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Did Vortex music festival prevent riots?

Vortex stageBy Finn J.D. John

As the last weekend of August 1970 approached, many Oregonians were sort of holding their breath.

The American Legion was coming to town for its annual convention. The theme was “Victory in Vietnam.” President Richard Nixon would be there. And so would a group of particularly belligerent anti-war activists who had pointedly declined to renounce violence as a tool of protest.

Everyone seemed to be spoiling for a fight: the Legion, the activists, the Portland city police and even President Nixon.

Arrayed against them were what you might call the forces of domestic peace and tranquility: A loose consortium of young people calling themselves “The Family,” and the administration of Governor Tom McCall. This coalition had little in common at the outset, other than a commitment to preventing bloodshed in Portland. They would develop a greater familiarity, and an abiding friendliness and respect for one another, in the wake of the coming weekend, as they worked together to create a week-long music-and-counterculture festival 20 miles outside of Portland: Vortex I.

The goal of the governor and his staff was kind of a “bread-and-circuses” move — to divert some of the young people who might otherwise go to Portland and fight with the American Legion. The goal of The Family was to be the change they wanted to see in the world, and to prevent what they feared would be a set-piece of bloody street theater that would damage their homes and businesses and discredit their movement. For both, Vortex I was the last best hope.

As the big weekend approached, young people started pouring into McIver Park by the tens of thousands. State Highway Commission chairman Glenn Jackson had quietly arranged for the state to lease adjacent farmlands for parking, and to bring in materials for the soundstage and other infrastructure needs.

As the morning wore on, Vortex became exactly what its planners had envisioned: A gigantic, peaceful gathering in a beautiful pastoral setting, with skinnydippers splashing in the river, drugs of various types flowing freely, and loud, occasionally good music pouring out of the stacks on the stage.

“Bobby Wehe contacted every band he could think of to ask them to perform at Vortex I, but only Santana showed up, as far as I know,” recalled Glen Swift, one of the original members of The Family. “Bobby was hampered by the fact that we had absolutely no money, and thus couldn’t pay any bands. Still, he built a big stage at one end of the meadow at the intermediate level of McIver Park, and thousands of people flocked there to listen to a steady stream of local bands.”

State police were on high alert outside the park, but within the park, the young people — led by some key members of “The Family,” and coordinated from the soundstage — maintained the peace without any kind of buzz-killing police presence. This, of course, allowed festival-goers to get naked, smoke marijuana and sip “electric wine” (wine spiked with LSD) without fear of arrest; in fact, the only people arrested at the festival were a group of drunk loggers who dropped by to “rough up a few hippies.”

McCall’s chief of staff, Ed Westerdahl, told historian Matt Love there was one point at which he almost had the state cops go into the park. He’d gotten word that the frustrated activists of the People’s Army Jamboree, coordinating the Portland protests, had sent a delegation down to Vortex to try to rally people to come to Portland and help “confront” the American Legion and Nixon. Westerdahl was very worried about this. By this time there were at least 20,000 people in the park, and if even half that number rallied to the banner and started pouring into Portland, it would be like a clash of armies.

“Basically, Bobby (Wehe) said, ‘Don’t, we’ll take care of them,’” Westerdahl recalled. “I said, ‘Bobby, I can’t run the risk if they get this whole group moving, 50,000 or 20,000 or however many people. That’s going to be a hell of a problem. You cannot allow the stage to be taken.’ He said, ‘I guarantee it. It won’t be a problem. You’ve trusted me so far, so trust me on this.’”

Westerdahl was there when the Jamboree delegation tried to storm the stage, and he soon saw what Wehe meant. As the group of 20 or so Jamboree activists started running for the stage, “all of a sudden, ladies all around them dropped their clothes. ... Every one of these men had two ladies on him saying, ‘Peace brother, love brother.’ ... It was the most effective technique in nonviolence I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But then the next day — Sunday, the day of the American Legion meeting — the young people in the park started packing up and leaving.

This was McCall’s darkest hour. What were the young people doing? Had those

Jamboree activists somehow managed to get their recruiting done without taking over the stage? Had the Vortex plan played directly into their hands, providing overnight accommodations for tens of thousands of people who now were marching on Portland? Had McCall’s plan not only failed, but made things worse?

No. As the day progressed, it became clear that the thousands leaving McIver park were not going to Portland. They were going home. Most of them were local kids, and they were yearning less for the revolution than for a hot shower and maybe some pancakes.

Meanwhile, in downtown Portland, roughly 1,000 protesters — very few if any of whom had been to Vortex — marched peacefully through the streets. Nothing happened.

The next day — that is, Monday the 31st — 10,000 Legionnaires marched. A small handful of People’s Army Jamboree activists jeered at them from the sidewalk, and a group of Portland cops in riot gear pulled their billy clubs and seemed about to crack some skulls, and for a moment it seemed as if there would be a riot after all, if on a diminished scale; but then the situation was defused by an elderly woman who stepped in front of the cops and told them to stop making trouble, and everyone simmered down.

At some point along the way, Nixon canceled his plans to attend, and

Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew came instead. Agnew gave a relatively mild speech at Memorial Coliseum. A few hundred die-hard protesters paraded outside. That was it.

Then Agnew left town, and so did the Legionnaires, and it was over. No riots, no injuries, no damage. (There is a report that a window at Meier & Frank was broken, but whether that’s related to the protests or not is questionable.)

As the clean-up after Vortex was finishing up, McCall met with the Oregon State Police lieutenant in charge of the Vortex project. “Hell of a job,” he told him.

“You know, governor,” the lieutenant said, “I don’t think you’re going to be too hurt by this.”

McCall smiled. “Gene,” he said, “I don’t think so either.”

Seven weeks later, McCall was re-elected with a decisive 56 percent of the vote.

And nearly everyone agreed that Vortex — the first and only state-sponsored music festival, before or since, nationwide — was the primary reason he won.

(Sources: Love, Matt. The Far-Out Story of Vortex I. Pacific City: Nestucca Spit Press, 2004; Walth, Brent. Fire at Eden’s Gate. Portland: OHS Press, 1994; Cain, Eric. “Vortex I,” Oregon Experience, Oregon Public Broadcasting, February 2010; correspondence with Glen Swift)

Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

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