Canceling Nixon

Logo for the Vortex 1: A Biodegradable Festival
Logo for Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival. Credit:
By August, 1970, the Summer of Love seemed a distant, quaint memory. In the intervening three years, the United States had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr, Bobby Kennedy, and Fred Hampton. It had seen a bloody Democratic Convention. It had seen the Days of Rage. It had seen hundreds of riots protesting the oppression of Black people. And it had seen the murders of students on both the Kent State and Jackson State campuses by National Guard members.

President Richard Nixon was a polarizing figure. He had inherited the highly unpopular Vietnam War when elected in November 1968. But he quickly saw the political advantage of using anti-war sentiment to divide the country. When asked about the prospect of protesters coming to the Capitol, he welcomed the violence. “I want them to break those windows up at the Capitol, I think.”

Against this backdrop of rage and confrontation, Nixon was invited to speak at the American Legion Convention in late August 1970. The response was swift. The People’s Army Jamboree, a coalition of Portland anti-war groups, scheduled demonstrations to coincide with Nixon’s appearance. Based on the recent Battle for the Park Blocks, which had ended in brutal violence from Portland police, law enforcement predicted extremely violent interactions. The FBI estimated 50,000 protesters battling 25,000 legionnaires in the streets.

Color portrait of former Governor Tom McCall
Portrait of former Governor Tom McCall. Image courtesy of
An evolving peace community in Portland had other ideas. They met with Oregon Governor Tom McCall to propose an alternative event. After discussion, McCall agreed to a week-long rock festival at Milo McIver State Park (about 25 miles outside of Portland). He also instructed law enforcement to ignore drug use and nudity and to only intervene in the case of violence.

Vortex 1: A Biodegradable Festival of Life is still the only state-sponsored rock festival in the history of the United States. It was held from August 28th through September 3rd and attracted as many as 100,000 attendees. It was one of the largest rock festivals of the era. Admission was free. Local groups provided food, medical care, parking, educational sessions, even yoga – all of it at no cost. Most of the music was local and the Clackamas River was full of skinny-dipping hippies. Vortex was community action at its finest.

Vortex also had its desired effect. Nixon canceled his visit. The American Legion held its convention. There was no violence in the city and only one window was broken. A Republican governor and Portland peaceniks had worked together to innovate an alternative to mass violence. McCall later told Studs Terkel: "It was the damnedest confrontation you'll ever see. We took a park, twenty miles south of Portland, and turned it into an overnight bivouac and disco party.…There was a lot of pot smoking and skinny dipping, but nobody was killed."

“Political Suicide”

When Governor Tom McCall helped set up Vortex 1, he was reported to comment that he had just committed political suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth. He won re-election easily later that year. The “Governor’s Pot Party,” as some wags named Vortex, was one of many impacts McCall had on Oregon. He was the architect of Oregon’s laws regarding bottle refunds, public beach access, Willamette River cleanup, and land use planning and urban growth boundaries. His vision helped preserve Oregon’s natural beauty. This portrait of him hangs in the Oregon State Capitol.

Color photograph of attendees dressed as clowns at the Oregon Country Fair. Someone is holding up a sign that reads "Risk of Change."
Attendees at the Oregon Country Fair.

Give Peace a Chance

Vortex 1 was proposed as a peaceful alternative to violent confrontation. Protest and direct action are necessary anti-oppression tools. But Vortex showed that they are not the only way to confront power. The Oregon Country Fair was created just a year earlier espousing many of the same messages and involving some of the same people. The Rainbow Family was created directly from mutual aid provided during Vortex 1 and began holding regular Rainbow Gatherings in 1972. 
Black and white photograph of protesters at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool during the July 4, 1969 speech by Richard Nixon
Protestors at Nixon's speech on July 4, 1969. Credit: David Fenton/Getty Images

Tricky Dick

Richard Nixon had a long history of opposition to the counter-culture, anti-war sentiment, and communists. He invoked the so-called “silent majority” of conservative Americans who sided with his views. Nixon was a central member of the House Un-American Activities Committee which persecuted  Americans for their political views in the 1940s and 1950s. His use of smear tactics in his 1950 U.S. Senate campaign earned the nickname Tricky Dick. His 1968 presidential campaign continued these tactics.

Ken Burns commented that Nixon’s cynical and criminal approach to the Vietnam war and anti-war protesters is the root of the fruit that is a divided America today. Nixon’s administration earned 76 criminal indictments. That number seemed unsurpassable until Donald Trump’s administration gathered 215.


Police violence in response to protest is not a recent Portland phenomenon. As early as the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike, Portland police have been assaulting people demonstrating against government policies and actions. The 1960s brought about an escalated use of violence against anti-war, Black and Brown liberation, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and ecological protesters that has continued unabated to today. After the Battle for the Park Blocks in May 1970, Portland area law enforcement prepared for the worst, fearing that anti-war protesters would clash with American legion supporters. Multnomah County made an emergency proclamation declaring large parts of the city emergency areas subject to enhanced law enforcement from mid-August through early September.

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