Eugene Rising, Part III
Our Serial Bombers are Locally-Sourced and Always Organic
This is the third of a seven-part series on the history of activism and protest in Eugene, Oregon. To start from the beginning, click here.
We’re doing something different with this story, because that’s what we’re all about – trying new things.
As you read through this story, you’ll notice a series of formatting choices that, at first, may appear really obnoxious. But don’t worry: this is intentional, and will help you understand the way we’re approaching it.
Here in the middle, where there’s no formatting at all, is where you’ll find the neutral narrative that we’re engaging with throughout the story.
A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.
When you see this toxic green color, you’ll be reading the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-in-Chief MG Belka.
And when you see this pink color that happens to match his protest helmet and nails, you’ll have the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-at-Large James Croxton.
We did this because we believe that it is important to engage with history as we uncover it, and that engaging with history means constantly critiquing it, challenging it, and–when deserved–making fun of it, too.
But we don’t want to make the mistake of passing off those critiques and analyses as objective, since so many people still seem to believe that such a thing exists, and we don’t want to mix our own biases and perspectives with the hard research that we used to put this story together.
Anyways, here’s a Bob Dylan reference!
You Don’t Need A Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows:
Serial Bombings, Campus Radicals, and the Birth of Modern Eugene
By the latter half of the 1960’s, Eugene became regarded as a city on the forefront of anti-war and anti-establishment protests across the United States, largely thanks to high-profile organizing and actions by students at the University of Oregon.
Though anti-war protests were far from rare on college campuses during the 1960s, the UO was unique in that students were almost singularly focused on activism against the American imperialism and the Vietnam War. While it was far from invisible on the UO campus, the Black liberation and civil rights movements were relatively small relative to other colleges during the 1960s. Eugene’s Black Panther Party, for example, had no more than 30 members at its peak.
A similar story exists with the Chicanx movement at UO, which began as a student union in 1964 before uniting with the nationwide Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) organization in 1969. There was also a chapter of the Brown Berets in Eugene that acted as a sort of community defense organization.
The University was also home to one of the oldest indigenous student groups on the West Coast, which was a major force in the restoration of tribal sovereignty among the indigenous peoples of Oregon. By 1968, the area also had offshoots of the nascent American Indian Movement, though there’s no record of indigenous-centered protests in or around Eugene until the late 1970s.
I’m not saying that these movements were minor or didn’t have an impact on activism in Eugene. I’m just saying that the people who wrote the history of this town rarely seemed to focus their attention on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous movements until very recently. These marginalized groups are rarely painted at the forefront of Eugene’s activist history.
Take three guesses as to why.
The earliest anti-war demonstrations at UO came in late 1964 and early 1965, and were almost immediately countered by right-wing student groups calling themselves the “Young Americans for Freedom” and the “Bi-Partisan Student Committee for the War.” The right-wing groups jeered and heckled anti-war protesters, and anti-war protesters often jeered and heckled right back, but the protests remained almost completely peaceful. Teach-ins were held across campus, where many students got their first taste of the radical ideas that would influence later actions in Eugene.
Around the same time, a UO student group calling themselves the “Students for Socialist Action” voted to unite with the Students for a Democratic Society, which had formed in 1960 at the University of Michigan and rapidly expanded nationwide. The group was regarded as one of the chief organizations of the so-called New Left in the U.S.
The UO chapter of the SDS would not have an immediate impact, at least not in an official manner. Instead, the group spent four years quietly organizing on campus and watching the unrest of the radical sixties unfold across the rest of the county.
But that did not mean that Eugene stayed quiet through the decade. On the contrary, the city the nation’s ongoing involvement in Vietnam led to a series of dramatic attacks on local military installations, including the 1967 bombings of both the Eugene Naval & Marine Corps Reserve Training Center and Air Force ROTC buildings, the Sept. 1968 arson at the Eugene Armory, and a rash of targeted bombings throughout the city in May 1969.
Even though the FBI got involved, the perpetrators of these actions were never caught.
Interestingly, much of Eugene’s early protest history is only publicly available from the Eugene Police Department’s website.
What’s interesting to me is not that Eugene endured nearly two years of bombings in the 1960s, but that it’s a seemingly forgotten part of the city’s recent history. Outside of a few bullet points from the city’s official history and a couple of short write-ups in the local papers, there’s little information to be found these actions, which most people would consider acts of domestic terrorism.
Imagine if a Volkswagen bus started driving around Eugene while its passengers threw bundles of dynamite at churches, banks, and university buildings in 2021. Not only would that make national headlines and lead to a million articles about the problems posed by divisive rhetoric in American politics, but it would cause the locals to lose their fucking minds, right?
I suspect it’s because the bombers were never caught. Official historians rarely spend their energies on stories that don’t have neat endings or named antagonists.
In 1969, Eugene’s Black Panthers had an armed standoff with EPD after a pair of cops attempted to illegally enter the BPP’s headquarters. The well-armed Black Panthers refused, and the police responded by issuing arrest warrants for several BPP members. Once word got out that the police and Panthers were getting ready for a fight, white students and community members rallied to defend the group. According to Eugene-based Black Panther Jaja Anderson’s account of the incident, there were even armed white men taking up sniper positions around the Black Panther’s headquarters.
The situation was defused after a few hours, but it was emblematic of the atmosphere in Eugene at the time.
And it was amid this tension and anxiety in the city of Eugene that the SDS took the opportunity to ramp up their actions at the University of Oregon.
By 1968, the SDS had begun holding much larger protests on campus and in downtown Eugene, which led to at least one student being attacked by what historian Gary Barnum called “an irate citizen.” A protest against the use of napalm saw the SDS burn a baby doll in front of the EMU and heckle a visiting executive from DOW Chemical about the company’s role in the war.
After President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election and would instead attempt to negotiate a peace with North Vietnam, actions quieted down on campus. But once the chaotic 1968 election year ended with the rise of Richard Nixon, and the continuation of the war, student protests led by the SDS at UO reached their peak.
They began by organizing a torch-lit march to newly appointed university president Robert Clark’s house in the fall of 1969, demanding that he bar the Army ROTC from being present on campus. Clark managed to open a dialogue with the students, but the action spooked the administration, who began revising their policies regarding student activism a few weeks later.
The newly re-written policies encouraged students to participate in what the university determined to be “non-violent protests” while also clearly establishing that any perceived threat to UO property or university records would trigger a strong response from EPD.
It wasn’t long before students put those policies to the test.
Protesters walked up to a ROTC campus recruitment event on Jan. 6, 1970 and threw animal blood over the recruiters and their table. The protesters later identified themselves to the Oregon Daily Emerald as members of a “Women’s Militia” and stated that they were protesting the Vietnam War and the ongoing “militarization” of the United States.
On Jan. 9, the SDS sent a letter to President Clark asking that the university cancel classes on Jan. 15 to honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. They also requested his presence at what was deemed a “People’s Trial,” scheduled for Jan. 11, where activists would put the university on trial for what they called “complicity in U.S. imperialism.”
President Clark publicly declined the invitation and the University declined to cancel classes, so the students kept up the pressure.
On Jan. 14, the SDS disrupted a regular faculty meeting by heckling and jeering the assembled professors. The following week, 25 students vandalized the ROTC offices, scattering papers and spray-painting walls before fleeing ahead of the arrival of EPD. A small group also heckled ROTC recruiters on Jan. 31 before again being chased away by EPD officers.
The students occasionally expanded their scope. On Feb. 3, around 40 students disrupted open interviews being held on campus by the timber company Weyerhaeuser in protest of the company’s environmental practices. This time, the university cracked down, charging 18 students with violations of the Student Conduct Code – though only two were found guilty.
On Feb. 15, the ROTC office in Esslinger Hall was set ablaze — burning many students’ draft documents and causing upwards of 250,000 dollars in damages. Then, a month later, on March 8, nearly 200 students, led by the SDS, stormed McArthur Court during a Chicago concert.
I refuse to let that paragraph go by without highlighting that students in Eugene once rioted for the band Chicago.
In the summer of 2020, I watched a dozen people form a makeshift committee to decide whether to turn right or left on Hilyard St. Fifty years earlier, 200 UO students stormed McArthur Court so they could hear “25 or 6 to 4” for free.
Hell yes they did.
I’m trying to think of a parallel to our current times. What artist would today’s radical UO students storm McArthur Court to see for free? The easy answer would be the Grateful Dead–or whatever zombified version of the Dead is touring now–but that seems too obvious.
I honestly don’t know. However, in 2007, Lil’ Wayne, Fat Joe, Sean Kingston, Charlie Murphy, and Medium Troy performed there. So, that’s something? I, mean, Bob Dylan played there, too, a couple of years later—the last concert at the venue according to sources—but I don’t see modern-day university students ever feeling the urge to storm… a Bob Dylan show.
The near-weekly disruption of campus life by the SDS began to wear down the patience of administrators on campus, who found threatening radical students with conduct code violations did almost nothing to stop their activities. President Clark reportedly had to keep EPD officers on standby anytime the SDS had a planned protest, which further raised tensions between students and administration.
All this unrest reached a climax in April 1970. After UO faculty narrowly voted in favor of keeping the ROTC on campus on April 15, students once again stormed the ROTC offices and wrecked the place – though they failed to light the building on fire this time. This protest marked the first time EPD reportedly used tear gas to disperse protesters.
And it sure as shit wouldn’t be the last time.
A week later, on April 22, hundreds of students occupied Johnson Hall, the university’s administration building. Though the group was told they could occupy the lobby so long they continued to be peaceful, the university called in the big guns after students ransacked administrative offices. EPD arrived on April 24, arrested over 60 people, and then immediately ceded authority to the National Guard, who proceeded to deploy tear-gas against protesters outside the building.
This was a major escalation and eventually forced students to abandon the sit-in, but not before 2000 students gathered outside Emerald Hall on the night of the 24th to protest the incident.
The 1970 school year ended with one final action. On April 26, students barricaded both ends of 13th Ave. and renamed it “The People’s Street” in protest of the dangers that motor vehicle traffic presented to students on campus. It was opened back up three days later on the condition that the city hold a vote to permanently close the street to traffic, which they did later that year.
But that would be the last major student action on campus that school year, and for several years after. That summer, the SDS effectively imploded after a major schism between its liberal and radical wings at the group’s national convention, which eventually led to the formation of revolutionary organizations like the Weather Underground.
On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine others during a peaceful protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War at Kent State University. While student protests erupted on campuses nationwide, the UO decided to cancel classes for several days, hoping to avoid similar unrest and bloodshed in Eugene.
It mostly worked. The protests died down, and the state higher education board prepared for the coming school year by once again revising the student conduct code to better counter potential protests from a thoroughly radicalized student body.
According to Zach Bigalke, a student researcher at UO, “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.”
The new rules, which still exist in the current Student Conduct Code, successfully curtailed direct actions at the UO, as well as protests in general on campus. But the half-decade of unrest in Eugene would go out with an exclamation point.
On Oct. 2, 1970, as if to signal the official end of the era of peace and love, one final bomb went off in the basement of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall. No one was hurt, and history moved on without anyone really noticing.
But hey, if nothing else, Eugene got the White Bird Clinic out of the deal.
In very meta fashion, Eugene was not only the location for real anti-war protests, but for fictional ones, too — more specifically at Lane Community College.
Filmed in 1969, “Getting Straight” is directed by Richard Bush, led by Elliot Gould—think Monica and Ross Gellers’ dad, Jack, in “Friends”—and is one of Harrison Ford’s earliest roles.
About a graduate student turned anti-Vietnam War activist, Gould’s character returns to the school to become a teacher. Still under construction, LCC was an optimal location to film fictional anti-war protests on a college campus.
This would be the last time that anyone considered LCC to be in an optimal location.
Meet Les Anderson:
Eugene’s Mayor of the Future
Though it was nowhere near prepared for mass student movements, civil unrest, and serial bombings, Eugene was gradually embracing its new identity as a hub for counter-culture. The icons that would leave their mark on the city were only just appearing on the scene. The hippies that embody Eugene’s identity were only just beginning to settle in the Whiteaker neighborhood. Nike was still called Blue Ribbon Sports—and had yet to perfect the art of graphic design—and Steve Prefontaine had yet to capture the hearts and minds of the track-and-field faithful. Kesey Square was still Broadway Plaza and the Oregon Country Fair was only in its second year.
As change swept through Eugene, a charismatic and popular mayor named Les Anderson seemed to know exactly how to soothe his city’s restlessness.
Anderson, a Republican elected in 1968—the same year as President Richard Nixon—was a business major and then instructor at UO, the chair of the Department of Finance, and made his wealth in both real estate and timber with Random Lengths, a publication about the industry.
As mayor, Anderson was a champion for business. His family had been in and around Eugene since early in its history, and he built close relationships with the city’s up-and-comers through his position on the board of the University of Oregon Foundation
Among other things, Anderson was the first public official to tie Eugene to track-and-field culture. Anderson himself had a passion for jogging and helped popularize the activity in Eugene, while his son, Jon, was coached by Nike co-founder and UO legend Bill Bowerman. Jon became a member of the famous 1972 Olympic track and field team and won the 1973 Boston Marathon.
And here begins the earnest transformation of Eugene from hard-scrabble working class town to “Ideal Home and Recreation Area.”
Following his passing, the former mayor was recognized for his calm demeanor during the anti-war protests he witnessed as mayor. During his tenure, he was reported to have been “relentlessly optimistic” and calm — especially during the anti-war protests.
When students burst into City Council with North Vietnamase Flags and surrounded the podium, he halted proceedings, de-escalated the situation and later resumed the session. When students barricaded 13th Ave., Anderson again went and spoke with them, peacefully resolving the standoff with no arrests.
Most of what we learned of Mayor Anderson while researching this story came from a glowing obituary in the Register-Guard. In truth, very few people alive and in Eugene at this moment know much of anything about Les Anderson.
I get the sense that Les Anderson had “figured out” Eugene and how to tame a city that had grown rather unruly. His successors each faced their own civil crises, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that Anderson offered plenty of advice on how to maintain control of a city that easily got drunk off its own radicalism.
Anderson, as far as I can tell, was the first local mayor to figure out that a progressive city will tolerate a whole lot of repression–so long as it’s done respectfully. Oregonians, many of whom are a little too laid-back as it is, love to boast of civility and calm despite their state’s often shocking history of violence. Their most successful leaders, in business and in politics, sport a sort of rugged kindness born of their guilty memories. They say they abhor violence because they know, deep in their bones, what it means to be violent.
But they’re not afraid of it, either.
Post-mayorship, Anderson mentored succeeding mayors Gus Keller, Ruth Bascom, and–perhaps most notably–Jim Torrey.
It Must Be Love:
Queer Liberation and Atomic Anxiety
Though the state of Oregon’s history of racist legislation is relatively well-documented, the state has also tried to paper-over its terrible record on LGBTQ issues. Oregon has put more anti-gay measures on their ballots than any other state, and, for a time, used a vaguely worded law to sterilize “sexual perverts” and “moral degenerates.” The original wording of the state’s sodomy law–which wasn’t amended until 1971–technically banned all sexual acts other than married heterosexuals having sex in the missionary position.
The battle for LGBTQ rights in the state was mostly centered in Portland, but Eugene had its own key role to play in the struggle – and sometimes took the lead, too.
Inspired by the Stonewall riots, the Gay People’s Alliance was founded by UO students in 1969. Later called the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and currently called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Ally Alliance, the GPA was the first student organization of its kind on the West Coast and immediately became a force in fighting for gay rights on campus and in the city. One of its early leaders was Terry Bean, who would go on to become a co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign and a prominent political lobbyist.
Throughout the 1970s, the GPA and other local gay rights groups, with help from the ACLU, successfully used protest and public comment to lobby the city council to prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1977.
But the victory wouldn’t last long, as anti-gay activists managed to get a referendum to repeal the ordinance on the ballot in 1978. After nearly a year of door-to-door fear mongering about child molestation which was read into the city council minutes, Eugene Local Measure 51 passed with 64 percent of the vote.
It remained perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in Eugene until 1997, when the city finally enacted an anti-discrimination law that was not challenged by bigots.
By this point, I hope you’re seeing the pattern that Eugene has settled into throughout its history.
Once again, Eugene found itself in the national spotlight–this time as a hotspot in the nationwide battle over LGBTQ rights–only to see reactionary forces seize that limelight for their own ends.
Even when the city’s leaders appear to have good intentions, they immediately face pushback from reactionary groups peddling misinformation and outright lies in order to attach the heavy anchor of religious conservatism to anything remotely progressive.
This battle, combined with similar anti-gay efforts in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wichita, Kansas, helped hone-in the strategies and talking points of the so-called “Moral Majority” that would help sweep Ronald Reagan into the presidency in 1980.
Note the towns in which these battles took place. They’re all smaller cities with robust university systems that serve as islands of “progressivism” among a red sea of conservatism.
Reactionaries love to do battle on other people’s turf.
Though the remainder of the 1970s failed to live-up to the vivid unrest that the decade began with, activism in the city did not completely die out. People in Eugene participated in protests against proposed nuclear power plants outside of Portland and the disposal of nerve gas agents in Umatilla. Both were successful, but for different reasons
Led by Portland’s Lloyd Marbet, the anti-nuclear movement was a grassroots one, which used Oregon’s petition and initiative systems to achieve their means. The movement was able to successfully scrap construction of two new nuclear plants at Pebble Springs through several ballot measures and a series of lengthy lawsuits against Portland Gas & Electric – though the existing Trojan nuclear plant north of Portland didn’t close until 1993.
On the other hand, the movement against nerve gas disposal was a top-down affair, mostly led by Republican Gov. Tom McCall, Oregon’s congressional delegation, and their counterparts in Washington state. Politicians weren’t the only ones, of course–more radical groups like People Against Nerve Gas promised to use their bodies to blockade trains carrying the chemicals–but most sources credit McCall’s leadership and support of a public petition for Nixon’s decision to abandon the plan in 1970.
“To say that the citizens of Okinawa… should not be subjected to the proximity of these inherently dangerous and frightening chemicals is an incredible statement when you go on to say that it is all right for the citizens of Oregon to suffer this same proximity.”Oregon Gov. Tom McColl, 1970
Instead, the chemical weapons were moved to a tiny island in the North Pacific called Johnston Atoll, known to indigenous Hawaiians as Kalama Atoll, where continuous testing and disposal of chemical weapons like Agent Orange left the island and the surrounding area horribly contaminated.
The agricultural areas around Eugene saw some activity too, as migrant farmworkers and laborers–98% of whom came from Mexico or Central America–began organizing in the late 1970s in order to win basic legal protections. The Willamette Valley Immigration Project was launched in 1977 to defend against Immigration and Naturalization Service raids seeking to deport undocumented workers, while also encouraging the development of small worker cooperatives on the farmlands outside the city.
Over a thousand Eugene 4J teachers closed out the decade in September 1979 by participating in a nationwide strike that delayed the start of the school year by over a week. That same month, Lane County employees also launched a strike that lasted for several weeks.
Prior to the 1960’s, Eugene’s political power was centered among the upper classes–composed of its wealthy landowners, timber barons, and other kinds of white industrialists. But after Anderson took office in 1969, the power base–the city’s future mayors and councilors–began to shift to the middle class: small business owners, mom & pop landlords, small-time investors, and the middle managers of the world.
Gus Keller managed a hardware store and became an investment advisor. Brian Obie started multiple small businesses, ran a media company, and was a principal investor-turned-owner of the 5th Street Public Market. Jeff Miller managed insurance policies. All these men served in local government in multiple capacities.
It’s telling that these mayors, and the policies that they brought along with them, are extremely friendly to the middle-class business interests that they themselves came from and would eventually come to dominate culture in Eugene.
Because even though it thinks of itself as a working class hub of progressive ideology, what Eugene actually represents is just how much agitation a liberal middle class can handle, or will allow, in their small city.
Thanks for reading–we wouldn’t have attempted such an expansive project if we didn’t believe that there was some merit to learning about the history of a place, both good and bad.
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