Make no mistake: Inauguration Day on January 20 will bring protests. There will also be marches, rallies, and other acts of solidarity before and after the inauguration (see the Mercury’s Resistance and Solidarity calendar). Portland’s streets will fill with angry, passionate people chanting chants and waving large signs. At times, for those involved, it may feel like a world-ending struggle—a sort of singular, apocalyptic moment. But this sort of activity is not new here. We’ve seen this before.
This town’s periodic disruptions of normalcy are, well, sort of normal for Portland. Mass actions in the streets have been part of life here for more than a century, and it would be impossible to name them all here. What follows is not at all a comprehensive list of Portland protests. It does not get into notable actions such as resistance to highways, the civil rights movement, and women’s suffrage (see Heather Arndt Anderson’s excellent feature “Fruit Punch and Rebel Girls,” Jan 8, 2014, about the Women’s Fruit Cannery Strike of 1913). Instead, we’re profiling three very different high-profile street actions that were impossible to ignore in Portland—and could serve as inspiration for protests to come.
The Strike of 1934
Portland was built on shipping, an industry also responsible for producing some of the town’s worst jobs. In 1934, Portland’s longshoremen took to the streets to demand better hiring practices—and they won.
Michael Munk, author of The Portland Red Guide, is a historian of labor history and radicalism in Portland. He paints a bleak picture of life for longshoremen in the 1930s. According to Munk, longshoremen “were underpaid, overworked, and required to go to shape-ups [asking for employment each morning in a competitive atmosphere] to get a job, which usually meant bribing a foreman.”
JD Chandler, co-author of Portland on the Take, emphasizes that employment for longshoremen was ad hoc and capricious, with employers frequently blacklisting potential workers.
“If you were vocal about union support, you didn’t work,” Chandler says. “You’d show up in the morning and if you had the right connections and paid your bribes, you got to work. If you hadn’t, fuck you.”
In the early part of 1934, rumors of a waterfront strike rumbled up and down the west coast. Members of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) were discussing a strike that would, hopefully, improve their lot with employers. According to JB Fisher, Chandler’s co-author, Portland’s waterfront employers were not overly worried.
“The waterfront employers were very confident they’d be able to replace the striking employees with scab workers,” Fisher says. “There was plenty of confidence it would be short-lived and the damage easily rectified.”
To stifle potential participation in the strike, Portland’s waterfront employers took out a quarter-page ad in the Oregonian on May 9 reminding workers about how much they’d lost in 1922, the last time they struck. They also put out a call for 500 new employees, who would replace striking longshoremen. On May 10 they imposed an 8 am deadline. Anyone who didn’t show up for work by then would be fired.
“On [May] 10 [the employers] had about 150 scabs in the hiring hall at NW 9th and Everett,” says Chandler. “They had about 50 to 75 foremen in there.... [and] about 1,000 ILA members showed up, surrounded the building, and wouldn’t let them out.”
It wasn’t just longshoremen, though. Prior to the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association had coordinated with members of the community, including the unemployed, to surround the hiring hall.
“It was a big deal that unemployed workers were working with the strikers,” says Fisher. “It was the Depression. [Employers] thought these people would want jobs, and become strikebreakers.”
Instead, the ILA coordinated efforts with Portland’s communist Unemployed Council to share food and resources to help keep Portland’s unemployed from crossing the picket lines.
Probably the single most dramatic episode in the 1934 strike was an incident that came to be known as Bloody Wednesday.
“The employers knew it wasn’t going to be the same strike as in ’22, so they started stockpiling arms and supplies at Terminal 4 in St. Johns,” says Chandler. “It became known as ‘Fort Carson’.... They’re building up weapons, supplies, and they were going to keep Terminal 4 open no matter what.”
The waterfront employers were bringing in supplies via rail, and strikers moved to intercede.
“The strikers blocked the tracks, and the police opened fire,” says Chandler. “Four were shot, but none were killed.”
“[The injured] all went to the hospital, but only one was seriously hurt,” says Munk. “His jaw was shot away.”
“[And] only one of the strikebreakers died,” Chandler adds. “He fell off the train.”
After that, according to Munk, longshoremen literally waved a bloody shirt in front of City Hall.
“That was huge. That brought national attention to Portland for the first time,” says Chandler. “Governor [Julius] Meier wrote a really hysterical letter to President Roosevelt saying that Portland was in open insurrection, we were having a civil war, and that we needed federal troops instantly.... Roosevelt was planning to visit Portland in August to open the Bonneville Dam, so he was kind of concerned about how a month before they’re having bloody riots. He sent Senator Robert Wagner as his personal envoy to check out the situation and see if they could solve the problem. One of the police officers fired at Wagner’s car. These guys were trigger happy.”
According to Chandler and Munk, having local law enforcement fire upon his envoy did not endear Roosevelt to the concerns of Portland business interests.
Governor Meier “wanted to declare martial law,” Munk says. However, Chandler adds that this would have hit the governor right in the wallet. The Central Labor Council decided if the Governor sent in the National Guard, they would call a general strike. The best thing [the workers] did was call for a boycott of Meier and Frank [Governor Meier’s family’s department store]. It was probably a good thing we had a governor from Portland in those days, because that pressure made him back off.”
It should be remembered, however, that local law enforcement wasn’t universally on the side of monied interests. Munk is quick to emphasize that almost a century ago, many police were either indifferent to or sympathized with the protesters—much to the chagrin of local business.
“The employers and leaders of the Portland business community decided that Portland police weren’t being enthusiastic enough in helping them break the strike,” he says. “So they decided to hire vigilantes... called the Citizen’s Emergency League (CEL). They hired about a thousand unemployed workers and were able to get at least some of them deputized by Multnomah County. They were an organized police force which led efforts to break through picket lines.”
Fisher characterizes the CEL as “hired goons.” But it didn’t work, and after 82 days of strikes, employers gave in.
Longshoremen in Portland and other cities would receive increases in wages, but the real victory for strikers was the ILA being acknowledged by employers, and the union gaining control of the hiring hall.
Protests and activism didn’t stop in Portland after 1934. According to Munk, 1960s Portland saw its share of demonstration from anti-war protesters and activists such as the Black Panthers. But Portland’s next huge street action wouldn’t happen until just after the ’60s were over.
“A Society that Could Commit Suicide”
In May 1970, Portland State University looked like a scene out of Les Misérables. Makeshift barricades rose up in the South Park Blocks, obstructing traffic.
According to Doug Kenck-Crispin, host of the podcast Kick Ass Oregon History, the PSU protests were part of a larger pattern of actions at universities throughout the country.
“This did not occur in a vacuum,” says Kenck-Crispin. “It was somewhat a response to the events at Kent State [University] on May 4, but had been planned before that... [they were protesting] Cambodia, Bobby Seale, Nerve Gas at Umatilla, and Kent State was rolled into that.”
“At the time the [South] Park Blocks were not pedestrian zones. The park was there, but there were cars, and [the students] established a barricade to block traffic. They had dumpsters, park benches, random shit,” says Kenck-Crispin. “They were these autonomous organizations set on disrupting commerce within the central business district.”
And disrupt they did. The barricades blocked cars and obstructed the flow of downtown, while students made themselves known by blasting noise and music into the night.
“I really do believe there was a feeling of society collapsing in America,” says Kenck-Crispin. “Four hundred campuses closed down. I think there was genuinely a sense of ‘This is when it all goes shit-house.’”
One person who seemed to believe the barricades were more than just empty trappings of revolution was then-Oregon Governor Tom McCall. Regarding the protests McCall said, “We are in danger of a society that could commit suicide; a society that sometimes seems to be ripping itself apart just for the masochistic pleasure of seeing the blood.”
Eventually, the cops busted through the barricades and violently suppressed the protesters. By the end, more than 30 people had been injured in the action.
According to Kenck-Crispin, the official reaction within the Portland police force to the 1970 protests was pretty standard.
“There was a grand jury investigation. Pretty much nothing came of it,” he says. “Except maybe Vortex.”
The Vortex Kenck-Crispin refers to was a state-sponsored Vortex I rock ’n’ roll festival later in 1970. During that same year, McCall, wanting to avoid mass protests at an American Legion convention, decided Oregon would host a gigantic Woodstock-type concert to draw protesters away from the convention.
It was hippie-bait. And it worked.
From August 28 until September 3, the state of Oregon held a free, anything-goes proto-Burning Man in Milo McIver State Park near Estacada. Potential protesters found themselves immersed in sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as opposed to anger in the streets, and Portland itself saw very little in the way of street action during the American Legion convention.
None of the prior protests, though, resulted in Portland getting a new nickname. Supposedly, President George H.W. Bush called Portland “Little Beirut” after encountering protesters here in 1991—but this story is unsubstantiated. However, the name stuck whether or not the first Bush ever actually uttered it.
“Beirut at the time was in a big civil war between different kinds of Muslims, Christians, etcetera,” says Munk. “It was symbolic of urban chaos. Bush coming to Portland and being confronted by several thousand angry protesters who were then attacked by police led to that description.”
During that time one of the most notable and unusual protesters in Portland was Igor Vamos—today known as one of the Yes Men, a group of international activists, filmmakers, and pranksters who have, for example, turned yesbushcan.com., yeslab.org and gatt.org into dryly satirical websites that lampooned Bush and the international trade agreement GATT. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vamos helped organize a group of artists and activists in Portland that performed some of the city’s most memorable protests, despite their small size. “We wanted to create things that were a little bit confrontational and kind of fun,” says Vamos. “And there’s always a political undercurrent of doing something in a public space. It’s disruptive.”
Vamos started at Reed College.
“There was pressure from the school administration to conform to the drug-free campus rule the Reagan administration was passing down,” he says. “We put letters in everybody’s mailboxes that looked like official notifications from the school asking people to submit their own urine sample.... Students peed in cups and brought them [in], momentarily conforming to the needs of the federal government.”
Actions like that were typical of Vamos and his compatriots, who most famously helped stage a performance and protest involving Dan Quayle, mashed potatoes, and a bunch of patriotic vomit.
The plan was for Vamos and others to eat a large amount of mashed potatoes that had been dyed red, white, and blue, and then take ipecac and vomit in the presence of the then vice president.
“All our projects were about context. Dan Quayle was doing a fundraiser for [Senator] Bob Packwood. And Quayle is hilarious already,” says Vamos. “It seemed appropriate that, given it was a luncheon, we should vomit. We did try to go into the building, but were denied access. It was expensive. A thousand dollars a plate or something. That’s why we ended up doing it outside.”
Unfortunately for Vamos, the red, white, and blue colors of the vomit did not entirely come through, but the intent was there.
“It was all about this patriotism. All the flag-waving, up to the time of the Gulf War,” he says. “People were completely bonkers about what it meant to be an American. I mean, that hasn’t changed much, but it seemed pretty insane at the time.”
Since then, Vamos has gone on to help found the Yes Men, and still searches for what makes a successful protest. He acknowledges that policy results are a concrete and definitive way to gauge an action’s success—but sometimes what a protest really accomplishes is a bit more ephemeral.
“I think sometimes the best results happen unexpectedly,” he says. “It’s hard to assess. It’s not like you can say, 'We puked in front of a Republican party fundraiser for Bob Packwood, and therefore they canceled it.’ Sometimes that happens, with very successful direct action... but most of the time the meeting goes forward or the event goes on. But these stories live on in unexpected ways and embolden other people to carry out actions of their own. What makes a successful protest is what makes any good story successful. It’s something that can be retold.”