Fifty years have passed since the afternoon of May 11, 1970, when - supported by regular officers - 20 members of the Tactical Operations Platoon of the Portland Police Bureau, applied 42-inch riot batons to the heads, limbs and bodies of young men and women active in the Portland State Student Strike.
The demonstrators were sitting passively in the South Park Blocks, next to a medical tent in front of the university’s Smith Memorial Union.
Six strike supporters were arrested, but 31 were sent to local hospitals. A Multnomah County grand jury found evidence that police applied excessive force, but no officers were charged and eventually the case was closed.
Portland’s establishment considered the “police riot” a PR disaster.
Student strike leaders realized that City Hall, which had unleashed the police, lost support. This, as students were papering national mainstream and underground media to promote a People’s Army Jamboree (PAJ) protest of the American Legion’s 52nd National Convention in Portland, Aug. 28-Sept. 3.
FBI operatives had predicted that 50,000 antiwarriors were heading for Portland to confront the legionnaires. Officials in Portland, Salem and Washington, D.C., began negotiating with PAJ leaders on plans for camping, staging and parade permits - while assembling a massive law enforcement response.
As fortune would have it, luck was with Portland. Protest leaders had no intention of battling troops from Ft. Lewis who were massing in downtown Portland. As in the Portland State Strike, PAJ leaders planned and trained for peaceful demonstrations.
More important to peace in Portland was Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life. This state-funded music festival at Milo McIver State Park on the Clackamas River was authorized and facilitated by Oregon Gov. Tom McCall.
Perfect weather, sex, drugs and rock’n’rolI lured 20,000 to 50,000 potential protestors from the jamboree and an anticipated protest of President Richard Nixon’s convention speech.
The upshot of bookending the Portland State Strike and PAJ around the summer of 1970? Nixon, fearing a melee, sent Vice President Spiro Agnew to tell legionnaires that protestors were bad and war supporters good. Meantime, Vortex attendees enjoyed a week of mediocre music and sunshine, as police and public officials ignored drugs and nudity at Vortex I and PAJ attracted a couple thousand protesters to noisy but peaceful parades in downtown Portland.
American Legion Magazine for November concluded: “(T)he major consequence of the predicted ‘confrontation’ was better than average news coverage of the convention in the press and on TV, and better knowledge of the Legion by some newsmen.”
The same could be argued by protestors in Portland, including Michael McCusker (someone readers should recognize from his commentaries on Coast Community Radio).
McCusker, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, aided victims as the Tactical Operations Platoon clubbed a path through the South Park Blocks on May 11. He became an extremely effective PAJ press spokesman later that summer.
David A. Horowitz, a professor of history at Portland State, organized a 50th-anniversary memorial for May 11, 2020. Plans included Dory Hylton, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Portland State Student Strike, setting the historical context; film crew members introducing “The Seventh Day,” a prize-winning student documentary; and the presentation of a video and musical profile of Portland State activists from the 1970s by Craig Hickman, professor of digital arts at the University of Oregon.
Also planned was “Inside a Social Protest,” a panel discussion moderated by Doug Kenck-Crispin of Kickass Oregon History and including strike committee leaders Cathy (Wood) Wyrick, Courtney Walker and Doug Weiskopf; Medical Tent coordinator and Marine veteran McCusker; Portland State Archivist Carolee Harrison; Joseph Bernt, 1969-70 Vanguard editor and Ohio University professor emeritus of journalism; and David A. Horowitz, a strike participant and a Portland State professor of history.
Finally, the memorialization would include placement of a plaque describing the police attack on Portland State strikers near the South Park Blocks.
After organizing this event, the closure of public events in response to the coronavirus mandated rescheduling the memorial observance until May 11, 2021, as “The Portland State Student Strike 50 + 1.”
That said - and with the Cannon Beach Library still shuttered - I recommend two introductions to the Occupy Movement, an international protest more politically important than anything witnessed during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
While researching national press coverage of the Portland State Strike and the People’s Army Jamboree for the now-rescheduled May 11, 2020 panel discussion, I encountered Todd Gitlin’s “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street” and “Understanding Occupy from Wall Street to Portland,” edited by Renee Guarriello Heath, Courtney Vail Fletcher and Ricardo Munoz,
Both explore the success of Occupy in two encampments and different media environments: New York and Portland.
Gitlin’s discussion of Occupy Wall Street is particularly insightful. The professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and founding member and third president of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-1964 is most famous for his popularization of news framing and the criticism of SDS media use in the 1960s in “The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.”
In “The Whole World Is Watching,” Gitlin offers a clear and comprehensive definition of media frames as “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selections, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual.”
Throughout his narrative of “Occupy Nation,” Gitlin - who admires the Occupy Movement as successor to the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s - measures the success of Occupy Wall Street by how it avoided self-destructive media framing.
Following Gitlin, as has much of my teaching and research career in journalism and mass communication, I also view the Occupy Movement as a far more sophisticated successor to the antiwar movement that informed the Portland State Student Strike and its barricading, occupation and resistance to forced removal in the South Park Blocks in May 1970.
Knowing that the Cannon Beach Library is unlikely to purchase an expensive copy of “Understanding Occupy from Wall Street to Portland,” I offered my plastic, wanting to read a study it contains by Jeannette Lovejoy, once one of my doctoral students at Ohio University and now an associate professor at the University of Portland. Lovejoy compares the fairness of news coverage of Occupy Portland by Willamette Week and The Oregonian.
The editors and contributors to “Understanding Occupy from Wall Street to Portland” included research by five communication scholars from the University of Portland, two from Portland State University, and one each from Arizona State University, Boise State University, the University of Colorado and Niagara University.
Gitlin’s book addressed, in more accessible prose, much of the background in “Understanding Occupy,” but the chapter by Lovejoy and Keeler Brynteson, who received his masters at the University of Portland, presents a classic study of Portland media practice, a rare topic in communication studies.
Lovejoy and Brynteson examined 135 articles about Occupy Portland, 81 from The Oregonian and 54 from Willamette Week. They found that The Oregonian published more episodic, and Willamette Week more thematic, news. Of The Oregonian’s articles, 91% were episodic. Of Willamette Week’s articles, 33% were thematic.
In articles that were deemed biased, 31% from The Oregonian and 84% from Willamette Week favored the protestors.
Both newspapers used protestors more than establishment figures or bystanders as sources, although 70% of the articles quoted no female sources. The highest number of females quoted in a single article was four; the highest number of males quoted in an article was 15.
Sourcing in both newspapers was overwhelmingly male when violence was mentioned, but only half as frequently male in articles omitting violence.
The Oregonian averaged fewer protestors, the same number of bystanders and more establishment sources than did Willamette Week in their coverage of Occupy Portland.
Both of these books go a long way toward explaining why the Portland State Strike, with numerous parallels to Occupy Portland, mark the beginning of Portland’s modern tradition as Little Beirut or the City of Protests.