Reflecting on May Day 1971

On the morning of Monday May 3d several hundred of us from Michigan attempted to march from Rock Creek Parkway along Virginia Avenue to Washington Circle. Our target,  tactical manual site 13, was Washington Circle where we planned to disrupt traffic and “prevent the war makers” from getting to work.  

Things started badly. A contingent of blue uniformed, white helmeted DC police was waiting. Truncheons raised, they rushed forward and protesters raced off in every direction.

I sprinted towards the gas station at the corner. Rounding it on the Kennedy Center side, I was confronted by a burly policeman directly in front of me. Thankfully, he ignored me and broke off to the left chasing others.

Finally reaching the circle, things were chaotic. Hundreds of protesters were dashing between moving cars, trash barrels were hurled into the roadway. The noise became deafening, kids shouting slogans against the war, car horns blaring and from above the ominous whoop, whoop, whoop of helicopter blades. Then came the bangs of tear gas being fired. People again fled in every direction, many into a nearby church where parade marshals used milk to ease the sting of teargas from the eyes.  

During three days of demonstrations, 12,000 protesters were arrested, the biggest such roundup in US history. Five thousand DC police had been mobilized and 1,500 army troops were on standby.

Later, in a car driven by a friend who lived in DC, we crept slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue  towards the Capitol. Looking back, we saw the DC buses drawn up bumper to bumper encircling the White House. Reaching Federal Triangle, the action was brisk.  Hundreds of chanting protesters were engaged in a sit-down strike, completely filling 10th Street between main Justice and the IRS.  From a Justice Department balcony pipe smoking Attorney General John Mitchell and his deputy Richard Kleindienst gazed down, nonchalantly taking it all in. 

May Day was the high-water mark of Vietnam war protest. Yes, on April 24th half a million demonstrators marched to stop the war, but marches like that had occurred after the incursion into Cambodia the previous year, and there had been the huge October 1969 mobilization march, and before that the siege of the Pentagon in 1967. 

So much energy had been expended and yet the war dragged on.

But in the larger sense of what was going on in the world, the Nixon administration was winning and the anti-war movement losing. Nixon’s measured troop withdrawal and Vietnamization of the conflict were more popular than the movement’s Peoples Peace Treaty.

Conscription, the biggest motivator for protest, had been scaled back and since the introduction of a lottery in December 1969 fewer young men were being called up. In 1969 283,000 were drafted, by 1971 that number was 94,000.  

Following Woodstock in 1969 the country tired of protest, the occupation of college campuses,  hippies, and a self-absorbed counter-culture. Other things were happening like landings on the moon and Henry Kissinger talking to the North Vietnamese and laying the foundation for Nixon’s ground-breaking trip to China in 1972.

America’s idealistic cultural revolution had peaked and was dying. As Don McLean’s popular song put, the music had died leaving behind a legacy of heightened consciousness– earth day, organic foods, environmentalism, free schools, tolerance, and questioning authority.

Following May Day came the retreat often to the hills of Vermont and northern California.  

Finally, a note on how policing of protests in the nation’s capital has changed. Larry Roberts in his book Mayday says DC’s police chief took his orders from the attorney general and White House. That isn’t the case today.  Home rule for the district passed by Congress in 1973 transferred from the president to the DC mayor control over the metropolitan police department. That’s why the Trump administration during last June’s Black Lives Matter protests could not call upon DC police to protect federal property. #

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