Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest

Image of Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America's Biggest Mass Arrest
Release Date: 
July 28, 2020
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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“‘If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.’ At least 15,000 demonstrators tried, with mixed results at best, to bring Washington to a virtual standstill.”

Being part of a major historical event guarantees no special insight into its overall meaning—but sometimes it helps. So is, as memory serves, reading a new book about the Mayday, 1971, anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C.

On May 3rd, 4th, and 5th of that year more than a week of mass marches and smaller demonstrations took place in the nation’s capital. Their slogan was: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” More than 100,000 demonstrators tried, with mixed results at best, to bring Washington to a virtual standstill.

On those days—and even more so in retrospect—it felt good to be on the right side of history.

Yet it is one thing to experience a massive demonstration as a participant, at the granular, ground level. And it is quite another to view it from 30,000 feet, nearly 50 years later, with a historical journalist’s omniscience.

Notwithstanding, veteran journalist Lawrence Roberts, who was himself arrested in the mass arrests almost 50 years ago, effectively brings both perspectives in his dispassionate, even-handed book Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest.

The stakes for President Richard Nixon and his Republican administration couldn’t have been higher, Roberts writes in his account of the historic demonstrations. An election was approaching, and public support for the wars in Southeast Asia was melting away.

“For Nixon and many of his advisors,” Roberts writes, “Mayday and the protests leading up to it presented a political crisis.”

One of the godfathers of the protest was Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leftist clergyman from Philadelphia, who argued that such a large scale, nonviolent demonstration, including blocking bridges and highways, was “by all odds the correct tactic for the present moment of American history.”

Not that the White House and local law enforcement didn’t see the demonstrations coming, especially with the recent escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos.

The sponsoring Mayday Tribe published and circulated its own demonstration handbook that laid out strategy and tactics in detail. And both local and federal agents had thoroughly infiltrated the protesters.

“A confidential report,” Roberts writes, “pointed out that a relatively small number of individuals could seriously disrupt the flow of traffic into the Washington area.”

For seasoned D.C. Police Chief Jerry Wilson, the dilemma was, “How to keep your balance in that sweet spot between the rights of peaceful assembly and public order—that was something he’d studied up close.”

Except that not all of the prospective protesters were interested in either peaceful assembly or public order—that was the point of Mayday.

A Mayday Tribe manifesto, published in the D.C. underground alt-weekly Quicksilver Times’ April 14 edition, proclaimed: “May 3 should bring the largest attempt at mass non-violent disruption ever attempted in this nation’s history.”

In the weeks before the gathering, Roberts writes, various otherwise fractious leftist and anti-war groups “had managed to overcome infighting and descend upon the city in a kind of chaotic choreography.”

The book’s unfolding narrative is roughly chronological and gains momentum as May 3 approaches, about halfway through the book.

The demonstrators’ chief strength was in their decentralized autonomy. They broke themselves down into small “affinity groups” of eight to twelve people. Each group could determine and improvise their own tactics, independently and spontaneously, on the spot.

These tactics, and the unexpectedly large turnout of demonstrators, effectively blindsided the government. Police and other law enforcement were left scrambling.

Early on, Chief Wilson told his officers to disregard court-mandated field arrest form and simply sweep the protesters up wholesale. This, Wilson knew, would mean there would be no meaningful chance to prosecute most of them.

(As it happens, May 3rd coincided with the launch of National Public Radio’s flagship news magazine All Things Considered, and was the subject of its first broadcast-length documentary.)

The mass arrests of 12,000 demonstrators on May 3rd quickly filled the D.C. jails, and Chief Wilson and the White House had to improvise to figure out where to put the overflow.

Several thousand were bused to a fenced practice field next to RFK Stadium, where there was no shade or shelter from the wind.

There are some revelations. Roberts shows that Nixon and others in the White House were even more cynical in handling the arrests and the aftermath than the demonstrators imagined.

Dirty trickster Charles Colson sent crates of oranges for those behind the fence, marked as gifts from Sen. Edmund Muskie, then Nixon’s most serious contender in the 1972 election. Reporters were tipped, in order to taint the Maine senator with the Mayday demonstrators.

Late in the day several thousand protesters were bussed from the RFK practice field to the Washington Coliseum, usually a venue for concerts and hockey games.

Those of us among the 2,000 in the Coliseum might take cold comfort in learning from this book that the Justice Department deliberately delayed the National Guard from distributing blankets to those shivering on the concrete floor in 50-degree temperatures. 

On May 4, 2,000, more were arrested at a Justice Dept. sit-in, among them Roberts, then a 19-year-old anti-war protester.

When blowback for the mass arrests of the largely nonviolent protesters began to build, Nixon and his spokespeople tried to dump responsibility on Chief Wilson and local police.

Ultimately, however, the truth here comes out.

Roberts writes that the Nixon tapes dealing with White House involvement—heretofore unpublished—“leave no doubt that the responsibility for the Mayday dragnet can be laid at the doorstep of the Oval Office.”

Many of those involved in Mayday and its suppression, including organizers like Chicago 7 defendant Rennie Davis, considered the demonstrations a failure, since they stopped neither the government nor the Vietnam War.

In that sense, however, Mayday was compared to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. While a military defeat for the Communist forces, it had a shocking political impact in the United States, where people were convinced by their civilian and military leaders that the war was being won.

Similarly, the Mayday demonstrations’ impact was protesters’ ability to mobilize thousands of anti-war activists willing to risk jail, or worse.

Even as a last hurrah, if that is what the demonstrations were, Roberts writes, “Within two years, the Mayday perturbations would combine with other forces in a cyclone that would shred the White House and send twenty of Nixon’s men to prison.”

By contrast, in the legal wreckage that followed the 1971 demonstrations, almost all of the criminal charges against demonstrators were dropped. Their arrest records were ordered expunged and destroyed. Several ACLU class action civil suits ordered the federal government to pay compensation to some.

For all his skill, Roberts’ account is nothing like being there, and it’s difficult to know how interesting this book will be beyond those of us who were there those days, as memories turn hazy over half a century.

Still, it is impossible for those who were there (or their children or grandchildren) not to scan the book’s photo gallery for familiar—if younger—faces, including one’s own.