Portland's Red History: The Red Squad, Bloody Shirt, Longshoremen. Early Portland to the 1930's.
Multiple part series
A series on Portland history.
Recently the City of Portland decided to withdraw from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force yet again. This has been an extremely contentious issue among political activists and marginalized communities for over 20 years, and I think the most recent round of reporting really failed to do justice to the local history leading up to crucial moments like this.
Being disappointed by /u/gordon_reporter article that glossed over an entire century of Portland's history I decided I would provide some insights. This is all especially timely as we're learning that PPB officers are exchanging text messages with protesters and violent elements of the alt-right. Would it surprise anyone to realize that this has been done for nearly 100 years? In this post we're going to explore another time in Portland history where a nationalist militia group was empowered by the city to use violence against liberals.
This will be a multi-part series covering different elements of the political history in Portland, but in particular looking at how Law Enforcement and volunteers have been used to stifle movements that focused on workers rights, civil rights and the general movements of the left.
Of course I'll only be skimming over the highlights. For people looking for in-depth sources, a couple critical reads I will cite in this series include:
- Michael Munk, "The Portland Red Guide"
- John Trombold, "Reading Portland: the City in Prose"
- Kristian Williams, "Our Enemies In Blue Police & Power In America"
Leftist political radicals have a deep history in Portland. Anarchists, Wobblies (the IWW), socialists, union leaders, communists, civil rights activists, environmentalists - they've had a home in Portland since the turn of the 20th century. John Reed, founder of the *Communist Party USA*, was born in Portland in 1887 in a mansion near Washington Park. The [Iron Furnace in Lake Oswego](https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/oswego_iron_furnace/) was owned by his family. There's something about Portland (maybe the lack of fluoride in our water /s) that breeds radical thinking.
This radical thinking has been met with resistance.
As an example: in the 1930's, a young woman who was a galvanizing and successful union organizer was sitting at a bar in SE Portland. An older gentleman came and sat down in an empty seat beside her and said nothing. As soon as the woman went to say hello a bright flash blinded her and a picture was taken. Before she could inquire, the man and the photographer stood up and walked away.
The next day that picture was published on the front page of The Oregonian with the caption, "Union organizer is collaborator with federal investigators." That man was the local head of the FBI, and the whole thing was a setup to discredit a union supporter. The FBI used local law enforcement and volunteers to tail this woman, determine her route and habits, then conspired with the newspaper to publish an account that would discredit her.
These sorts of activities were done by The Portland Red Squad a notorious underground group of fascists, police, federal agents, the American Legion, and sometimes private citizens who went about sabotaging leftist groups.
The Red Squad, Bloody Shirt, Longshoremen.
WW1 was an important catalyst for a new breed of liberals. At least 100 Oregonians faced arrest and punishment for war time dissent during the Great War. This conflict left a bitter taste in most American's mouth and this empowered the left who were anti-militarism. In May 1920, Louise Olivereau, just released from a 2-year jail sentence for speaking out against the war, spoke at the Portland May Day rally.
Monitoring all of these radicals, antiwar activists, revolutionaries, and anti-capitalists during the "Red Scare" was Portland's Red Squad. The oldest Red Squad files date to 1923-4. These documents tracked the presence of labor and communist speakers like William Foster, Ella Reeve Bloor, and James Cannon when they appeared in Portland. Communism dwindled in the "Roaring Twenties" but the Red Squad remained active, diligently tracking anyone who participated in radical activities.
The 1930's and the great depression were especially galvanizing events for America. It drew many of Portland's socialists toward communist sympathy. In 1932 a ragtag group of military veterans departed Portland, OR (numbering about 200 men) on a quixotic journey to occupy Washington DC - this group would later be seen as in insurrectionary force attempting a military coup. The government's overreaction to this event made national headlines, it cost Herbert Hoover the election, and ushered in FDR's presidency and a new wave of radical liberalism. Back here in Portland, May Day of 1934, protesters managed to fly a communist flag over Portland City Hall for the better part of the day. These groups were increasingly calling for unity among workers unions, to take action together to advocate for change.
Beyond typical leftists and radical leftists, the Red Squad actively targeted artists and anti-fascist organizations (at the time, groups opposed to German, Italian, and Spanish fascism). This also included spying on the Student Unions at Franklin, Jefferson, and Lincoln high school and monitoring which high school students attended student body meetings. In 1937, Bert Cantor, a student at Lincoln, was confronted by a Portland Police Detective within the Red Squad and shown a book that listed Eleanor Roosevelt as a Communist.
The Red Squad operated in secret but was popularly known and often defended. In 1939 The Oregonian wrote "Communists were the source of all woe." This was written in response to the first published report on the Red Squad, which was done in 1938:
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, [Joseph K. Carson, Mayor of Portland] continued to deny its existence.
Portland Mayor Joe Carson had the nickname “Bloody Shirt” for his actions during the 1934 West Coast Maritime Strike, at the time known as the Big Strike. Labor Unions planned to shut down ports from Seattle to California. Hand-in-hand, Portland’s college students, the black workers, and the unemployed shut down the Ports in May 1934.
In response, the city’s ports and some of their businesses organized “Citizen Committees” who would be tasked with using vigilante violence against strikers, in Portland it was the Chamber of Commerce (today it's called the Portland Business Alliance) who put together a Citizens Emergency Committee (“CEC”). This group of anonymous volunteers worked directly with the Portland Police’s Red Squad to spy on and harass the longshoremen and any of their sympathizers.
The police force was far outnumbered by the strikers and they were unwilling to engage in a confrontation directly – Mayor Carson called upon Governor Julius Meier and Sheriff Martin Pratt to activate the National Guard and declare Martial Law in Portland, but ultimately this deal was rejected by the Governor. The situation at the docks escalated every day, and in June the CEC decided it would hire a private army to challenge the strikers, the Mayor agreed to give this private anonymous business group control of a private army that would operate in the city. Initially this force was limited to just 200 men, but in July the CEC authorized $100,000 (approximately $1.8 million in 2019 dollars) which would be turned over to Portland’s Chief of Police to use “any means necessary” to end the strike.
With the declaration of “Any means necessary” the CEC established a new organization, **Citizens Emergency League** (“CEL”), a privately operated militia of “Patriotic American Citizens.” Applications for the CEL detailed wartime experiences, lists of privately owned firearms, and specifically “Have you had any experience with gas bombs?” CEL members were given challenge coins to prove their identity, stamped with a member’s number, and given red, white and blue armbands with C-E-L written on them.
On July 11th, “Bloody Wednesday” this private force of “American Patriots” would attack the longshoremen. Guards were deployed in neighborhoods around the ports, and a special detachment of CEL under the watch of the Chief of Police were put atop a rail car and sent directly into the longshoremen’s picket lines. CEL fired several volleys into the strikers, wounding 4 men. Strikers reformed their ranks and repulsed the attack, but it forever changed the tone and militancy of the protests.
Over the next several days, Portland’s Red Squad along with CEL went about raiding every Union hall, rounding up every communist sympathizer they could identify, put every homeless person on a train out of town, and beat anyone who stood in their way. Shootings by the CEL were common. To properly ensure prosecutions, the CEL was willing to lie in court cases and act as witnesses to the alleged crimes of union organizers.
The Big Strike was ultimately a victory for the longshoremen and solidified them as a fiercely militant union. The Longshore Union, today called International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is the most respected union in Portland and most west coast cities.
In the next post we'll look at the Counter-Intelligence Program known as COINTELPRO - we'll look at Portland Red Squad 2: Electric Boogaloo, and that will look at the history of Portland from the 1950's up until the 1990's and why we have ORS 181.575.
There's lots of infamous accounts in Portland and throughout Oregon during the 1930's Red Scare. What did I miss? Please contribute in a comment below.