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Mayday! How 1971′s D.C. street clash between soldiers and hippies changed America, for better or worse

It was May 4, 1971, and Helena Sheehan — a Philadelphia native and ex-nun with degrees from St. Joseph’s and Temple, now a rising peace activist — had just spent months shuttling between her hometown and Washington, D.C., helping plan what aimed to be the most audacious protest in American history. Thousands of young people angry over the Vietnam War would flood the streets and bring the federal government to a halt.

But mapping strategy with some of the nation’s top radicals — including three of the so-called Chicago 7 (Rennie Davis, David Dellinger and John Froines) — Sheehan hadn’t counted on then-President Richard Nixon turning the nation’s capital into an armed camp, with 12,000 Army and Marine troops aiming tank turrets down D.C. streets as helicopters buzzed the Washington Monument in what Newsweek wrote “seemed more appropriate to Saigon in wartime than Washington in the spring.” The troops, Guardsmen and police clashed with the so-called “Mayday Tribein the streets for three days and carried out what became the largest mass arrest in American history — roughly 12,000 people, until thousands were simply herded onto the NFL football practice field near RFK Stadium, shivering without enough food or water in an open pen.

Philadelphia’s Sheehan — soon to leave America for good, to become a Dublin professor and one of Ireland’s leading leftists — wrote in her autobiography Navigating the Zeitgeist that she herself was finally arrested near the end of the action, when police rounded up at least 2,000 people at a sit-in outside the Justice Department. She was put with 20 other people in a cell meant for two, as they sang songs and chants like “Power to the People.” “Upon discovering that we were from Philadelphia,” she wrote, “the police handled us with added roughness, saying that we were used to it. The police under [then-commissioner Frank] Rizzo had become nationally notorious in their unsympathetic treatment of protestors.”

The Mayday 1971 demonstrations in Washington — a long series of actions that kicked off in late April with the medal-throwing protests by disgruntled Vietnam vets including future presidential candidate John Kerry — are arguably the most important U.S. protest that you’ve never heard of. Despite the shocking scenes of military units rolling through Washington and clashing with hippies as they erected crude barricades, and the mass arrests, much of America was exhausted by 1971. After a decade of seemingly non-stop unrest, many on both the right and the left wanted to move on from what historians now callthe Long Sixties,” and the images of that May’s chaos quickly faded. Yet many today think the protests sped the end of the war, set the stage for Nixon’s Watergate downfall, and created new templates for both civil disobedience on the left and militarized tactics by police that are still in place. (For a great read on this remarkable event, I recommend Lawrence Roberts’ deeply researched Mayday 1971, just out this week in paperback.)

This week, I spoke with some Philadelphians who were there in D.C., a half century ago, and they talked about their shared belief in 1971 that young people had the power to change the world. Gina Logan, who was 19 and living in South Philly when she attended the protest, recalled “this feeling of awe when you looked at the Capitol, where the laws are made, and at the Supreme Court — this feeling that history is not something we read about in books. History is what people make with their actions. I was proud to stand up for what I believed in.”

Logan — today a writer and English professor at a Vermont college — said back then she was a working-class teen who’d just escaped an youthful abusive marriage. She took a job with two 20-somethings who ran a teen center on Rising Sun Avenue and interested her in politics, including the anti-war movement. One day in early 1971 she was handed a yellow handbill that read, “On May Day, we’re going to stop the government, so the government will stop the war.”

Following the path of thousands of other young people in the Eastern Seaboard, Logan found an overnight ride to D.C. and stumbled out onto the crowded, already chaotic streets at dawn on May 1 — marching so much over the next two days that she wore a hole in one shoe, as she dodged a cloud of tear gas and tried to convince a line of soldiers they were protesting to keep them from serving in Vietnam. “They just stared at us,” she recalled.

» READ MORE: On the 50th anniversary, America’s still not fully recovered from the wounds of Kent State | Will Bunch

The protest strategy developed by the likes of Davis and Dellinger reflected growing frustration and a need to change tactics as the war in Southeast Asia dragged on (58,000 Americans, and many more Vietnamese, would ultimately die) and peaceful protest marches had failed to change the dynamic. The Mayday Tribe adopted more of a hippie style meant to appeal to the young counterculture, and promised a more confrontational brand of civil disobedience, hoping to shut down traffic and close federal offices. Despite luring at least 45,000 protesters, including many who camped out on the National Mall, their efforts mostly failed because of the massive military response and the Nixon administration’s blatant disregard for civil liberties.

One Philadelphia attendee, Eric Pavlak, had been marching against the war since a stint attending Drexel University in 1967, when he made the national news for joining an anti-war protest while still wearing his uniform for mandatory ROTC training. By 1971, he’d gotten a degree in journalism from Temple and actually had landed a job interview in Washington, so he brought down one set of business clothes and another for marching in the streets.

But when Pavlak joined the demonstration, he found it less organized than others he’d attended — with what he called “fringe elements,” not unlike today’s anarchist protesters in Portland, who were completely outnumbered by cops and troops. He dodged into a grocery store for virtually the only food they had left — a loaf of bread, and a bottle of ginger ale — and when he stepped out, a phalanx of police was closing in, as a tear-gas canister landed at his feet. He said he kicked it back at the cops, soccer-style, and retreated like many others to the overstuffed dorms at Georgetown University, where folk music and the odor of cannabis filled the air.

All but 79 of the 12,000 arrested were either never charged or found not guilty, and the ACLU won a groundbreaking civil-liberties lawsuit on behalf of the protesters. But what changed? Arguably a lot. In the short run, historians now think the civil unrest that rocked Washington and the rest of the nation during Nixon’s first three years caused him to speed the pace of Vietnam troop withdrawals — surely too little and too late, but sparing some lives. And the 37th president’s paranoia about protests sparked the dirty, illegal tactics that became the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency in 1974, still the only POTUS ever forced from office.

In the long run? Protesters have adopted but refined the Mayday tactics, including blocking highways and other forms of aggressive civil disobedience that were seen as recently as last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. And yet despite the civil-liberties outcry, governments from the White House to City Halls have spent billions on the kind of militarized policing that was pioneered in 1971, in their terror that someday someone might actually stop the government.

I don’t think we ever really healed,” the now-72-year-old Pavlak — who lives in Montgomery County and became a writer and tech businessman, among other things — told me. Like Sheehan and Logan, he never stopped protesting — joining the George Floyd demonstrations and the 2017 Women’s March, where he “saw a sweet, grey-haired lady with a sign that said, ‘I’m Getting Too Old For This S---.’”

Yo, do this

  • At the dawn of the 1950s, St. Louis’ massive, ornate and always crowded public swimming pool at Fairground Park was the pride of the city. By 1956, the pool was drained and closed for good — abandoned by white people after court-ordered racial integration. It’s a metaphor for what progressive thought leader and now author Heather McGhee calls “drained-pool politics” — white middle-class folks willing to sabotage their own self-interest as long as government policies hurt Black people as much or more. It’s the thesis of McGhee’s stunning new The Sum of Us, the political must-read book of 2021.

  • Before the Mayday protests, there was the May 4, 1970, massacre that killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Younger people likely remember that event either through Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by John Filo, which shows an agonized 14-year-old runaway named Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller. What you didn’t know was Vecchio’s lifetime of agony for being at that place at that time, included the invective from hippie haters and her appalling treatment by the media. It’s all laid bare in a Washington Post epic by writer Patricia McCormick that reveals the price of unintended fame.

Ask me anything

Question: Why does Rick Santorum still have a job at CNN? — Via Gregg J. Montalto (@GJMontalto) on Twitter

Answer: Several readers asked me this simultaneously, a sign of rising viewer frustration on the left with TV “hits” by the former Pennsylvania senator ultimately rejected by 59% of us. I’ve been dealing with this mess since 2008, when I wrote blog responses to his inane columns in The Inquirer. His latest, though — a bizarre, false claim in a speech that “candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” in what came off as a lame defense of genocide — is a firing-level offense. But he won’t be fired. CNN leaders seem to fear they’ll be charged with bias if they canned this right-wing attacker of “cancel culture” — meaning Santorum can probably never be canceled.

Backstory

When I was a teenager in the mid-1970s, I bought into an idea that was wildly popular among thought gurus at that time: That overpopulation threatened the world. I grew up to realize that while the experts weren’t totally off-base — too many humans can tax the world’s food supply or upend the balance of nature — the issue is more nuanced. Here in the United States, preliminary Census numbers were released on Monday, and our nation grew at a slower rate in the 2010s than any other decade in our history except the Great Depression-rattled 1930s. While “1976 me” might have celebrated, “2021 me” thinks this is very disturbing news.

» READ MORE: America needs to talk about the new book that says lacking a college degree might kill you | Will Bunch

Why did U.S. population rise only 7.4% in the decade (to more than 331 million)? It’s a whodunnit with too many suspects. Yes, the population is getting older and grayer, but why wouldn’t Americans under 35 defer marriage and child bearing — after getting hammered by the Great Recession, $1.7 trillion in college debt and ridiculous housing prices? So-called “deaths of despair”suicide, drug overdoses, alcoholism — spiked among those lacking college degrees, and U.S. life expectancy has declined four of the last five years. Immigration slowed during the tenure of a xenophobic “build the wall” president. An expanding nation, in the end, is a healthy nation, so what does anemic growth say about our ailing body politic?

Inquirer reading list

  • In my Sunday column, I reflected on what justice meant in Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, and on how American celebrity culture over-emphasizes the high-profile case, when real change comes with the hard work of demolishing corrupt systems. A just verdict won’t change U.S. policing much, but pressure for new laws and practices might.

  • Over the weekend, I tried to stay on top of the fast-moving crisis in India, where a new COVID-19 variant is causing record levels of suffering and death. I urged the Biden administration to do much more than it had until that point on sharing vaccine technology, doses and raw material. Right as I filed the column, Team Biden announced some — but not all — of what I called for.

  • From grade schools to elite college campuses, American classrooms have raced to embrace anti-racism ideas and programs since last May’s George Floyd protests — but not everybody is happy about it. The Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning higher-ed writer Sue Snyder took a deep dive into the fear and loathing at exclusive Haverford College, where some parents claim their kids felt bullied to support last fall’s student strike around racial issues. Untangling a complex story like that takes the kind of time and expertise you might not find in a Substack “hot take.” It takes a village of local journalism, and that requires your support. Subscribe to The Inquirer.