated in Kent State University in Ohio, where the National Guard opened fire on a group on unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia by the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam. Nine students were injured, four were killed. The event would be known as the Kent State Massacre.
Outraged, students shut down campuses across the nation in a coordinated strike. PSU was the only Oregon college to shutter its doors in protest. Faculty joined in too, with an estimated 134 professors and university staff counting themselves among the strikers.
“After a day of intense deliberation with students, faculty and administration,” said Gregory Wolfe, former PSU president in a Vanguard article covering the strike, “I have concluded that classes should be closed until next Monday morning as elsewhere in the nation.”
In place of classes, a rally was held in the Park Blocks. After the rally the demonstrators marched on City Hall, where they insisted they meet with Mayor Terry Shrunks. When Shrunks emerged from City Hall the demonstrators issued several demands, including nerve gas masks, amnesty for those arrested during protests and a scheduled day of mourning for the massacre at Kent State.
When Shrunk refused to meet all of their demands, the demonstrators marched away chanting “too much bullshit.” From City Hall, the group divided. One half set off to “liberate” food from the SMSU cafeteria, while the other half occupied the park in hopes of enlisting more students to their cause.
When the tussle in the cafeteria ended, the two groups reconvened in the park where they erected and barricaded a small camp. There they would remain until the evening of May 11, when panicked shouts announced the approach of the Tactical Operations Platoon.
The barricades fall
The day of the violence between protesters and police began with the early morning removal of the barricades surrounding the Park Blocks camp. A crowd formed around the police as they dismantled the barricades. Insults were slung, but the altercation remained nonviolent. More barricades materialized by noon.
When word of the new barricades hit City Hall, Mayor Schrunk ordered the Park Blocks cleared. This included not only the new barricades, but also several shanty tents and a “hospital” tent that had been erected by protesters.
According to The Oregonian, protesters formed a circle of three and four persons deep around the hospital tent. According to the Vanguard, the remaining protesters began to chant “Peace. Peace.”
Lieutenant James Brouillette, the commander of the Tactical Operations Platoon, gave the order for the protesters to disperse. Many did, but nearly 100 remained. Lt. Brouillette ordered his squad to charge.
According to the Vanguard, several faculty members stepped forward to urge police not to advance. They were ignored.
“People screamed,” a reporter for the Vanguard wrote. “Many retreated across Montgomery. A few didn’t, and they were beaten.”
Police occupied the hospital tent block while injured protesters were carried to a nearby parking lot. Protesters hurled rocks and bottles at police as they retreated.
Depending on the source
The Oregonian claimed that only four policemen were injured, one of whom had been hit in the face with a burning board. An article by the Vanguard reported 15 policemen injured, one of whom had been hit with a pipe.
The Oregonian claimed that the melee lasted 20 minutes. One writer for the Vanguard claimed the fight lasted only two minutes.
When it was over, 28 protesters were hospitalized. Only 11 of those protesters were students. Six people were arrested.
“I hoped it would never come to this,” said Mayor Schrunk in an article that appeared on the front page of The Oregonian.
The university reopened the following day.
We were wrong
Doug Kenck-Crispin, resident historian and host of the Kickass Oregon History podcast, said that the Park Blocks Riot should be not viewed in a vacuum.
Kenck-Crispin is a graduate student at PSU studying public history. He has researched the melee both for his podcast and as an undergraduate. Kenck-Crispin said that some news sources from the time tend to portray the conflict as monochromatic. The reality is much more complex.
Kenck-Crispin said that not all members of the student body were in favor of the strike. While PSU was politically active and far-left leaning, it was still a commuter school. Many of these commuter students, labeled “jocks” by the far-left, just wanted to attend school and graduate.
“It’s relevant in our era now, with the possibility of the professors’ strike looming,” Kenck-Crispin said. “‘What’s going to happen next term?’ I imagine a lot of folks were asking that.”
“They were ready to graduate. But if there were no classes, if people were striking, how did that affect their graduation?”
Kenck-Crispin said that when the Portland Police entered the Park Blocks to remove the barricades, they were doing so under pressure from not only the jocks, but also the public. Most of Portland at the time was not sympathetic to the protesters in the park, who were linked to hippie culture.
“There’s this impression that it was these peace-loving PSU students who got the shit beaten out of them by the cops,” Kenck-Crispin said.
In reality, several outside groups had seized on the commotion and were present among students and faculty. Kenck-Crispin said there were reports of people coming in from out of state who viewed the protests as a kind of destructive celebration. One of these groups broke into the SMSU and caused enough damage to temporarily close the building.
For many, the student strikes of 1970 were a sobering experience.
In 1993, Dory J. Hylton, a doctorate student at PSU, wrote her dissertation on the Park Blocks Riot.
“It happened at the same moment in a time when millions of other college and university students, myself included, stood on the brink of what we thought was going to be a revolution,” Hylton wrote. “Not the violent overthrow the government kind, but the peace and love and justice for all kind, where caring for your neighbors, even if they be your enemies, might cure what ailed the world.
“We were wrong about the revolution.”