Home > Uncategorized > My May Day, 1971 – posted 5/9/2021

My May Day, 1971 – posted 5/9/2021

50th anniversaries have a way of sneaking up and, for me, that was true about May Day 1971. I was one of the more than 12,000 people arrested in Washington D.C. at that largest ever act of civil disobedience.

The May Day Tribe, a loose-knit coalition of anti-Vietnam war activists, organized the demonstration around the slogan “if the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government”. Activists adopted a posture that has been described as “disruptive but non-violent”. We intended to block city streets and bridges to stop business as usual. A goal was to create gridlock in the city.

It is hard to recreate that time. Among those on the anti-war side, there was a consuming hatred for the Vietnam War. On TV, we observed nightly body counts. There was broad awareness that the war was an unjustified horror and a racist, imperialist enterprise.

The tide of public opinion had swung against the war but the U.S. remained stuck in the quagmire. Nixon was president and he had run in 1968 on the false promise that he intended to end the war. His plan was actually to escalate.

The May Day demonstration came at the end of a series of protests in April. Earlier, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had conducted an incredibly powerful event, Operation Dewey Canyon III, where they threw back medals that they had received for their service in Vietnam. Also, a mass rally organized by the National Peace Action Coalition drew 500,000 people.

I was in college at the time, outside Boston. My girl friend of the last year had just dumped me and I was feeling blue. Pretty spontaneously, I decided to head down to Washington D.C. for the protest. Since I did not own a car, I hitchhiked. Hitching was different then. There was less fear you would become the victim of a serial killer.

When I got to D.C. there were crowds of people on the National Mall and in West Potomac Park. I had hoped to meet up with friends who were going but this was a time before cell phones and it was not so easy to connect. The day before the blockade demonstration, there were planning meetings for the thousands who had descended on the city.

People formed small affinity groups and developed plans consistent with the May Day tactical manual about where they would go the next day. There was a concert that night and I remember seeing Phil Ochs perform. D.C. locals generously put up some of us (me included) in their homes that night. Early the next morning, my affinity group headed out to march toward the Pentagon.

We did not get that far. The Nixon administration had brought in 20,000 local state and federal police officers. I have a distinct memory of hearing the sound of police nightsticks connecting with the bodies of demonstrators. That sound focused the mind. The police were on horseback, motorcycles and patrol cars and they charged us.

Running away, I got completely separated from my affinity group. I was not sure what to do next but I ran back downtown to try and evade the police. They were omnipresent, including overhead in helicopters.

The police tactics changed that morning. Soon they started arresting anyone who had long hair or looked like a hippie. Then they started arresting anyone who was on the street downtown. The police made no effort to collect information about the people arrested, what they had done or who arrested them. They suspended using field arrest forms.

Turning a corner, I ran into a group of police who grabbed me. Asking me nothing, they immediately took me to a paddy wagon. I remember in my paddy wagon there was a Canadian family. They were tourists who had come to see the sights but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of them told me they had come to see how the U.S. government operated.

Because so many people were arrested, the jails were full. The police took us to a Washington Redskins practice field surrounded by a chain link fence outside RFK Stadium. National Guardsmen patrolled the perimeter outside the fence. There was a large make-shift tent inside on the field. Some people huddled under the tent because it was unseasonably cold. I saw Dr. Benjamin Spock and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Tons of people kept arriving.

We were held at the football field most of the day. In the late afternoon buses arrived and many of us were taken to the old Washington Coliseum, an indoor sports arena. It looked like ice hockey was played there.

I ended up staying inside the Coliseum for two nights. Thousands of us were jammed onto the floor and the stands. I remember people snake-dancing through the crowd and singing Power to the People. We never got formally charged. I recall people joking about giving the police false names and trying to mess up their fingerprints with vaseline. Back then, the technology to track people was not remotely like what it is now.

We were allowed one phone call. I remember calling my parents and speaking to my mom. She was less than thrilled.

We did know the ACLU was working on getting us released. After two days, news came that we could leave the Coliseum. We had to pay ten bucks to get released. Later there were class action lawsuits filed about the mass preventive detention. Those suits went on for 16 years and the plaintiffs were ultimately vindicated and won. Nixon was quoted saying: “I think we should have clubbed a few more of the bastards”.

Then a Justice Department official (and later Chief Justice of The U.S. Supreme Court) William Rehnquist described the government’s action as the imposition of “qualified martial law”. Rehnquist wrote a memo saying Nixon had inherent constitutional authority to use federal troops to ensure that the May Day demonstrators do not prevent federal employees from being able to carry out their government functions.

Charges ended up being dropped against virtually all May Day demonstrators and some won monetary damages for their mistreatment. As the writer Lawrence Roberts has written, key Nixon administration players in the suppression of May Day ended up spending more time in jail for more serious offenses than anybody who blocked traffic to end the war in Vietnam.

About May Day, Federal Judge Harold Greene said:

“Whenever American institutions have provided a hysterical response to an emergency situation, we have come later to regret it.”

The value of protest is sometimes not immediately apparent. Daniel Ellsberg has said that President Nixon was alarmed and worried by the growth of the anti-war movement. Ellsberg says Nixon had picked out targets in North Vietnam to use nuclear weapons and he didn’t do it because of his fear of the anti-war movement.

May Day 1971 broadened the scope of demonstrations, free speech and the right of assembly. As with Black Lives Matter, it expanded our notions of non-violent protest. It is distressing to see Republican-led states enacting laws that drastically suppress protest and First Amendment rights. Republicans have now introduced 81 bills in 34 states that limit protest.

At a time when fascism lurks in the wings and the Republican party has rejected democracy, nothing is more important than protecting our democratic rights, including the right to protest non-violently. Our futures depend on it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat Dawson
    May 9, 2021 at 8:59 pm

    Agreed. That’s why I am so worried about all these laws being passed that criminalizes protests.

    • May 9, 2021 at 9:01 pm

      Yeah if you drive a car into a crowd of protesters, no problem. Sick.

  2. R Elwell
    May 24, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    The ‘paddy wagon’ reference (not once but twice) in this piece was certainly unfortunate and likely offensive to any readers of Irish descent.

    • May 24, 2021 at 6:06 pm

      Sorry. I did not mean to offend.

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