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Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2009

Radical Treatment by Martha Gies

In the late ’60s, the Black Panthers set up free medical and dental clinics in cities across the country; in Portland, these “survival programs” were helped by a handful of Reedies.

Willamette Bridge cover

Willamette Bridge cover announcing the opening of the Fred Hampton Memorial People’s Clinic in January 1970

The Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party was launched in 1969 when Kent Ford decided the community had had enough. Beaten by the police and arrested for inciting to riot, Ford was awaiting trial in the old Rocky Butte Jail with little hope of raising bail. Ten days later, someone miraculously posted the full amount: $80,000. Ford was brought downtown for processing to the old police station at Southwest Third Avenue and Oak Street; right there on the steps, he held a press conference. “I said, ‘If they keep coming in with these fascist tactics, we’re going to defend ourselves.’”

The story of Reed’s connection to the Panthers also begins at that moment: the exorbitant bail—nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s currency—was raised by Don Hamerquist ’62, a man Ford had only just met. “It was some Communists that got me out,” says Ford, who was eager to get to know his benefactor. “I went over to his house and found out he was at Reed.”

Not exactly. Hamerquist, originally from Clallam Bay, Washington, had enrolled at Reed back in 1957. He had been a history major, studying for five years on a full scholarship with professors like Howard Jolly and John Pock in sociology, and Smith Fussner in history. The completion of his thesis—on the foreign policy of the 1948 Progressive Party platform—was all he lacked for graduation.

“There was a lot of social disruption in those years,” says Hamerquist, “and I didn’t study a lot. Essentially I was looking for leftists to recruit. I managed to get thrown out of most classes because I had a problem with the politics of my professors.”

In 1969, when he met Ford, Hamerquist was neither a student nor a member of the Communist Party. “By then, I’d been out working as a truck driver for some years and I’d been expelled from the party for factional behavior—essentially opposing the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia,” he says.

But he still knew plenty of people on the left in Portland, among them Morris Malbin, a radiologist who put up a $40,000 for Ford’s bail, and Penny Sabin, who contributed $40,000 in Blue Bell Potato Chip stocks.

For Ford, who had graduated from high school in 1961 and turned down a college scholarship in order to support his mother and siblings, meeting Hamerquist was not his first exposure to Reed. He had often browsed the campus bookstore in the late ’60s, buying Ho Chi Minh’s On Revolution, the works of Mao Tse-Tung, and some rare English-language pamphlets produced by the Viet Cong.

Hamerquist was also able to help Ford find a lawyer, Nick Chaivoe, who not only got Ford acquitted on the riot charges, but successfully sued the Portland Police in federal court for brutal treatment at the time of the arrest.

Meanwhile, Ford and a handful of others—Tommy Mills, Percy Hampton, Oscar Johnson, and Tom Venters—had started talking to people on the street about police brutality, lack of job opportunities, the economic disparity between the races, the role blacks were forced to play in fighting the war in Vietnam—and what the Panthers could do about it.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009