SMITH CENTER COMMANDEERED by protestors. Demonstrators barricading the Park Blocks. Outraged citizens demanding that PSU "shut those kids up." An unexpected eruption of violence.
May 1970 was a tumultuous time for Portland State. For many, emotions still run high about the week that students clashed with each other and police.
The events began as part of a great national spasm of emotion following the Ohio National Guard’s shooting of students at Kent State University.
At Portland State, classes were cancelled for two days and protesters barricaded the Park Blocks (still open to car traffic at the time) for speeches and demonstrations. After a week of "rap" sessions with Portland State administrators, the protestors agreed to dismantle the barricades.
For several hours, dissenters helped city crews remove the barriers. But when police demanded that a large first aid tent also be removed, the protestors—claiming the tent had a valid city permit—refused.
Tensions accelerated and eventually police in wedge formation marched through the seated protestors using batons. Some 31 protesters were taken to area hospitals; all but four were treated and released. Four police officers were also treated for minor injuries.
The May 11, 1970, melee was captured by news media cameras. The next day between 3,000 and 5,000 Portland residents marched from Portland State to City Hall to express their outrage at the use of force, says Dory Hylton, who wrote her dissertation on the events. However, letters to the editor in the Portland papers ran 10 to one in favor of the police actions.
That day's violence was a defining moment for those caught up in the protest and for many who watched from the windows of Smith Center. Read on for a few memories and observations.
The mood gets ugly
Doug Weiskopf '71, one of about 25 students involved in protests throughout the year, recalls that at first, as students helped dismantle the makeshift fortifications, "there was a spirit of good will and humor. We were even joking with the cops."
But when police decided to remove the tent, Weiskopf says, everything changed. "The mood of the crowd got very sullen. A guy shouted out 'f_ _ _ you.' It was kind of like an electric charge went off. Everyone took hard lines."
Weiskopf along with what he estimates as several hundred students sat down in front of the tent and linked arms. The Tactical Operations Platoon—a newly formed police unit assigned to riot control—marched up in wedge formation. "We thought that they would arrest us," says Weiskopf. Instead, "they came right over the top of us and just started playing the xylophone on our heads."
Still, Weiskopf believes the protests helped wind down the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon "lost the country when he lost Kent State and PSU—these vehement protests in Middle America," says Weiskopf. "That's why Portland State was important. They couldn't write us off as 'elite' schools like Berkeley and Columbia. We were middle America."
Part of the silent majority
Looking back, the late 1960s and early 1970s seem to have been uniformly cataclysmic, but Dave Shafer '72, MBA '78 offers a different view. "PSU as a whole," he says, "was pretty apathetic."
"I don't think anybody was all that in favor of the war, but most students were in college to avoid the draft and not to get involved (in anti-war activities). You wanted to take your classes and get your degree."
"I was not in favor of the war or the administration," says Shafer, "but I was not charged up enough to get involved."
The day of the incident, Shafer, who worked midnight to 8 a.m. before attending classes, was on his way home when he saw the Tactical Operations Platoon lined up near what is now Shattuck Hall. But eager to catch a few hours of sleep before his next work shift, Shafer continued on his way and only learned about the incident later.
Putting it all together
Dory Hylton was a student at Columbia University in New York in 1970. However, she researched the PSU protest for her dissertation completed in 1993 at University of Oregon.
Hylton interviewed some 130 people more than a dozen years after the events. Yet for many, the day was still vividly fresh.
"Wherever I went," says Hylton, "if I brought up the subject, people would tell me they remembered—it was in the cultural memory." For many, the police action and its consequences—or lack of—was the most searing recollection.
In 1970, the Portland State community, like the nation as a whole, was conflicted about the Vietnam War. Hylton's interviews found that many who disagreed with the student strike were sympathetic to the issues—opposition to the war and anguish over the Kent State killings.
But seeing police strike unarmed protestors shocked many of the onlookers. Even students opposed to the strike, who had clashed with protestors as recently as that morning, says Hylton, "came together against the violence at the tent. It was the single most unifying force of the protests."
Later, a Multnomah County grand jury found evidence to support allegations of excessive use of force against the demonstrators by police, Hylton found. No police officers were charged, however, and in the end, the case was closed.
Choosing to resist
Ruth Moreland '74 was a 17-year-old PSU freshman in May 1970. Her mother, Margaret Moreland '70, MBA '74, was also a student on campus, as was her brother Everett '73, a Vietnam veteran.
Until the day of the confrontation, Moreland had stayed on the sidelines. But as the police riot control platoon advanced with batons, she grew increasingly distraught.
"I was incredulous that our mayor and our police officers thought that it was so important to physically remove these students from one small area of the Park Blocks," says Moreland, "that they were going to assault the students."
While her mother left the scene to go to class, Moreland slipped through the crowd, linked arms with other protestors and was struck when police advanced. She still bears a lump from the impact of a baton on her head. And she's still proud of her actions.
"I had grown up watching TV news where the police in the South would assault peaceful protesters for civil rights; Martin Luther King was a hero in our house," Moreland says. "I couldn't just watch or run away. I thought that would somehow support what the mayor and police were doing."
A clash of viewpoints
Tom Webb '71, a Vietnam veteran who was opposed to the war, counts himself among the students and faculty who wanted to talk rather than strike. After the Park Blocks violence, Webb joined a cadre of students and administrators who met with community groups to discuss the events. Emotions still ran high, and Webb himself was caught up in the currents at a community meeting in Gresham.
"One of the parents of a girl who was beaten by the police stated that she deserved the beating, and they should have hit her more to try to beat some sense into her," Webb says of that meeting. "I was outraged and went after this guy. I screamed in his face as to why he could wish that on his own daughter, and how stupid he was."
Others calmed Webb, and the meeting continued. "We explained that the students have every right to strike and that they had permission from the mayor's office to have the first aid tent. The information sessions did a lot of good, and I think saved the reputation of Portland State, because (before the sessions) everyone in the community thought that Portland State was a hotbed of radicals."
Melissa Steineger, a Portland freelance writer, wrote the article "Homecoming" in the winter 2010 Portland State Magazine.
Alumni share additional memories and photos.