WHERE WERE YOU 50 years ago? That would be May 1971. If you weren’t born then, it’s history and you can pick and choose what others can tell you about that time. But memory is an echo of experience. What you live through sticks around more or less as long as you do.
Fifty years ago I was on my way from New York to Washington, D.C. in a Volkswagen bus with some colleagues and our portable video recorders. We expected to join other independent media people to document yet another demonstration against the war in Vietnam. Our sources in the antiwar movement said this one would be different. On May Day the organizers planned to try an active form of civil disobedience. Their goal was to “shut down” the U.S. government in the nation’s capital by blocking traffic in the heart of the city.
The president at the time was Richard Nixon. A year earlier he had widened the Vietnam war by ordering an invasion of Cambodia, provoking a large demonstration in Washington. A few weeks later National Guardsmen fired on an unarmed group of students at Kent State University in Ohio. Four of the students were killed, eight wounded. U.S. troops were officially pulled out of Cambodia not long after they went in. The antiwar movement gained strength.
So here we were a year later, the weekend ahead of May 1. The gathering demonstrators were young, mostly, with more men than women by my count. Some were people of color. They set up pup tents and field kitchens in a park near the Potomac, sharing food and strategy. A rock concert and speeches capped Saturday night. Early Sunday morning the police moved in with a preemptive action to disperse the demonstrators before they could make trouble the next day. Clusters of officers grabbed protesters who hadn’t left the park and hustled them onto waiting police buses. No one I saw resisted. A colleague of mine was swept into a bus and taken to DC lock-up. The police were too busy to take away his camera or his video recorder.
Monday morning, May 1, as commuters streamed into the city, groups of young people threaded their way onto major city streets. Traffic slowed to a crawl. The video footage shows: a hit-and-run; police with nightsticks beating unarmed protesters; protesters outrunning police. A crowd fills the street and stairway in front of the Department of Justice, in effect, forcing the government employees to listen to the demonstrators’ joyful and defiant songs.
It is impossible to avoid comparisons between what happened that spring day and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. Among all the demonstrators we recorded half a century ago, not one that I’m aware of spoke about killing or otherwise harming government officials. They wanted the country to understand why they believed the war the government waged in their name was illegal and immoral.
The event didn’t shut down the government, it inconvenienced it for a day. But the government’s overreaction helped the demonstrators achieve their goal.
It exposed how unprepared the police were for mass civil disobedience. At first the government announced the arrest of 6,000 people. The jail was full. The overflow were penned in a field at JFK Sports stadium. But the prisoner head count kept growing, first to 8,000, then 10,000 and finally reaching over 12,000 people locked up. The event became one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in U.S. history.
See for yourself. One of my colleagues from that era has edited together segments of videotape from the May Day 1971 demonstration into a 66-minute movie. Some of it is difficult to watch. Literally. The technical quality of early portable video is grainy and all of us who used it were still learning how best to communicate with this new medium when we documented the events in Washington that day.
Go online to crandelltheatre.org and follow the links to Making History – Marking the 50th Anniversary of the 1971 May Day Protests as Recorded by Videofreex: “Mayday 1971 Raw”
Virtual Film Screening will be followed by a panel discussion Saturday, May 1 at 5 p.m.