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Student Protests on the UO Campus: Demonstrations of the Late 1960s

This article originally appeared at www.blogs.uoregon.edu written by Zach Bigalke

A new exhibit, “Dissent and Defiance: Pacifists, Student Protesters, and Advocates for Economic Justice,” is now on display in the Paulson Reading Room in Special Collections and University Archives, on the second floor of Knight Library, through the winter term. In addition to conscientious objectors during World War II and the Occupy Eugene movement, the exhibit includes a look at student protests on the University of Oregon campus during the first year of Robert D. Clark’s tenure as president of the university. In conjunction with the exhibit, we dove into the archives to learn more about the tumultuous period of protest on the Eugene campus during the 1969-1970 academic year.

1969_ROTC_protest_President_ClarkProtestors primarily focused on what they perceived to be the university’s capitulation to American involvement in the Vietnam War. At a time when universities were dealing with the turbulence of student bodies that were becoming increasingly activist, students in Eugene increasingly focused their ire on one particular campus institution as the embodiment of Oregon’s acquiescence to the war effort – the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, which had been established five decades earlier as a means of preparing an Oregon Battalion for World War I. As protestors homed in on the ROTC as the local representative of American policy in Southeast Asia, tensions heightened at the university. The charged atmosphere in Eugene set the scene for both non-violent protest events, as well as escalating violence. The University of Oregon witnessed sit-ins, arson, vandalism, and National Guard intervention during this period.

By drafting procedures that afforded students their Constitutional rights and narrowly defined the rules of engagement for police intervention in campus affairs, President Clark and the UO administration limited violent actions on campus. Though arson and instances of vandalism also occurred during this turbulent year, and the National Guard appeared that spring on the Eugene campus, no fatalities or serious injuries resulted from protests on the UO campus. Clark’s willingness to engage in discussion with and protect the rights of student protestors thus kept the situation in Eugene from escalating to the point of another Kent State.

 

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Chapter Reorganizes

The first sign of unrest began at the beginning of the 1969-1970 school year, when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) reorganized on campus. The University of Oregon chapter of SDS originally formed on October 21, 1965 when a group of UO students called the Students for Socialist Action voted to change its name and affiliate with the growing national movement that had originated five years earlier on the University of Michigan campus.

Through its first four years, the SDS had experienced a limited impact at the university. But in the fall of 1969, the group reemerged on campus and began directing its attention at the ROTC program. The SDS organized for 150 torch-carrying members to march to the residence of new UO president Robert D. Clark to demand removal of the ROTC from the campus. Clark came out to talk with the group, discussing the issue for nearly an hour before the students disbanded without incident.

 

General Procedures in Case of Campus Demonstration, Disruption, Violence

The university administration started to formulate new policies for dealing with campus activism when it created the first draft of its “General Procedures in Case of Campus Demonstrations, Disruption, Violence” on October 13, 1969. The first sections of procedures, which recognized the protest rights of students and took a lenient approach to non-violent demonstrations, focused on maintaining campus operations and the security of university records and documents. The latter sections dealt with violent protest actions and set protocols for initiating Eugene Police Department involvement.

By December, the General Procedures had been effectively codified and in place for the winter term. As 1970 approached, the rules of engagement for protests on campus had been set – and they would be put to the test soon after the new term began at UO.

 

Escalation of Protests in January 1970

Womens_Militia_Avenge_My_LaiOn January 6, three or four unidentified people walked up to the registration table at an ROTC recruitment event. Once at the table, they threw animal blood at the table, covering the personnel and registration documents as well as the floor and walls in the fluid. One women later identified and described themselves in an interview with the Emerald as members of a Women’s Militia and stated that their action was intended to demonstrate opposition to the Vietnam War and militarization in the United States.

Three days later, the New Left group of the SDS sent President Clark a request to cancel classes on January 15 to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The letter also requested Clark’s presence at a People’s Trial two days later, where the University of Oregon would be put on trial for its alleged “complicity in the actions of U.S. imperialism” that were at the heart of anti-war protest. Clark, responding in the Emerald, declined the invitation to attend the proceedings, and the People’s Trial resulted in the congregation of 300 students outside Johnson Hall. Clark came out of the administrative building to converse with the student group for an hour before it peacefully dispersed.

Though the People’s Trial failed to realize its goals, January 14 was still an auspicious day for the University of Oregon. At the monthly faculty meeting held that evening, 30 to 50 students took up positions in the faculty sections and aisles of the meeting room at Science 150. The group started to heckle and jeer the assembled faculty, while Irving Wainer – a post-doctoral trainee who was instrumental in the incitement of protests at UO – tried to address the meeting. Denied the ability to engage with the faculty, the group continued to disrupt the proceedings until President Clark called to adjourn the meeting.

On January 23, 1970, a group of 25 unidentified people entered the ROTC offices at about 2:15 pm. Once inside the offices, the protestors scattered books and papers around the room. Before they left ahead of the arrival of police on the scene, the group also left several green-stenciled fists on the walls throughout the office. Another ROTC event was disrupted on January 31, when a dozen hecklers appeared at the ROTC information session during the Duck Preview Program. Eugene police waited on standby, but a formal warning from UO administration successfully led to the disbandment of the protest.

 

February 1970

While protest activity centered on the ROTC and the Vietnam War, student protestors also targeted businesses recruiting on campus. 40 students and other community members protested Weyerhauser and its harmful environmental policies on February 3 during the corporation’s visit to campus for recruitment interviews. Between 10 and 15 students entered the recruiting room, preventing scheduled interviews. 18 students were charged by UO with disruptive activities under the Student Conduct Code, though only two were found guilty and only one was actually put on probation.

On February 15, a fire was started in the ROTC storage area in Esslinger Hall. On-campus students flocked to the scene, as flames shot through the roof in defiance of the rain falling in Eugene and the firefighters straining to put out the blaze. The arson led to $250,000 worth of damage in the building, though the perpetrators would never be discovered.

Ten days later, another corporate recruitment drive was disrupted on campus. In a reprisal of the Weyerhauser episode, approximately 35 students demonstrated against Standard Oil and Union Oil recruiters when they came to UO on February 25. Nobody was charged in the incident, as the protestors disbanded when the university presented them with a formal notification of trespass.

 

McArthur Court Gate Crashing

McArthur_CourtA crowd of around 150 to 200 students, including some of high-school age, were organized by SDS to converge on McArthur Court on March 8, 1970, where a rock concert was planned that evening. The group attempted to break through the gates and gain admittance to the event without paying, and collaborators inside the gates tried to assist the forced entry.

The five policemen assigned to manage the crowd during the event called for reinforcements, and 10 more officers arrived on the scene. The incident ultimately resulted in over $300 in damages – 10 windows were smashed, two doors were pulled from their hinges, three locks were broken, and one of the locker rooms in the arena was splattered with paint. One student caught at the scene removing hinges from the door was arrested for injuring public property, but was never charged and was later found innocent in civil court.

Only five students in total were identified and charged under Student Conduct Code, though attempts to prosecute the quintet were not initiated by the city or the district attorney. The incident was a key moment which revealed the university’s inability to deal with large-scale disruptions, and illustrated the limitations within the Student Conduct Code to effectively address violations of such nature.

 

April ROTC Vote and Aftermath

On April 15, 1970, the UO faculty voted by a 199-185 margin to allow the ROTC to remain on campus. After hearing about the results of the vote, between 50 and 100 students broke into the ROTC facilities in French Hall. Once inside, the protestors ransacked the area – overturning furniture; breaking lights, doors, and windows; scattering papers and books; and attempting to start a fire in the room. Another group of protestors later returned to the ROTC facility, throwing rocks, torches, and kerosene at the building. The incident marked the first time that the Eugene Police Department used tear gas to disperse a crowd on UO campus, and the National Guard had been put on standby by Oregon governor Tom McCall. Seven participating students were arrested, four were charged with inciting a riot, and the others were charged with various other crimes.

A torchlight parade protesting the ROTC vote was canceled in the wake of the previous night’s actions, as fears of escalating violence between participants and police led the organizers to reconsider the action. The organizers, however, attempted to coerce law enforcement into reducing bail for seven incarcerated students: “Call the judge and tell him that you’re going to have on your hands a riot of 2000 people if you don’t lower that bail… I can’t disperse (the crowd) unless you do something to make the people feel that you responded in some positive way.”

 

Johnson Hall Sit-In

Johnson_Hall_protestThe height of the Vietnam protest movement at UO occurred over three days between April 22 and April 24, 1970. Beginning around 11:00 am on the 22nd, between 50 and 100 UO students occupied Johnson Hall to protest the ROTC’s continued presence on campus, taking over the lobby of the building. The crowd grew to around 300 students by 5:00 pm, when Clark negotiated with the group to allow the protestors to remain in the lobby overnight if they remained peaceful.

After staying in Johnson Hall overnight, the group became increasingly restless. Around 2:00 pm on the 23rd, a group of 15 students crowded into Clark’s outer office, disrupting work and causing secretaries to leave for the day. Clark declared at 5:15 pm that students remaining in the building would be subject to arrest and prosecution for trespassing. Eugene police arrived, arresting 61 protestors, but everything remained peaceful until the National Guard arrived on the scene and escalated the situation by deploying tear gas against the crowd outside the building. News of the National Guard’s involvement led a larger congregation of nearly 2000 students to converge at Emerald Hall in protest of the incident.

 

Aftermath

After the Johnson Hall sit-in, campus protests waned in the last months of the 1969-1970 academic year. 30 to 40 UO students successfully closed 13th Avenue through the university on April 26, 1970, erecting barricades at either end of campus to prevent passage of traffic and calling it “The People’s Street” in protest. The barriers were removed three days later by the students on condition that city officials hold a City Council meeting to discuss the permanent closure of 13th to auto traffic. The city eventually voted to close the stretch of 13th Avenue through campus to motorized traffic, eliminating the dangers that vehicles presented to students trying to travel between classes.

A student strike was attempted in late April, accompanied by a second sit-in at Johnson Hall, but neither came to fruition as the student body became increasingly wary in the wake of the events on April 23. After National Guard troops killed four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, UO canceled school the last three days of the week to prevent the incitement of protests on campus. A small demonstration against the ROTC was organized by around 50 students on May 14, but by that point the administration had started to work to curb incidents on campus.

On June 13, President Clark reaffirmed his support for the group in a statement at the ROTC Commencement Ceremony. After the school year had ended, the Oregon Board of Higher Education amended its Student Conduct Code prior to the 1970-1971 academic year. The amendments explicitly prohibited obstruction or disruption of teaching; interference with freedom of movement; possession or use of dangerous weapons; physical abuse or the threat of physical abuse toward any other person; malicious damage, misuse, or theft of institutional property; refusal of official orders to leave premises; traffic in illegal drugs; and inciting others to engage in proscribed conduct.

After a bomb was set off in the basement of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall on October 2, 1970, the State Board of Higher Education met again to enact further amendments to the UO Student Conduct Code. The new amendments permitted institutional presidents to turn disciplinary hearings over to “hearing officers” if student conduct courts were unable to function due to heavy caseloads or disruptions. The effect was a marked reduction in violent protest activities as well as protest actions in general on campus.

 

Information for this article was collected from the following sources:

 

Zach Bigalke
Student Research Assistant

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