50 Years Later: Violent Clashes Between Anti-War Students And Portland Police

By Crystal Ligori (OPB), Jenn Chavez (OPB) and Courtney Sherwood (OPB)
May 4, 2020 1:15 p.m.
Tactical Squad marching through Park Blocks during 1970 Portland State University student strike

Tactical Squad marching through Park Blocks during 1970 Portland State University student strike

Craig Hickman / The White Box at the University of Oregon in Portland

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On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University. Four people were killed, and another nine were wounded. The group was mostly students protesting the Vietnam War and America’s intention to expand the conflict by sending troops into neutral Cambodia.

The event set off a national chain reaction of student activism, including in Oregon – where protesters clashed with police in a bloody confrontation a week after the Kent State shootings.

David A. Horowitz, a young professor at Portland State University at the time, joined in the protests that shook Portland in 1970. Fifty years later, he still teaches history at PSU – and he has been working to commemorate that era's anniversary by bringing speakers to campus and inaugurating a memorial plaque.

The coronavirus pandemic has put many of those plans on hold. Horowitz has turned his efforts toward a “50-plus-one anniversary” in 2021. Still, the events of May 11, 1970, loom large.

Horowitz recently shared his memories from the era with OPB.

On life as a young professor at Portland State University:

I had come out of graduate school very recently and felt that I had had the privilege of student deferment and therefore felt morally responsible to try to support the anti-war movement the best I could. I had identified with what was called New Left History at the time, identified myself as sort of a radical historian, very critical of U.S. foreign policy, which many people on the left were describing as imperialist at that time.

The Vietnam War developed just as I was in graduate school, studying U.S. foreign policy among other things.

I belonged to a group of faculty at Portland State, it was called the New University Conference, and it was described by some as grown-up SDS. We didn't really do much, but we were a presence there on campus. We were all extremely supportive of the strike when it occurred at Portland State after May 4th.

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On the anti-war movement at Portland State before May 1970:

The previous fall, October and November, there had been a moratorium (to end the war in Vietnam) movement nationwide, which millions of people participated in, and that happened at Portland State as well. During the winter of 1970, there were a series of recruiting protests — a whole group of anti-war students at Portland State were protesting military recruiting on campus.

This led to the suspension of some students, penalties, a great deal of controversy, because the university believed it was a free speech matter to be able to have students talk to military recruiters, should they choose to do so, and there were sit-ins. There was some intimidation of military recruiters, and there were some arrests.

On Portland State University’s response to the shooting in Ohio

The news traveled very fast. And it was mainly students who were very strongly against the war, but for the most part the Portland State students were followers of nonviolent protests. They were not going around bombing installations like the radical wing of SDS at the time.

A week later, the protest movement seemed to center around a homemade dome-shaped tent in the middle of campus. It was dubbed “the medical tent” by demonstrators, who used the structure for first aid. Protesters from out of town were allowed to sleep in the tent.

Initially, Portland city officials granted students permission to keep the medical tent in place, Horowitz said.

But after students set up barricades blocking roads that once ran through campus, a conflict over those barriers prompted City Commissioner Frank Ivancie – who then oversaw the parks department, and would later be elected mayor – to call for greater police involvement.

Protest leaders said that defending the medical tent was a “matter of honor,” Horowitz recalled.

I was one of the protesters standing in front of the medical tent. … There were over a hundred protesters, mostly students, a few faculty like myself. The decision was, we would do a civil disobedience act and let ourselves be nonviolently arrested. ...

That was a misjudgment, of course. The police were not into disobedient nonviolent arrests. They had a tactical police squad, with these 3-foot-long white batons, that had gathered south of the campus, and they came marching in formation. ...

They moved methodically, basically, with their clubs raised. … I was trying to back up as gracefully as I could, and there was some fellow next to me who, for reasons I never understood, decided to lunge at the police officer who was moving toward us – who then bopped him on the head and the fellow crumbled to the ground. I felt a moral responsibility to drag him into the Smith Center Student Union, where we had been told there would be a first aid center. I couldn't leave this guy crumpled up on the street. So I missed most of what happened. When I came back, everyone was gathered on Mill Street screaming at the police.

After violent clashes, 31 injured protesters were treated at local hospitals. Four were admitted for further care. Four police officers were treated for minor injuries. The images and headlines that followed seemed to galvanize support for the anti-war movement in Portland.

The next day, over 4,000 people marched to City Hall in protest, including many of the athletes and business and engineering students who had opposed the strike, wanted the university open, but were offended at the police attack on campus.

It was a major moment in Portland State's history.

Listen to the full conversation by clicking play on the audio player at the top of this story.

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