Media remembrances earlier this month marked Amtrak’s 40th birthday, having hatched on May 1, 1971, naturally losing endless federal dollars ever since. Almost unremarked but more interesting was the 40th anniversary of the huge May Day anti-war protests in Washington, D.C. Over 200,000 yippies and hippies strove to shut down the federal government, and its war machine, by blocking key bridges and intersections. President Nixon ordered that government workers still report to work, even while he found refuge at his San Clemente home on the Pacific.
The May Day 1971 protests mark some of my earliest memories. I had just turned age 6! We lived in nearby Arlington, Virginia. And my mother always enjoyed political theater. So she drove my 2-year-old brother and me into the city to watch the protests. We were joined by my equally adventurous grandmother, who took the day off from her Navy Department job to “protect” us. My father, an Arlington policeman, was stationed near Key Bridge to impede any hippies blocking Virginia traffic.
Naturally, the four of us were trapped in the car for hours on Washington’s gridlocked streets. But it was great entertainment, as we watched (from behind tightly closed car windows) thousands of very hairy, tie-died counterculturists, festooned with signage, vent their anger against the Nixon Administration, against America, against the war, and against the political and cultural status quo. May Day 1971 was one of the last great anti-war extravaganzas. Nixon was already withdrawing U.S. troops from Southeast Asia while he “Vietnamized” the war.
Across several days, D.C. police, backed by the U.S. Army, arrested over 12,000, reputedly the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Famously, many demonstrators were incarcerated in a makeshift detention camp outside RFK Stadium. The May Day 1971 uproar almost certainly enhanced the White House’s siege mentality. Within 2 months, the White House “Plumbers Unit” was formed for special illegal operations, starting with the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and disastrously culminating with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. The May Day protest failed in its initial goal of forcing a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. But it ultimately contributed to Nixon’s collapse and the subsequent implosion of U.S. support for South Vietnam, ensuring communist triumph throughout Southeast Asia.
A chief organizer for the May Day protest was Rennie Davis, one of the “Chicago Seven” tried for their role in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. He was helped by, among others, Michael Lerner, himself one of the “Seattle Seven,” whose attempt to ensnarl Seattle freeways in an earlier anti-war protest was a model. Lerner, later a rabbi and founder of Tikkun, would develop the “politics of meaning” that captivated Hillary Clinton before her accession to the White House with her husband. According to a Time magazine report of that time, Davis sought counsel from communist North Vietnam and later recalled: “The Vietnamese were saying that now was a time to act, that it might be possible to set off a chain of events that would end the war.” He appealed to fellow American peaceniks: “Unless the Government of the U.S. stops the war in Viet Nam, we will stop the Government of the U.S.” He also declared: “If there are still people in this town who don’t feel they are guilty, who can get up and put on their coats and ties and go to work, we are going to stop those people on the streets and find out what is in their heads.”
Davis and tens of thousands of kindred spirits failed to shut down the U.S. Government but not for lack of exertion. Time likened their “preposterously ill-organized” impact on D.C. traffic to a “heavy spring rain.” Maybe for some. But I vividly recall my own family’s voluntary entrapment in Davis’s protest for what seemed like many hours.
On Saturday, May 1, 1971, about 45,000-50,000 (according to Time) “dope freaks, troubadours of the counterculture, teenyboppers, committed soldiers of the movement, longhairs on an oblivious narcotico-political binge” gathered in West Potomac Park to await Monday morning’s hoped for traffic snarl and government closure. According to the Washington Post, they were happily “making love, drinking wine, and smoking pot,” having turned the area south of the Lincoln Memorial into a “smaller version of…Woodstock.”
Unamused by the frolic, the U.S. Park Service abruptly cancelled the merrymakers’ permit at dawn Sunday morning. Preemptively, thousands of D.C. and U.S. Park Police in riot gear announced the party’s end on loudspeakers and then scattered the remaining encamped demonstrators by marching into and tear gassing West Potomac Park. They were backed by thousands of U.S. Army troops and National Guardsmen. Thousands of disrupted, coughing protesters fled. Many escaped into Virginia some in their Volkswagen vans, never to return. Others fled to college campuses, especially Georgetown University. Davis complained that President Nixon had decided to “suspend the Constitution.”
Undeterred, demonstrators reassembled Monday morning, targeting bridges and several key traffic circles. U.S. Army troops surrounded key monuments and federal buildings. National Guardsmen lined the bridges. Clearing the streets, D.C. police were ultimately instructed to arrest thousands of obstructing protesters in mass, dispensing with normal arrest procedure. The ultimate round-up of 12,000 inevitably included some reporters, bystanders and even counter-protesters. Davis, who was himself arrested, complained of the “good Germans” who still dutifully marched to their federal offices, despite their complicity in the war. But Time commented that the police overall “showed exemplary discipline; a less well trained, less tightly controlled force could have brought about a very different outcome: people seriously wounded or even dead.” The ACLU loudly complained, while North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin commended the police for a “rather fine job.”
After we finally escaped the traffic imbroglio by crossing Key Bridge, we spotted my father with other Arlington police outside the Key Bridge Marriott. My grandmother hailed her son-in-law for “protecting the country,” while my more liberal mother responded with amusement.
President Nixon announced the May Day protests, which Attorney General John Mitchell had watched with binoculars from his U.S. Justice Department balcony, had been handled in a “very competent and appropriate way.” In little more than a year, Nixon and Mitchell would be enmeshed in Watergate. And in less than 4 years, hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees would flee to America, many to the Washington, D.C. area. They were the bitter fruit of the anti-war campaign for America to abandon Indochina to tyranny and genocide. The May Day protests would help fuel a far worse disaster than the founding of chronically insolvent Amtrak on the same day.