A culture of protest at UO: then and now
On Jan. 20, 1973, a group of protesters marched from the EMU to Alton Baker Park in opposition to the Vietnam War. When the march began, there were less than a dozen people, but by the time it was over, almost 500 had joined. Marching in silence out of respect for those who had died in the war, the protesters carried a wooden sculpture of a bomb almost the size of a person and a North Vietnamese flag.
In an era of anti-war protests, this march was the last Vietnam War protest at the University of Oregon. A week later the Paris Peace Accords were signed and the war was over.
It has been 45 years since the end of the Vietnam War and although protest has changed, it still plays an important role in society. Throughout UO’s history, protests have served as a crucial voice for the student body population and a means of holding its surrounding institutions accountable. They have become an integral part of the campus culture.
During winter term there were five protests on the UO campus that were working for a variety of different causes ranging from advocating for more gun control to protesting a mural in the Knight Library. Though the UO is not a pillar of protest, it has been accepted by many as a part of campus life.
A part of the culture
“I think it is something that Eugene or at least part of Eugene prides itself on — that it has been a place that is open to protest,” said Carol Van Houten, an activist since 1968 when she moved to Eugene.
At that time Van Houten was a part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a group that was trying to get more people to oppose the Vietnam War.
She says that Eugene is a welcoming city that is tuned into what’s important and willing to speak up about it.
Van Houten is also a current member of Community Alliance of Lane County, a community activist organization that works to create a more “just and peaceful community.” It began in 1966 as part of a national organization aiming to end the Vietnam War.
During the war, her son asked her if he would have to go to war when he grew up.
After that, Van Houten said she felt it was her job to make sure no other boys or girls would have to go.
During the Vietnam War protests in opposition to it had one clear goal: end the war.
“There was no question about what the goal was back then,” said Van Houten.
As a member of WILPF, Van Houten was deep into political community activism. Once with members of WILPF, she went to the UO ROTC building and acted as if they were going to levitate it using words and smoke in a way that was fun while still sending a message.
ROTC is the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a training program for college students to become officers in the United States Army, a controversial program in the era of anti-war protests.
Van Houten said that students always organized the biggest protests. “The fact that the students sat in Johnson Hall kind of gave an opportunity for something dramatic,” she said.
That drama occured in April 1970 when a group of 50 students occupied Johnson Hall to protest the presence of the ROTC building on campus. During the Vietnam War there were a number of other demonstrations protesting the presence of the building. Six hours into the sit-in, the group had grown to about 300.
On the second day of the sit-in, 15 protesters moved into the office of UO President Robert Clark. Clark then declared that any protesters still in the hall at 5:15 would be arrested. Police arrived and peacefully arrested 61 protesters.
During the sit-in, Gov. Tom McCall wanted to send the National Guard in to remove the students from Johnson Hall, but Clark refused to send them in until after the students were removed from inside the building, according to Van Houten.
“I have a lot of admiration for President Clark that he was wise enough to realize that would lead to a dangerous situation. We could have had a Kent State,” said Van Houten.
She is referring to an incident that happened less than two weeks later when the National Guard shot students at Kent State University who were protesting the United States’ bombing of Cambodia. Four were killed, nine others were injured and one was left paralysed.
After UO students had been arrested, the National Guard arrived at Johnson Hall and deployed tear gas outside the building where a larger crowd was protesting. About 2,000 people participated in protest in response to the tear-gassing later that day at Emerald Hall.
Although this protest was dramatic, it was not effective — the ROTC building remains on the UO campus without any objection from student activists.
The Free Speech Movement
John Nicols, 75, is a professor of history at UO and was involved in the Free Speech Movement while studying at UC Berkeley in the ‘60s. At the time, some colleges did not allow political speakers of any kind to speak on campus. The FSM supported political and free speech on campus and some of its members went on to participate in anti-war protests. Nicols eventually left the FSM when it turned violent.
“I supported nonviolent protest and I supported sit-ins, but when it got to physical destruction of property or throwing things at people, that took away from the purity of the motives,” said Nicols.
He then left the United States for six years because he did not support the Vietnam War.
Nicols doubted the effectiveness of Vietnam War protests. “I don’t think it probably made any difference; what made a difference was the physical cost,” he said.
After the ban on political speech was implemented at UC Berkeley, a small group of students protested after facing disciplinary action for political speech. They were joined by a group of about 500 students for a sit-in protest, leading to the formation of the FSM.
Since the end of the FSM, many of the bans on political speech on college campuses have been removed. But at UO, free speech has come under fire in recent years.
Last year at UO, President Schill proposed changes to restrict the time, place and manner of student activism on campus. After pushback from faculty and students, the changes were dropped. In 2017, UO also appeared on the top ten worst schools for free speech list made by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
A recent wave of protest
The size of a protest doesn’t always equate to success.
“Simply focusing on the size of a crowd or the actual visible element of protest doesn’t necessarily speak to a social movement’s influence or power. There’s a lot of other ways in which social movements must engage with the political system,” said Steven Beda, an assistant history professor at UO.
Beda specializes in twentieth century history, labor history, Pacific Northwest history and environmental history. He says one big difference between activism today and in the twentieth century is the purpose of things like marches or sit-ins. Today a march is seen as an end itself, while in the 1970s and earlier it was seen as a tool to a political end, according to Beda.
Many of the recent protests at UO have not had the time to achieve their goals, but with little immediate change resulting from larger national protests, some question their effectiveness.
“Sometimes it feels like we are right on and we’re making a difference, and sometimes it feels discouraging because we have been working at this a long time,” said Van Houten about her experience an activist.
Most of the protests last term were much smaller than the 1970 sit-in at Johnson Hall, the anti-war march and the FSM. Four of the five protests had less than 50 people, and the one that did was a part of the National School Walkout which is a national effort demanding stricter gun regulation.
One thing many recent protests at the UO have in common is that they lack official leadership. The UO Student Collective (UOSC), who earlier this school year protested UO President Michael Schill’s State of the University speech, has no official leaders and makes their decisions by consensus. Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), who have organized multiple protests against the UO purchasing furniture from Oregon Corrections Enterprises, is a group that collaborates on their activist projects without any hierarchy.
“Having good strategy — that comes mostly from having a small group of people who are wise and thoughtful [as leaders],” said Van Houten.
Protests like the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement had specific, tangible political aims, while recent protests often present a variety of different demands.
The protest by the collective covered a wide range of topics from rising tuition cost to the alleged fascism at the UO. It wasn’t till a few hours after the protest, when the group sent out a list of 23 demands, that it was clear what their specific goals were.
SLAP’s protest on Feb. 27 demanded that the UO to stop making purchases and contracts with OCE, a program that employs prisoners.
“The goal for those protests was to make the student body more aware that the University of Oregon profits off of prison labor,” said Jamie Cunningham, co-director of SLAP.
Some modern campus protests made an immediate impact.
In 2015, members of the Black Student Task Force spoke to a crowd of hundreds about the climate of racism on campus. The group issued a list of 12 demands to UO administration and have already achieved at least five of the demands.
GTF strikes through the years have been effective in creating change, resulting in higher pay and other changes to contracts. A major eight-day strike occured in 2014, but smaller protests continued into 2016.
One thing Beda, Nicols and Van Houten all agree on is that protest is a part of UO and Eugene culture.
“Civil disobedience is completely necessary to a campus that is thriving and has student involvement,” said Cunningham.
Read about the effects of the UOSC’s protest on campus tomorrow at www.dailyemerald.com. Follow Casey Crowley on Twitter.
Do you appreciate independent student journalism? Emerald Media Group is a non-profit organization. Please consider a donation to support our mission.