Radicals in the Rose City: Portland’s Revolutionaries 1960-1975 by Matt Nelson and Bill Nygren (2013)

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January 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 

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By WURDY MCGUFFREY

 “Radicals In The Rose City: Portland’s Revolutionaries 1960-1970“, is available on EBay and NWHistoryPress.com (price $15).

The Rose City is the nickname the town of Portland, Oregon goes by and it has a long history of activism and radical politics, going back to Coxey’s Army in 1893, which began a cross country trek of protesters on Wash. DC against the bad economic conditions of the day. A similar march was again begun in Portland in 1932 by out of work WW1 veterans who became known as The Bonus Army and camped out, an estimated 43,000 strong, in and around DC until they were violently removed by Federal troops led by Gen. Douglas McArthur. Portland had a history of labor strife involving dock workers, known as Wobblies. Noted radical journalist, John Reed, grew up and graduated from high school in Portland and credited his inspiration as coming from his father, a top law enforcement official who refused to be controlled by the large timber barons of Oregon.

The period covered by “Radicals In The Rose City”, written by Matt Nelson and Bill Nygren, both political activists throughout that time, is between 1960 and 1975, an era when great change and upheaval occurred throughout America, including a terrible war in southeast Asia resulting in mass violent protests at home, political assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation, and much more.

“RITRC” documents events in Portland, such as the labor strike against Oregon’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian, which resulted in the utter destruction of the labor union struggling against the newspaper corporation and the permanent black-balling of the strikers from future employment in their line of work, the early Civil Rights activities, and efforts by the local police force to suppress leftist organizers through Red Squad surveillance tactics.

“RITRC” spends a great deal of the book covering the activities of anti-Vietnam War protests, much of it centered on the campus of Portland State University, and, to a lesser extent, Reed College. What made PSU activism significant was the fact that it was mostly attended by middle and working class students, many of whom commuted to school and had jobs to support themselves. It also had a high number of Vietnam Veterans, a number of whom joined anti-war protests and began a chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against The War and helped organize a veterans march on Wash. DC, as Coxey and The Bonus Army did.

“RITRC” spends a good deal of time examining the summer of 1970, when local activists organized a weeklong protest to the American Legion National Convention, where President Nixon was to appear and give the keynote address, followed by a March For Victory in Vietnam through the streets of Portland. The governor of Oregon actually approved, out of sheer panic, a rock festival 30 miles outside of the city where all manner of public nudity and drug enforcement laws would be suspended, while the Oregon National Guard would patrol the city of Portland. All this over the wildly exaggerated threat of thousands of crazed hippy protesters descending on the city from all over the country (which never happened).

“RITRC” also covers a small group of people who in the mid-1970′s exploded bombs and planned bank robberies in Portland and who were apprehended and sent to prison for it. The entire drama of one of the most intense periods of time in America was thus played out in this mid-sized and geographically remote part of America. All of the tragic-comedy of that heartbreaking era was there in Portland and can be extrapolated to the rest of the country writ large.

 

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