A May to remember

Protesters participate in one of the May Day rallies in early May, 1971. Photo credit: Star Collection, DC Public Library; © Washington Post

April may be the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot once claimed, but May is the month of exuberant mass action. We’re currently in the thick of the latest iteration of May mobilizations for justice and peace, with the worldwide protests that got rolling on May 1 and the actions that will take place later this month in Chicago focused on the NATO summit. May actions are a venerable tradition, reaching back to Emancipation Day in 1886 when — also in Chicago — 340,000 workers went on strike demanding an 8-hour workday. Since then, by design or coincidence, numerous May protests — perhaps egged on by the feisty vitality of spring and its alluring promise of rejuvenation — have been momentous.

In the month of May, one million South Africans demonstrated against apartheid (1986); 1,400 people were arrested protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire (1977); the Freedom Riders challenged racial discrimination in interstate travel (1961); hundreds of schoolchildren were arrested during the civil rights movement’s historic Birmingham campaign (1963); the Poor People’s Campaign challenged economic inequality (1968); a general strike spread across France calling for social change, eventually mobilizing ten million people (1968); and millions protested U.S. immigration policy across the nation (2006). These, as the invaluable This Week in History attests, are only a small fraction of the many historic social struggles that have been launched in the month of May.

Here is one of the most notable.

Forty-one years ago today — May 3, 1971 — thousands of people were arrested in Washington D.C. as they clamored for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Though no one could have known it at the time, this event proved to be the movement’s last monumental mobilization. There would be other national and local demonstrations before the war finally ended in 1975, but nothing would match the sheer size and intensity of this powerful drama played out on the streets of the nation’s capital.

In 1970 the U.S. had escalated the war by invading Cambodia, which led to nationwide demonstrations, including those where soldiers had fired on demonstrators, killing four at Kent State University in Ohio (May 4) and two at Jackson State College in Mississippi (May 14). In February 1971 the U.S. invaded Laos. For many in the still burgeoning anti-war movement, this raised the possibility of even greater escalation, including a ground war in North Vietnam. In response the movement threw itself into organizing a series of demonstrations, slated to take place from late April through early May.

In his book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, political scientist Tom Wells details each of these actions, including a five-day witness by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) that began on April 19 and featured an encampment, guerrilla theater at Arlington Cemetery, a contingent marching to the Pentagon to turn themselves in for war crimes and the drama of hundreds of vets returning their medals.

This was followed on April 24 by half a million people marching from the Ellipse behind the White House to the Capitol. A week of protests followed. There was guerrilla theater on Capitol Hill, Congressional lobbying and a series of civil-disobedience arrests: 151 Quakers in front of the White House, 200 demonstrators blocking the doors of the Selective Service System (the military draft), 224 at Health, Education and Welfare, and 370 at the Justice Department.

Not only does Wells chronicle the actions of the anti-war movement; he also scrupulously charts the U.S. government’s considerable efforts to surveil and checkmate the movement. (In fact, one of the book’s major points is that policymakers began to shape the policy of the war itself in response to the growing power of the anti-war movement.) This attempt to track and counter the movement was true of the late April actions. Wells provides pages profiling the innumerable ways President Nixon’s aides schemed to delegitimize and disrupt these events, including getting a court injunction against VVAW’s base camp on the National Mall, and then going back to the judge and asking it to be rescinded when the vets wouldn’t budge — but this was especially evident with regard to the May actions that followed.

The slogan of the May Day actions was “If They Won’t Stop the War, We’ll Stop the Government.” Organizers sought to do this by using mobile tactics, in which small groups of people would occupy intersections and then move along to the next one before being arrested. As the Rainbow History Project recounts:

Rather than mounting a single massive protest they took a page from women’s movement organizers and structured the protest around smaller cohesive groups or “tribes” that were assigned particular sites and tasks within the protest.

The Nixon administration did not take this impending action lightly, as Wells recounts:

The administration took steps to keep May Day under control. CIA agents penetrated May Day groups. [Presidential counsel John] Dean tracked incoming intelligence on the protesters. “There were detailed briefings on the precise transmission frequencies of the demonstrators’ walkie-talkies, which would be monitored,” Dean writes. The White House readied its basement command post for monitoring demonstrations.

While the government had originally planned to let the Washington, D.C. police handle the protesters, it eventually shifted to a military response, as this summary underscores:

While protesters listened to music, planned their actions or slept, 10,000 Federal troops were quickly moved to various locations in the Washington, D.C. area. At one point, so many soldiers and marines were being moved into the area from bases along the East Coast that troop transports were landing at the rate of one every three minutes at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland. Among these troops were 4,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. These troops were to back up the 5,100 D.C. Metropolitan Police, 2,000 D.C. and National Guard that were already in place. Every monument, park and traffic circle in the nation’s capital had troops protecting its perimeters. Paratroopers and marines deployed via helicopter to the grounds of the Washington Monument.

On Sunday, May 2, the government revoked the permit that allowed the 17,500 demonstrators to continue to camp in West Potomac Park (which the demonstrators had renamed Peace Park). Police wearing riot gear knocked down tents, used tear gas and formed a phalanx to force campers out of the park. Some people left Washington, but 10,000 of them regrouped in other parts of the city for the next day’s action.

On May 3, while troops secured intersections and bridges, police swept through the city using tear gas and arresting anyone who looked like a protester. (For a video report, click here.) While many demonstrators were nonviolent, some used trash cans, tree limbs and parked cars to impede traffic. Police dispensed with standard arrest procedures, not even bothering to charge protesters with specific offenses. “Martial law might not have been declared,” Wells writes, “but it was in effect.”

Before the morning was over, 7,000 people were arrested and held behind a fence erected adjacent to RFK stadium. This was the largest number of arrests in a single day in U.S. history. By the afternoon, most federal employees (except those who inadvertently had been arrested) made it to their jobs. Over the next few days, the total number of arrests would grow to 12,614. (Click here to read former government analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s brief account of this event and a follow-up action in Boston in which he and Howard Zinn participated. Ellsberg’s largest contribution to the anti-war movement would become clear less than two weeks later when the New York Times began to publish the top secret Pentagon Papers he had released.)

Four decades on, there are many potential lessons from May 1971 that might be helpful in our own time.

First, Wells’ book convincingly chronicles how the government, even as it often ignored the anti-war movement in public, devoted an enormous amount of time and energy paying attention to it. It worried about the movement’s ability to persuade the nation (and even other parts of the government — for example, 500 Federal Employees for Peace rallied across from the White House during the May Day actions) to end its support for the war.

Second, its massive militarized response to a movement of unarmed citizens emphasizes the lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to defend its policies.

Third, the peace movement had succeeded in making a compelling case to the nation that the war must end — polling data at the time confirmed this — which was demonstrated, in part, by the sheer numbers of people that sustained these actions.

Fourth, while the police sweeps and indiscriminate arrests initially posed a potential public-relations problem for the administration (and Wells documents the propaganda counteroffensive Nixon’s people pursued), immediate polling data suggested that public reaction to the May Day actions was decidedly negative, with Wells citing polls showing 71 percent of the public disapproving of them.

This relates to one last lesson that we might especially mull on today. The May Day mobilization turned out to be the last enormous, national anti-Vietnam War event.

There are likely many reasons for this, but one may be the tactics that were used. While the power of May Day 1971 was rooted in the planned dispersal of demonstrators to intersections across the city, this also led to a lack of organization and nonviolent discipline. The government was able to use this to justify its draconian strategy. More significantly, it may have weakened the appeal of mass action for the larger public at a time, ironically, when it increasingly opposed the war.

These lessons may offer food for thought for all May actions, including our own.

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