Amid the simmering chaos in Oregon’s largest city, let’s look back 50 years to how a governor took an audacious approach to avoiding violence.
These are different times, demanding different solutions. But Vortex I — the first and apparently only state-sponsored rock music festival in U.S. history — holds lessons for today in leadership, ingenuity and courage.
In 1970, Republican Gov. Tom McCall declared a state of emergency to hold the rock festival. It was an Oregon-style version of Woodstock, which included law enforcement escorting young people to the rural Clackamas County site and letting nudity and widespread drug use slide.
Vortex 2020 was set for next month to relive that experience at Milo McIver State Park, but the pandemic forced postponement until next year.
To set the scene: In the late summer of 1970, the American Legion would hold its national convention in Portland, a city rocked by protests against the Vietnam War. Across the nation, tensions were as high as today, or higher. At Kent State, protesters had been shot by National Guard troops. Police had beaten protesters in Portland. President Richard Nixon, loathed by antiwar activists, was to speak at the convention. The FBI warned McCall that 50,000 radicals — later found to be a made up number — would descend on Portland to provoke confrontations. Authorities feared violence rivaling the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Peaceful antiwar activists hatched an audacious idea: Avoid bloody confrontations in Portland by luring young people to a pro-peace rock festival 30 or so miles away in rural Clackamas County.
McCall maintained an open door for practically anyone. The activists’ met with top McCall aide Ed Westerdahl, and the festival soon was a go.
The governor gave Westerdahl full authority. Things moved quickly. Portland businesses provided food, sanitation and other services. Lumber arrived out of nowhere to construct a festival stage. Volunteers provided medical care. Undercover officers mingled in the crowd but overlooked nonviolent crimes. Attendance, which was free, has been estimated at between 30,000 and 100,000 people despite the absence of big-name musical groups.
Back in Portland, the street protests were relatively small and uneventful, although one downtown store window reportedly was broken. Nixon canceled his convention appearance.
The genius of the McCall-Westerdahl-activists plan lay in the behind-the-scene preparations. Westerdahl’s command center was set up in a convention hotel, the Hilton. National Guard troops were on the ready but hidden in the hotel’s underground parking garage. At the music festival, an Oregon State Police SWAT unit was secreted in a state park building, and National Guard troops were camped nearby but out of view from festival goers.
McCall, who was in a re-election campaign against Democrat Bob Straub, reportedly commented that he was committing political suicide by authorizing the state-funded festival less than three months before the election. Straub, who lost that race but was elected governor four years later, and many other officials denounced the plan.
“Risky” seems too small a word to describe the event known as “Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life.” That gamble turned into a rousing success.
Legislators divided on Portland response: Half the members of the Oregon Legislature, all Democrats, demanded on Thursday that U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, stop deploying federal personnel against Portland protesters.
“We refuse to allow our streets to be a playground for political theatrics intended to deflect attention from the president’s failure to control a deadly pandemic,” they wrote. “We will not stand by while violent actions exacerbate conditions on our streets.”
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, signed the letter. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was not listed among the signers.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton issued a statement saying Democrats were pandering to violence.
“It is sickening to watch as phony leaders pander to the violence in Portland. I refuse to turn a blind eye to the violence and lawlessness each night,” he said. “What Portland Democrats fail to understand is if you give an inch to these violent anarchists, they will take a mile, and they won’t stop. They want to perpetuate the idea of a ‘civil war’ to further isolate Oregonians from one another.”
At the federal level, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were unsuccessful this week in amending legislation to add a provision prohibiting deployment of federal officers.
Don’t even visit: McCall is famous for “Visit but don’t stay.” He actually didn’t say that.
The Oregon Encyclopedia provides context: “‘Come visit us again and again,’ he said. ‘But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.’ His statement — shorthanded as ‘Visit but don’t stay’ — made international headlines and defined Oregon for years.”
In parts of Oregon, the current theme is don’t even visit. The Bend City Council recently voted to reissue a travel advisory discouraging tourist visits because of the pandemic, a step previously taken by some coastal communities.
As of Thursday, Wheeler is the only Oregon county without any reported COVID-19 infections. The state’s least populated county, Wheeler has asked tourists to consider postponing their visits.