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Portland's Radical Past
The following are a list of columns written by Michael Munk that appeared in The Portland Alliance. They are drawn from his The Red Guide to Portland (working title). He wants the book to serve as an introduction to existing sites related to the city's history of radical, labor, and equal rights struggles. He welcomes suggestions and comments and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May Day: Looking Back at Portland's Red Past
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, June 2000
Until this year , recent MayDay observances in Portland have been low-key affairs, largely ignored by ruling class media. But during the 1930s "Red Decade," the city witnessed annual militant demonstrations and parades. A typical handbill from those years shows they usually started at today's Lownsdale Square (then called Plaza Park) at SW Main between 3rd and 4th Avenues. Earlier, MayDay 1920 featured Louise Olivereau, a poet and teacher just released from two years in prison for opposing World War I speaking at Finnish Hall (now part of the Kaiser Permanente Interstate Medical Center at 3800 N. Interstate Avenue).
MayDay 1934 was especially dramatic. MayDay dawned on a large red flag flying proudly over City Hall. Demonstrators gathering at nearby Lownsdale Square were delighted that the flag remained most of the day due to a "malfunctioning" pole mechanism that defeated authorities efforts to remove it. The Portland section of the Communist party announced the parade against "hunger, fascism and war" would enjoy a technological advance. "For the first time in Portland on May Day," its leaflet declared, " the workers have arranged a PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM." The Unemployed Councils called on all working class organizations (and "sympathizers") to meet at 2519 SW First Avenue an hour before the 3pm demonstration and march to Plaza Park for unemployment insurance and social security, free milk for children, "more and better relief" and the "release of all class war prisoners."
The United Front May Day Committee organized observances in the late 30s, including in 1938 an indoor rally in the Civic Auditorium (still in the same location) to aid the Spanish Republic, then under fascist attack. Red Squad spies reported that this "was a complete change in tactics as experienced in former years when parades and soap boxing were the main events of May Day."
Portlanders returned to the Plaza Park Blocks for May Day 1939, when the Portland May Day Action Committee (working from room 324 of the Governor Building, still at 408 SW Second Avenue) reminded the public that the tradition grew from an 1886 Chicago demonstration for the 8-hour day. The marchers called for "Labor Unity," WPA and social security and urged the public to "Back President Roosevelt."
In the midst of World War II, Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the "Rebel Girl" of Joe Hill's famous song, spoke to a MayDay 1943 Victory Rally sponsored by the Multnomah County Communist Party at the appropriately named Redmen Hall. Then Oregon CP headquarters, it remains at 916 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Flynn, who lived in Portland for almost 10 years beginning in the late 1920s, returned for May Day 1946, speaking against "The Menace of World War III" at the Shattuck School (now part of the PSU campus). In 1948,Trinidad native Claudia Jones, secretary of the CP's Womens Commission, spoke at Norse Hall (111 NE 11th Avenue). Jones was an important spokesperson for Black and women's rights-as well as a "relentless critic of male chauvinism." She was imprisoned under the infamous Smith Act in 1951 and deported to England.For more info: The Portland Police Red Squad files in the City Archives contain more handbills and spy reports on local MayDay observances. Newspapers from the next day usually briefly note the events, and at least one Portlander recalls participating with his girlfriend at a meeting after the march at the ILWU Hall (then at NW 10th and Flanders) in the late 30s.
Portland's Red Squad: A Long and Ongoing Tradition, Part I
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, November 2000
If you’ve been following Mayor Katz’ and Chief Kroeker’s defense of the Portland Police Bureau’s recent attacks on demonstrators, you’re heard them repeatedly claim that their “intelligence” warned them to expect violence. They didn’t say so, but the source of that “warning” is a police unit that uses taxpayers’ money to spy on radicals, environmentalists, unions, peace and civil rights groups.
This is Portland’s infamous “Red Squad,” (current name: “Criminal Intelligence Unit”), one of the Bureau’s most enduring components that goes back to the “Red Scare” of World War 1 and its aftermath. For about 80 years the Red Squad’s mission has been the use of undercover agents, paid informers, provocateurs and surveillance to suppress radical political activity and union organizing. In that context, police attacks on the May Day and Solidarity with the Prague anti-WTO protests are just the most recent additions to the Red Dsquad’s record. Another constant has been the periodic denials by Portland mayors from “Bloody Shirt” Joe Carson to Dorothy Lee to Bud Clark and Vera Katz that the Red Squad doesn’t exist. Ruling class denial doesn’t end there: although in the headlines until the 80s, the Oregonian and Willamette Week have since refused to cover Red Squad activities.
In the city’s Red Squad archives, the oldest documents are 1923-4 police spy reports on public meetings addressed by radicals such as William Z. Foster (at the Odd Fellows Hall), Ella Reeves “Mother” Bloor at the Workers Party Hall (then on SW Yamhill) and James Cannon at the Womens’ Club Building, which still exists as the late Movie House at 1220 SW Taylor.
In the 1930s the Red Squad came under its most intense public scrutiny, with frequent headlines describing its opponents and defenders. Throughout the decade, its undercover agents and provocateurs made desperate efforts to suppress and destabilize radical political groups and union organizing, including pressuring Lincoln High Schools students, artists and anti-fascist organizers.
In 1938, the Oregon chapter of the National Lawyers issued what is still the only comprehensive study of the underground unit in a report signed by leading Portland attorneys, including future federal judge Gus Solomon. The report made clear that the Red Squad was (1) financed with a combination of taxpayers money and private contributions from employers wishing to finger any organizers among their employes, (2) it hid its office away from police headquarters in the room 428 of the Railway Exchange Building (Now the Oregon Pioneer Building) at SW 3rd and Stark, and (3) It was under the command of Captain John J. Keegan, with its day to day operations under Walter Odale, who supervised William D. Browne, Merriel Bacon and Geroge Stroup. In the face of this expose, Mayor Carson continued to deny its existence. The technology of the time limited Odale’s Red Squad to hidden mikes (Harry Bridges spotted one in his Multnomah Hotel room and confounded it with satirical conversations) and still photographs.
During the early years of McCarthyism, Mayor Lee relied on the Red Squad’s own “talking points” to respond to ILWU Local 8 charges ofg anti-union undercover agents. By then Detective Browne had moved to take charge of its “anti-Communist” mission, although he was also well known for his “night job” as the American Legions top ‘red hunter’. Browne was even able to scare the Portland school board into denying high school auditoriums for civil rights groups and was the main local HUAC advisor in its Portland hearings in 1954. As McCarthyism waned in the early 60s, the Red Squad became less active. But in 1974 liberals who accepted the mayor’s assurance that its had been disbanded were shocked to learn that in 1974 it was alive and well as the “Intelligence Division” under Lt. Ervin Osbuurn and keeping an active file on the Oregon ACLU!
But in 1986, Mayor Bud Clark was challenged by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom about Red Squad undercover agent,Larry Siewert’s report on a public meeting at Lewis & Clark college addressed by Norman Solomon and demonstrations by Sandanista support groups. Police Chief Penny Harrington defended the photographing of demonstrators, and Mayor Clark had to admit that, for “several decades” the Red Squad had been “assigned as a unit in the Detective Division.”
But while Clark also had to confirm alternate media reports that the Red Squad had been secretly “restablished as a separate entity in November, 1986” with the new moniker of the “Criminal Intelligence Division.” Finally he denied the obvious by claiming it “does not monitor peaceful or public activities” and does not “target groups or individuals.”
In 1992 officer Siewert (officially detailed to spy on “radicals and subversives”) attended and submitted a “confidential” report on a meeting called by a coalition of peace, labor and environmental groups to discuss a civilian police review board. One of the victims of that surveillance sued Portland for violation of his civil rights and four years later, won a $2,000 award in court.
Although the court decision was not reported by the Oregonian, it led to public hearings on the Red Squad in 1996 by the Metroplitan Commission on Human Rights. Although denied press coverage even by Willamette Week, the Commission grilled Red Squad Commander Lt. Larry Findling and Sgt Norman Sharp. They admitted they used paid agents, voluteer informers and other techniques to monitor dissenters and agreed that even the “reasonable suspicion” of something as trivial as trespass triggers their response. The MCHR proposed of series of controls on the Red Squad to Mayor Katz. Not only did the mayor reject the proposals, she dismantled MCHR!
A final effort to lease the Red Squad was made in the Chief’s Forum in 1997, when Lt. Ron Schwartz was commander and Sgt Sharp remained as supervisor. At that time, it had a staff of six with a budget of almost $400,000. Considering that in the heyday of 1936, when the Lawyer’s Guild estimated its budget to be about $15,000 (mostly private funds, the Red Squad has come along way!
Before MayDay when the Red Squad’s black van videotaped the faces of the demonstrators, the last media attention to the Red Squad was in October, 1999. When protesters against Clinton’s air war on Iraq charged an undercover agent joined the protests to spy on them. By then, Lt. Randy Kane ran the Red Squad.
Sue Phillips, a sharp-eyed reader of this November column, noticed that the undercover Red Squad police officer signing his spy report on a 1992 meeting called to demand a police civilian review board, was "L.D. Siewert." Several years ago, she recalled that "Larry Siewert" had identified himself to her as Mayor Vera Katz's bodyguard. In 1986 Siewert was responsible for surveillance of "radicals and subversives" under Red Squad commander Lt. Greg Clark and Sgt. Larry Kanzler. He admitted he had spied on Portland meetings for Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson, protests in Hillsboro against manufacturers of spying equipment and on Norman Solomon at Lewis & Clark College. Since Siewert has been in close contact with Katz, it's possible that her unyielding support of the Red Squad may be related, so Phillips checked on his present post. It turns out he retired from the Mayor's security detail within the past several months, so he has been in fact in a position to influence her.
Portland's Red Squad: A Long and Ongoing Tradition, Part II
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, December 2000
An evening of talks and films by northwest veterans of the Spanish Civil War’s international brigades drew a packed house of several hundred to the SIUE hall on October, including several vets now living in Oregon and Seattle.
Today’s new interest in the righteous struggle to defend the Spanish Republic against fascism reminds us that it had strong support in Oregon in the late 1930s. In 1937-38, at least 17 Oregonians went to fight in the Abraham Lincoln and other units and there may have been at least two more. Another nine vets moved to Oregon after returning from Spain, two of whom, Carl Geiser of Corvallis and Virgina Malbin of Portland, still live here today. Six other vets were born in Oregon but went to Spain after having moved elsewhere (mainly Seattle and California).
William Miller, a Portland seaman originally from Dayton, Albert Sorsa of Astoria and Walter O’Kane were among the “premature anti-fascists” who died fighting fascism in Spain. Toivo Maki of Astoria and Carl Bellows, a CIO organizer from Klamath Falls, were wounded in combat. Corvallis resident Carl Geiser, now 90 years old, was captured and suffered for many months as Franco’s POW.
Other vets who left Oregon to fight fascism include Earl Stewart from tiny Irrigon, jailed for supporting the Portland longshore strikers in 1934, Carl Syvanen and Tom Rissanen from Astoria, Virgil Morris, a Portland seaman, Reed College students Thomas Norton and Harry Randall, and Peter Matas , another POW, who the US prevented from returning to Portland because he was Greek citizen. Alex Sauermilch and Charles Roth from Klamath Falls, whose ship taking them (and Carl Geiser) to Spain was torpedoed by an Italian sub.
Captain Harry Johnson of Portland skippered relief ships chartered by the North Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Ervin Wagner, who lived at 111 W. Burnside was a seaman. Derek Dickinson of Bandon was a pilot in the Spanish airforce.Portlanders supported those at the front with numerous rallies and fund-raisers, including filling the Civic Auditorium in February, 1937 and again on May Day, 1938 to hear representatives of the Spanish Republic. When Red Squad detective Walter Odale demanded the Portland school board refuse the use of Lincoln High School for a loyalist rally in October, 1937, board member Harry Kenin, a sponsor of the Oregon Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, led the fight to vote Odale down, 5-2. That committee, headed by attorney Thomas Wilson and Treasurer Tom Tattam, included, among others, art museum curator Annabelle Crocker, symphony conductor Jacques Gerschkovitch, Reed professors Bernard Noble, Norman Coleman, V.L.O. Chittick, Edward Sisson, Arthur Scott and Barry Cerf, Ruth Catlin of the Catlin School, future US Representative Nan Wood Honeyman, Unitarian minister Richard Steiner, Oregon Commonwealth Federation leader Monroe Sweetland, and attorneys Alan Hart, William Brewster and B.A. Green. A separate Medical Bureau was organized by Drs J.B. Bilderbach, Ralph Fenton, Goodrich Schauffler and others.
Oregonian Saw Red Squad in Different Light in 1930s
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, January 2001
For more than a week after the City Council's approval of the "Portland Joint Terrorist Task Force"-the notorious new link between an expanded Portland Police Red Squad and the FBI--the Oregonian was silent. That's par for the course: for years, the monopoly media have pretended that the Portland's political police didn't exist. If you relied on the Big O, you would not have known in 1996 that Multnomah district court judge Michael Marcus found the Red Squad (the infamous Siewert) guilty of violating the civil rights of citizens by spying on that 1992 meeting. Three years ago, it even managed to ignore Mayor Katz's contemptuous rejection of efforts of the Metropolitan Commission on Human Rights to reform the Red Squad.
What a change from the Oregonian's view of the Red Squad 60 years ago! In 1939, it gave relatively generous space to both its supporters and critics and even ran a strong editorial calling for its abolition. That was the last time when Portlanders were adequately informed about the long standing cell of political police they continue to support with their taxes
In 1939, the Red Squad was led by Walter Odale, a police patrolman, whose politics the Oregonian summarized as holding that "Communists were the source of all woe." Odale's boss was chief of detectives Lt. John J. Keegan, who achieved his 15 minutes of fame by testifying that Harry tridges was a Communist who wanted to "overthrow the government." Their Red Squad included Bill Browne (its head in the McCarthy era), M.E. Bacon, who posed as a member of the Communist party, and several "civilian" members evidently paid by rightist groups such as the American Legion. As they are today, Mayors were in charge of the Police Bureau and in the 30s that was Joe Carson, whose nickname "Bloody Shirt" was bestowed after his police fired on strikers in the 1934 longshore strike.
The Portland chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, in a report signed by future federal judge Gus Solomon and other prominent local attorneys, exposed that crew of fanatics as thugish political police who believed the ACLU was a Communist organization, harrased leftists, union organizers and non-citizens. The report documented the hiring of provocateurs from the underworld and maintaining a black list for the use of rightwing employers. The Red Squad even conspired to photograph radical painter Martina Gangle sharing a drink with Keegan in the Multnomah hotel bar in an effort to suggest to the left she was an informer.
It was that report, authored by "respectable" members of the Portland Establishment that persuaded the Oregonian to publish its own expose and call for abolition of the Red Squad. In the face of this evidence Mayor Carson continued to deny its existence and claimed that he was not interested in suppressing mere "talk" but rather "acts resulting from talk." Referring to unions, he declared the "right to belong..is no more sacred than the right not to."
While the Oregonian's take on the Red Squad has changed, Mayor Katz's support for its expansion today and links to the FBI follows in the footstep of her notorious predecessor, "Bloody Shirt" Carson.
Oregon's Scottsboro Case
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, February 2001
The recent screening of "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" in Portland to mark Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month recalls the most significant struggle against racism of the 1930s. In Oregon, the worldwide cause of the "Nine Innocent Scottsboro Boys" in Alabama was prominently linked to the now-forgotten campaign to save Klamath Falls resident Theodore Jordan from hanging at the state penitentiary in Salem. And the locale of "Jordan Must Not Hang" struggle could not have more dramatically different from Scottsboro: Scottsboro was near the "Black Belt" where majority Blacks were viciously suppressed by a dominant minority of whites; Klamath Falls was a rural town in a state which counted only 2,200 Blacks among its almost one million residents in 1930. Indeed, Portland remains among the "whitest" cities in the nation. In the early years of the century, there were so few Black people in the city that real estate agents didn't even bother to redline a formal ghetto.
The International Labor Defense, which organized and fought both cases, called Klamath Falls "Oregon's Scottsboro" and the parallels between Jordan and the cause celebre in Alabama are numerous. Both focused public attention on the racist nature of the criminal justice system long before today's discovery of "racial profiling." The nine framed Black victims of Scottsboro were sentenced to death for the rape of two white women in 1931, while Jordan's death sentence for murder came a year later, but all the victims were eventually saved by simultaneous legal defense and public campaigns organized by the Communist party and the ILD. In both cases that political effort was enough to cause a cautious NAACP to drop both causes and denounce the victims as tools of the reds. Finally, in both cases, the struggle saved the 10 threatened Black lives but did not prevent their serving many years in harsh prisons. The last Scottsboro "boy" prisoner (by then 34) finally escaped from a chain gang in 1946 and Alabama did not pardon the last survivor until George Wallace himself signed the order in 1976. Jordan was not paroled until 1960 after serving 26 years and died in Portland seven years later at the age of 62.
Theodore Jordan was a smart and articulate former railroad and hotel worker who moved from California to Klamath Falls in 1932, when he was 24. Evidently a loose and feisty young man who was not intimidated by racist whites, he found a personal enemy in Bill Chandler, a white Southern Pacific detective, whose nephew he had beaten out for a railroad job in Dunsmuir. Chandler managed to get him sent to San Quentin for a year and again, soon after he arrived in K-Falls, was responsible for his conviction on charges arising from a "skirmish" at a party where that nephew was present. Jordan spent the next four years in the Oregon State pen. And less than a month after his return to K-Falls, Chandler arrested Jordan again, this time on murder charges, for which he received a death sentence in Klamath circuit court. As in Scottsboro, a 1000- member lynch mob surrounded the Klamath County courthouse and dispersed only after Jordan's legal execution was ordered.
A white SP dining car steward had been found badly beaten while the diner sat on a K-Falls siding and died several months later. Immediately after the injured man was found, Chandler fingered Jordan and, Jordan charged, tortured a false confession from him. He, like the Scottsboro boys, had no real defense attorney and was convicted by an all white jury who heard many racist comments during the trial. Also like the Scottsboro case, only after his death sentence did the NAACP hire Portland attorney Charles W. Robison to file an appeal for a stay of execution and a new trial.
At this point, Jordan agreed to have the ILD, led in Oregon by attorney Irvin Goodman, supported by future federal judge Gus Solomon, Leo Levinson and a Mr. Seltzer, represent him and generate public support. Robison immediately dropped him because the "NAACP can in no way be aligned with Communism." But he also went to denounce Jordan as "too smart for your own good and too ignorant for anyone else's good" and accused him of being "a curse and not a help to your own people." That caused Roy Wilkins, then Assistant National Secretary of the NAACP, to declare his organization would not cooperate with the ILD--which was precisely the NAACP's position in the Scottsboro case. Jordan chose the ILD and, while Goodman was able to persuade only two judges of the Oregon Supreme Court to back a new trial, the campaign succeeded in saving his life when Gov. Julius Meier commuted Jordan's sentence in 1934. Petitions to the Governor from ILD chapters across the state from Astoria to Errol Heights (upper Woodstock) had charged his trial was a legal lynching and demanded his release. Millions around the world signed similar petitions on behalf of the Scottsboro boys. The US Supreme Court twice ordered new trials for them and all but one were paroled by 1943. Jordan, however, was not paroled for another 17 years.
Jordan's death row letters, intercepted by the Portland police Red squad and available in its files at the Portland City Archives, reveal an lively young man with a sense of humor, actively involved in the details of his case (and interested in the young women the campaign brought him into contact with.). Here's an example from a letter to "Belle," sent by the ILD to Portland to manage his campaign:
"I just took another small work-out on the piano here and goodness knows I am feeling like two million bucks even if it's in shekels or kopecks. Some day I may whip up a few hot numbers for you, provided you can stand it without calling the riot squad. Even if I do say so myself, I seem to run Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington a very close second when it come to spanking the ivories. I plunk 'em mean, or let 'em alone--that's Mrs. George's [his mother] boy as I live and breathe."
While reluctant to credit the Communist party and the ILD for saving the lives of the Scottsboro victims, the film shown at the Northwest Film Center on MLK Day clearly documents the case and concludes that Scottsboro, for the first time in the US, made "Black and White, Unite and Fight" a mass movement, and set the stage for the postwar civil rights movement the January 15 national holiday commemorates. Oregon's "Scottsboro Case" and Ted Jordan still await a similar testament.
First Memorial to John Reed to be dedicated May 6
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, May 2001
Most lefties know the revolutionary poet, journalist and a founder of the US Communist party was born in Portland and buried in Moscow—but do we know that until today his plain grave at the wall of the Kremlin was his only known memorial? Although Reed is best known for his eye-witness account of the Soviet Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, his career as journalist and revolutionary began when he covered the IWW-led strike of textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey for radical The Masses. Anyway, his native land is about to dedicate the first memorial on its own soil. Years of effort by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission have finally bought a bench and plaque in his honor that the Parks Department has just installed in Washington Park. The whole town is invited to celebrate its dedication at High noon Sunday, May 6 .
The bench overlooks Reed’s birthplace at the northeast corner of Washington Park, where his grandfather’s mansion Cedar Hill, stood on 5 acres. Today, only the elaborate concrete steps that connect SW Cedar Lane with Cactus Drive survive but nearby SW Green Street is named for his capitalist grandfather. One of Reed’s biographers found that Henry Dodge Green’s fortune was made by “swindling Indian tribes out of precious furs and using then using the profits to build water, gas and iron empires—and the chateau on Cedar Hill.” Green and his brother John were partners in an Indian trading post in Astoria by early 1850.
Jack (as he was usually called) also grew up in four other Portland locations, none of which exist today. Between 1890-96 the family lived in a comfortable Queen Anne at today’s 119 NW 21st Avenue—now part of a strip mall-- and then until 1899 in an apartment hotel originally called “The Hill” at SW 14th Avenue and Jefferson. That site is now a parking lot near Lincoln High School. They then moved partway up Kings Hill again to what is today the Hadley House apartments at 20220 SW Salmon, from which Jack attended the private Portland Academy. Finally, the Reeds moved to a more modest house at 2169 NW Everett (now the site is the Rose Plaza apartment house), where they lived until Jack’s father died in 1912. In that house, Jack wrote two of his most famous poems, “Sangar” (about his friend Lincoln Streffens’ efforts to defend the accused bombers of the anti-labor Los Angeles Times) and “A Day in Bohemia” about his crew in Greenwich Village. The Green and Reed families buried their members (except Jack, of course) in the Riverview cemetery where they surround the tall family memorial.
Jack thought the IWW Hall then at 521 NW Davis (now a new loft style apartment house) was the “liveliest intellectual center in town” and that Portland’s best artist was Carl Walters. The plaque on the Washington Park bench contains Jack’s appreciation of Walters that he wrote for the Oregon Journal in 1914:
As many have noted, Jack grew to hate and denounce the reactionary political culture of Portland’s ruling class into which he was recruited by birth, but as his words reveal, he loved its natural environment. In his political attitude toward his “Home place” as he called it, he was joined by his “friend and lover” Louise Bryant. Americans probably know the couple best for their portrayals by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in the 1981 film, “Reds.” Louise had moved into what still stands as the Professional Building at 1033 SW Yamhill when she graduated from the University of Oregon in 1909, and soon married Paul Trullinger, a dentist who lived on a houseboat at the Oregon Yacht Club—similar to some that still float at the Club next to Oaks Park on the Willamette. Two other sites associated with Louise remain: her homes with Paul at 2226 NE 53rd Avenue and a fancier one in Dunthrope at 11801 SW Riverwood Road. But she didn’t enjoy the last house for even a year before leaving Portland shortly after meeting Jack at the end of 1915 to live with him New York. He never returned to Portland and died in Moscow in 1920, Louise's last visit was to denounce US intervention in the Soviet revolution to a packed Civic Auditorium in 1919. She died in Paris in 1936.
How Portland deported its Gypsies during World War II
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, July 2001
The deportation of Portland’s Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in 1942 was a decision of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, but ridding Portland of most of its Romany-American families two years later was a decision of Mayor Earl Riley and the ruling elite of the city.
A few Gypsies had lived in Portland since the turn of the century, but not until World War II’s Kaiser shipyards imported ten of thousands of new workers did the city’s political leaders decide that this growing community-- numbering about a dozen families or 60 men, women and children-- weren’t welcome. Because housing restrictions had been relaxed during the war, the racist city council passed Ordinance 22-412 making storefront residences illegal and declared any indication of fortune telling a crime. The Police Red squad and the wartime Federal Security Agency placed the families under surveillance, but their undercover spies disagreed over whether they had witnessed any evidence of prostitution in the gypsy community.
By late 1944, Mayor Riley, whom the leading Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl reports built a secret vault in his City Hall office to keep his “percentage of vice protection payments,” decided the gypsies had to go right during the Christmas season. Claiming that they “had flocked here under the pretext of becoming war workers” and were “a blemish on the fair name of the city,” he persuaded the Roosevelt administration to provide them with enough scarce gasoline to drive four crammed “jallopies” to Texas. When a deportee requested more time to pack and protested some “kids were sick..and we gotta have money to eat on,” a police officer responded, “You better get going and quick.”
The city also warned the gypsies they would be prosecuted if they didn’t use their gas rations except for driving to Texas. The Oregon Journal, perhaps referring to the Riley’s paymasters in the Portland underworld, suggested that “others who deal in vice and chance cause more corruption and commit more crime. But the subject is the gypsy menace. They just don’t belong. They’ve got to go.” Portland business leaders continued to support the corrupt Riley even when he was successfully challenged by reformer Dorothy McCullough Lee in 1949.
Student Unions Redux
By Michael Munk, The Portland Alliance, August 2001
The recent establishment of a student union at Franklin High School recalls its predecessors among high school and college students in the 1930s--and suggests some of the opposition it could face. The American Student Union, formed in 1935 by the merger of the Socialist party’s Student League for Industrial Democracy and the Communist party’s National Students League, established chapters across the country with 20,000 members that “claimed the intellectual core” of the high school and college students of that time. In its heyday, the ASU organized half a million students for one hour “strikes for peace” (see illustration). The branches organized around both local issues such as course quality and racial discrimination while participating in nation-wide political action on both economic and international political issues. The ASU should not be confused the National Student Association, a postwar organization of official student body representatives that was corrupted by the CIA.
In Portland, Franklin hosted one its first chapters along with Jefferson and Lincoln high schools. With college chapters at Linfield and Reed colleges, they formed the Oregon Student Union and affiliated with the national movement by 1937.
Radical political activity in Portland schools had already drawn the attention of the Portland police Red Squad as early as 1933. When Red Squad leader Walter Odale asked School Director Louis Starr for a list of “meetings by the unemployed and civic emergency groups” to be held at local school buildings, Starr complied and offered to provide more information “if you are interested in any particular group.”
By 1937, the ASU chapters were perceived as a serious threat by the School Director Starr and Capt. Odale. The American Legion’s private Red Squad, whose only member was Portland police detective William D. Browne, was especially alarmed by the chapter at Lincoln High school and convinced principal Henry M. Gunn to send chapter leader Bert Cantor to meet with Starr. Gunn later claimed he complied only because he believed Cantor could persuade Starr that there “was nothing wrong with the club.”
But when Cantor presented himself at Starr’s office, he was confronted by the Red squad’s Detective Browne. According to Cantor, “They warned me against the American Student Union as a bunch of Communists and told me I had better get out.” They also showed him a book that named Oregon populist reformer W.S. U’ren and Eleanor Roosevelt as Communists.
At a Portland school board meeting in October, 1937, board members Harry Kenin, William MacKenzie and W.C. Aldrich charged Starr with a “serious” breech of his authority by allowing a student to be “intimidated” by Browne of the Red Squad. LHS principle Gunn admitted he had “made a mistake” and, perhaps forgetting that Browne himself had warned him about Cantor and the ASU chapter, claimed he had no idea Browne would conduct Cantor’s grilling. Even the Oregonian allowed that Starr had gone “far afield” with his campaign against the ASU and noted that Lincoln students had “vigorously denied” they were Communists. In a letter to the editor, Oregon Commonwealth Federation leader Monroe Sweetland praised that editorial and expressed his outrage against the Red Squad for “hounding Lincoln high school students”.
But the Red Squad wasn’t through with Cantor. In December one of its undercover spies reported on an American Civil Liberties Union meeting at which Cantor recounted the Red Squad’s efforts to suppress his ASU chapter. In a written report to Capt. Odale, the spy indicated those efforts were not successful and that the 50 people present (all carefully named and politically categorized) voted to demand the abolition of the Red Squad. But 64 years later, thanks to Mayor Katz’s support, it remains alive and well and perhaps spying on today’s Franklin HS student union.