Today is the 40th anniversary of PSU anti-war protest in response to Kent State
By Courtney Graham
May 11, 2010
The Kent State Massacre, which shocked the nation on May 4, 1970,
sparked a movement at universities nationwide, including at Portland
State, to force a decision on the Vietnam War. During a peaceful
student protest on May 1140 years ago todaypolice attempted to
violently disperse crowds on the South Park Blocks.
Even before the deaths at Kent State, the political climate at PSU
was tense, and students seemed to be waiting for the climactic moment
that would gain critical mass and make a broader statement.
As early as November 1969, PSU students were protesting and
blockading military recruitment, as well as beginning to speak out
against the U.S. Army's forays into Cambodia and Laos, as a result of
its involvement in Vietnam.
"It was an awful time in many ways," said David Horowitz, an
associate professor of history at the time. "The government had lost
control of itself."
In the eyes of those individuals involved in protest, Horowitz said
there was "no other way to impact public policy but to be disruptive
in the confines of nonviolence and civil disobedience."
"Nobody thought we were going to stop the war," he said.
During the week following the Kent State shootings, PSU became part
of a movement, alongside 400 other universities, which temporarily
shut down campuses across the nation in protest of the war and the
government's reaction to dissent.
"By 1970 young people had been actively protesting this war on a mass
scale for six years in every way peacefully possible, only to wake up
on April 30, 1970 and see Nixon on TV announcing that he was invading
Cambodia," said Doug Weiskopf, a 1970 graduate of PSU.
Only a few days later, on May 4, it was reported that the Ohio
National Guard had shot 11 students at Kent State University, killing
four of them, according to Weiskopf.
"All hell broke loose across the country, including Portland," he
said. "Kent State created a sense of emergency and people felt they
had to do something about it."
At PSU, students occupied the university on Wednesday night, May 6,
and remained in the Smith Centernow known as Smith Memorial Student
Unionthrough Friday, May 8, the same day of nationwide memorials
held for those killed at Kent State.
Gregory Wolfe, PSU's president at the time, was very accommodating of
the students and faculty who chose to strike. Roughly 134 faculty
members and 500 students participated throughout the entire week.
The administration resisted closing the university as long as
possible throughout the strike and protests, but Wolfe ultimately
made the decision to shut down PSU on the days leading up to the
memorials, making PSU the only Oregon university that officially closed.
Throughout the week leading up to May 11, the unrest at PSU among the
anti-war students and faculty began to spread beyond campus borders,
as marches brought hundreds of students to bear on City Hall and
Mayor Terry Schrunk.
As protests continued, students set up barricades and a hospital tent
in the Park Blocks to aid the injured, as well as to put further
pressure on the university to release a public statement about the
The tent, which was located near Smith, became a symbol of the
protest and of solidarity, Horowitz said.
Tensions continued to rise on campus, and on May 11, Mayor Schrunk
gave in to pressure from the city, ordering the police to disband the
protestors who were occupying the Park Blocks.
According to Tom Geil, who worked for the Vanguard at the time, his
office was notified that there was a mass of police marching up the
Park Blocks toward the hospital tent, so he immediately went to the
roof of the Smith building with his camera at the ready.
Students in the park became quickly aware of a police presence, and
banded together around the tent to protect those inside and to stand
up for what they viewed as an integral cause of their movement,
according to the articles found in the Vanguard archives.
Stories from the archives and from individuals who were present on
that day explain that the police formed a large wedge-shaped marching
block, with the riot police at the head. Shortly after the battalion
arrived at the front lines of the student blockade, someone called
for the police to take on the students and chaos erupted.
"Blood-drenched clothing, severe gashes, screaming, cryingthat
morning had it all," Geil said. "All I knew was that unexpectedly the
police began marching methodically forward, jabbing their batons
forward to knock the air out of anyone standing in their way."
Geil, who attempted to remain impartial at the time, said that upon
seeing what was happening to his fellow classmates and professors
down below, could not possibly stand by and watch as the police beat
people down. He ran to join the fray, and his pictures from the time
clearly show this change in perspective.
Professor Horowitz, who was very heavily involved as well, explained
that he was trying to help rescue an individual who had been struck
down in the violence.
Though the entire ordeal only lasted for two minutes, 27 people were
hospitalized, 11 of them being PSU students or faculty members.
After the police riot, as it is now referred to in popular memory,
students and community members alike banded together for a
3,000-person march to City Hall to call for Mayor Schrunk's
resignation, due to his order to take down the peaceful student
protestors. All accounts say that he did not appear on that day.
After the march, much of the uproar about the brutality seemed to die
down, according to Geil.
Weiskopf, however, has a different perspective.
"I believe it can be said that national student strike of May '70 had
the profound effect of preventing the Indochina war from becoming
much more horrible, much more costly in terms of lost lives on all
sides, and to have been fought even longer than the decade it
ultimately lasted," he said.
Ultimately, Weiskopf and Horowitz agreed that their generation had
the drive, but perhaps not the sophistication, necessary to truly
push for major change.
"Our anger was overwhelming," Horowitz said. "It became kind of
dysfunctional after a while."
"I think what resonates with me today is how disappointing all of our
dreams for the future turned out," he said. "We were going to have a
peaceful world full of humanity...I realize that we not only failed
to make things better, but also failed to keep them from getting worse."