Looking Back: Fall 2019
Author: Portland State Magazine
Posted: August 8, 2019

When unrest reigned 

Doug Weiskopf ’71 shares his memories from the remarkable year of 1969-70 at Portland State.

FALL term 2019 will mark the beginning of a 50-year look back at the most politically active and explosive year in PSU history. The Portland State campus had suddenly grown from being a sleepy commuter college to becoming a full-fledged university with hundreds of student-housing apartments suddenly available.

The war in Southeast Asia had been raging for five years, and campus protests against it grew to a head in October 1969 when there was a nationwide call for a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. At PSU we organized and held marches on the 15th of October, November, and December, putting as many as 12,000 people on the streets of Portland.

During that school year, there were several tense confrontations when uniformed military recruiters showed up on campus and were met by several hundred protesters, shocking the school administration and Portland public by physically blocking the recruiters from entering the offices provided for them. On more than one occasion the Portland Police were summoned to restore order, which had the effect of galvanizing us even more in opposition to the military recruiters.

The steady procession of large antiwar marches all over America and acts of civil disobedience on campuses hit a boiling point when on April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced he was invading Cambodia, which borders what was then called South Vietnam.

Students across the country began angrily protesting Nixon's escalation of the war, when on May 4, 1970, 11 peacefully protesting students were suddenly gunned down at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen. With four dead, student protesters all over America forced the closing of their campuses, including PSU.

THE PARK BLOCKS on campus were at the time open to auto traffic, which protesting students blockaded with everything we could lay their hands on and for a week created what was dubbed a "liberated zone." In the late afternoon of May 11, 1970, more than 300 Portland Police, led by an elite riot squad of officers in leather jackets who carried 42-inch white batons that looked like thick pool cues, marched in formation down the PSU Park Blocks from the south end towards student protesters determined to "show you unruly kids who's in charge in Portland," as we heard one police officer say at the scene.

Police supervised city sanitation workers as they removed the barricades from the Park Blocks (four years later the area was remodeled into how it appears today, with no cars and in exactly the same configuration we created with our barricades). The hundreds of protesters on the scene sullenly gave way as the police marched through, that is until they came to the huge geodesic dome that was erected out of aluminum pipes and canvas by the Vietnam Combat Veterans Against The War to use as a medical station "in case of trouble," as they put it.

The hospital tent had been given a city permit to be across from Smith Center in the middle of the Park Blocks, where it was not interfering with car traffic. However, the police officer in charge at the scene informed the protesters that he was revoking the permit as of that moment. This sent a wave of anger through the crowd, and we immediately placed ourselves between the police and the tent, where we locked arms and refused to budge.

The police captain gave the protesters a warning to disperse but the crowd just grew larger. Finally, after about 20 minutes he ordered his officers to "charge” and a horribly violent battle ensued, injuring dozens of students, some requiring hospitalization, as well as wounding five officers.

AFTER the May Student Strike, we became aware that a National American Legion Convention was scheduled in Portland between August 28 and September 5, which would include a keynote address by President Nixon, followed by a Legionnaires March for Victory in Vietnam through our town.

Quickly the same PSU activists who had been organizing antiwar protests all that year began planning an outrageously ambitious counter-gathering of protesters from all over America to confront the aging war veterans and Nixon.

It gained national attention during the summer of 1970. Oregon Gov. Tom McCall called it a potential "Armageddon" and ordered up the Oregon National Guard to "protect Portland." Later he announced that he was supporting a group what was planning a Woodstock-style rock festival called Vortex 1 at rural McIver Park 30 miles from Portland. Laws against illegal drug use and nudity would not be enforced. The festival was supposed to divert thousands of young people from protesting in Portland.

Amazingly, after all of the dire worries that Portland would be destroyed by rioting, all the events came off without any violence or mass arrests as had been feared. There ended up being two rock festivals: the original one at McIver Park and a second one held in Washougal, Washington. The twin festivals attracted an estimated 70,000 ready-to-party young people. The American Legion and the antiwar protesters held their marches through Portland on separate days, both without incident.

Nixon ruefully, according to White House aides at the time, canceled his trip to Portland due to the worries of violence his presence might bring, and Nixon created a secret group of anti-protest agents around that time to destroy the antiwar movement. Perhaps it was in anger that a bunch of loud kids had spoiled his chance to address the American Legion on the 25th anniversary of VJ Day from the end of World War II. His secret cadre of "dirty tricksters," as they came to be called, later morphed into the group of Watergate burglars who were caught at the Democratic National HQ, which lead to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Many of us who protested the war during that fateful PSU school year in 1969-70 have always believed we caused Nixon to angrily react to what we did during that summer and begin his downward spiral to oblivion as well as the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Vietnam and Cambodia a year later. [Doug Weiskopf, today, pictured right.]