May Day Demonstration 1971

Protesting a War

I would love to be able to claim that I was one of those arrested and herded off to the parking lots of D.C. Stadium (renamed RFK at some point) during the May Day demonstrations of 71 but I was actually one of those doing the herding. The news footage of what happened in Washington D.C. when the protests over the Viet Nam war sought to bring the federal government to a standstill could not show the levels of organization and disorganization during that frantic week.

The political upheaval over the war was reaching its climax. Richard Nixon had been elected, in part, because he claimed to have a plan for victory in the war that would be complete during his first term in office. He was running out of time and the voters were running out of patience. The poster that was used widely promoting the demonstration summarized the radical position on the war.

I had joined the National Guard in the District largely to avoid being drafted after the results of the draft lottery made it clear that I would not be able to finish my degree before being called up. At the same time that I was finishing my senior year at George Washington University, I was the station manager for the campus radio station. I lived in an apartment building at the edge of the campus that meant that depending on which direction I walked, I was two blocks from the White House or the State Department or my office on campus. In other words, the hub of the planned protest.

As a member of the Guard, I was concerned about spending time called up to help with the crowds. As a student leader, I was involved in covering the story of what surely would be a huge demonstration. As a resident of DC, I was a little concerned about the crowds impact on my home. All of my concerns were well founded.

The DC Guard was not like the unit that got trigger happy at Kent State University. The members of the DC Guard were Washington Redskins, congressional aides, students and a host of others who chose not to participate in active duty who had been trained to be military policemen. Ten to twenty per cent of the members had purchased short hair wigs to wear when they were doing their one weekend a month obligation. I never felt that the federal forces had much faith in our ability to take part in protecting the capital from the anti war movement, but we were sure to be called up every time a group decided to gather and register their views about the war. I was actually a part of the public information detachment with the guard because I had some background in photography and film processing.

GW was a good urban university that drew most of its students from what we would now call blue states. The campus is literally across the street from the White House. It was always a great source of irony to know that Nixon had campus radicals as his next door neighbors. The campus would stop and protest most anything because of the intense social awareness of the era and demographics of the student body. It was not uncommon to see 50 to 100 students stroll into the center of an intersection and light up joints as a "marijuana smoke-in" to protest drug laws. They were reliable for most any kind of protest that needed to recruit. Before there was an internet, students had the "underground press" which included virtually every student newspaper and radio station on the east and west coasts. I was constantly answering phone calls from protest organizers looking for every conceivable type of information leading up the major protests. May Day was not an exception and my preparation for guard duty was primarily helping the protest to get organized.

I spent the last week before the May Day demonstration helping people find ways to be the subject of the photographs I would be taking for the National Guard. Amazing the irony that democracy can create. There were no great secrets as the demonstration began. The protesters planned to disrupt traffic flow into government buildings in the hope of making normal function impossible. Plans included massing pedestrians on the bridges to prevent commuters getting to their jobs and protesting in front of office buildings to keep people from entering. The police and military planned to arrest protesters and keep traffic flowing.

Everything happened the way it was planned. Bright and early Monday morning, protest marches on the bridges were greeted by troops who made mass arrests and loaded those arrested on buses. The problem for the police was what to do with all the people. Arresting them and then turning them loose at another location proved useless as they rejoined the protests and were arrested again. In an effort to reduce the numbers on the street, arrested protesters were taken to a parking lot at the stadium. Guarding the prisoners became the job of the military policemen of the DC guard. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! Many of those arrested manage to slip their confinement as a sympathetic guardsman became "busy" with other matters. The number of arrests grew so great that at the end of each day, everyone was released and the whole process began again in the morning.

I spent several days doing public information for both sides, getting phone calls from campus while working on documenting the guard at work. The protest was not successful in stopping the government but was very successful in creating a break from routine for most of the district. Among the protest tactics was to find small cars that could be picked up by a group and placed in the middle of a street. Once the car was blocking traffic, the air was let out of the tires to make moving it more difficult. The low light of the first day for me was seeing my Sprite with four flat tires perpendicular to traffic flow on the evening news. All I could do was moan, "I'm on your side."

My favorite image from that week was the picture of a group of women carrying a banner near Pennsylvania Avenue. The banner read, "Bring our boys home. Wives of the DC National Guard." We had quite a week and when I got back to my apartment and office, the tear gas could still be felt in air.

Lee McGavin
Leander, TX 2010

Nixon's Reflections on Talking with Protesters

Included in the material about Richard Nixon's testimony to the Watergate Grand Jury released by court order in November, 2011 are four dictabelts of the former President's reflections on meeting student protesters near the Lincoln Memorial. The mp3's embedded here are located in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.

The story begins with Nixon taking a White House staffer to the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 AM.

Nixon begins a conversation with students that focuses on the disparity of their views on the war, the environment and racial equality.

The conversation takes a turn to a tour of the architecture of Europe before Nixon reflects on people, the shrinking planet and the meaning of life.

The story ends with breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

More on the Viet Nam War.

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