Mayday--article by Mimi Morris
Thu, 11 Apr 1996 14:40:04 -0400

As its 25th anniversary approaches, my thoughts have returned to
Mayday, 1971, that final, frustrating, gallant, naive attempt to stop the
war by stopping Washington's traffic. I was a radical journalist who came
to Washington to publish the demonstration's newspaper and ended up in
jail like tens of thousands of others.

I've lived in Washington almost ever since, walking past the spots
where once crowds surged through tear gas and we linked arms to make a
pact for peace. It was just yesterday and so very long ago, forgotten,

Does anyone else remember those few glorious days, that time of our
youth when anything was possible and we would change the world?

I suppose life moves along, but mine never quite did. Perhaps I
mourn the innocence I lost on Washington's streets. A piece of a
generation died then and there's no memorial to it, except in my heart.

I'd love to hear from anyone else who remembers, or who would entertain
more ramblings from this aging soul.

Steve Cook

>> FROM: Mimi Morris, 71632,36
>> DATE: 4/4/96 6:43 PM
>> Re: mayday
>> (c) 1996 Mimi Morris
>> For reprint permission, please call (614) 469-1510 or e-mail
>> <I>Mayday!<I> 1971: The government's worst nightmare
>> By Mimi Morris
>> As dawn came to the Potomac on Monday morning, May 3,
>> 1971, the
>> nation's capital was under effective martial law: At least
>> 5,100 District of Columbia
>> police in full riot gear and 11,400 federal troops with
>> fixed bayonets lined every
>> major avenue and bridge in Washington. They had been in
>> place since the previous
>> afternoon, ready to put down what was to become the largest
>> civil disobedience
>> action in U.S. history.
>> By the time the tear gas cleared three days later,
>> 13,400 demonstrators
>> had been arrested, the basis for crucial legal precedents
>> had been set and the U.S.
>> anti-war movement had been changed forever. Yet
>> <I>Mayday!<I> (as organizers
>> titled it, in reference to the international distress call)
>> has dropped into a historical
>> black hole. Trace memories linger of the eventual monetary
>> judgments awarded
>> some of the detainees, but revisionist historians have
>> largely prevailed with their
>> scenario of a movement that faded quickly after the Kent
>> State shootings a year
>> earlier.
>> The road to <I>Mayday!<I> had in fact begun just five
>> days after the
>> killings at Kent State, in the wake of the May 9, 1970,
>> emergency demonstration
>> called by the New Mobilization to End the War. Many of the
>> over 100,000 protesters
>> who turned out that day were prepared to go beyond the
>> limits of parading as usual.
>> They didn't get the chance: 500 marshals under the direction
>> of the Socialist
>> Workers Party kept exceptionally tight control, and the
>> resulting demonstration
>> looked like every other national anti-war march since 1965.
>> This perceived betrayal of popular will was the
>> beginning of the end for
>> the New Mobe. By mid-summer 1970 there were two national
>> groupings: the
>> SWP-led National Peace Action Coalition focused exclusively
>> on ending U.S. troop
>> involvement in Vietnam, and the more broadly based National
>> Coalition Against
>> War, Racism and Repression (later to become the People's
>> Coalition for Peace
>> and Justice), which explicitly linked the war to domestic
>> issues.
>> Yet neither of these groups could capture the
>> imagination, let alone
>> command the loyalty, of the emerging independent activist
>> left. Fed up with the
>> repeated failures by various forces to create the "new SDS,"
>> driven to desperation
>> by the televised slaughter in Indochina and fueled by the
>> romanticism and
>> individualism of the counterculture, thousands of mostly
>> young, mostly white
>> Americans were ready to jump the tracks.
>> There was more than just tactics and leadership at
>> issue, although these
>> questions generated most of the rhetorical heat. The
>> activists who responded to the
>> <I>Mayday!<I> call to "live your dreams" were anti-
>> imperialists of a new type:
>> Identifying emotionally with all oppressed people, including
>> political prisoners and
>> migrant workers, they propelled gays and women into
>> leadership positions in
>> previously unheard-of numbers. Their program was
>> "Creativity, joy and life, against
>> bureaucracy and grim death," and their demand was, "If the
>> government doesn't
>> stop the war, the people will stop the government."
>> Hardly anybody in the anti-war establishment took them
>> seriously.
>> <I>The Guardian<I>, the national independent radical
>> newsweekly, at
>> first endorsed only the NPAC/PCPJ April 24 march (referred
>> to by the <I>Boston
>> Phoenix<I> as "the annual peace picnic ... sure not to
>> offend anyone it doesn't put to
>> sleep"). The SWP spent months disrupting planning meetings
>> for <I>Mayday!<I>,
>> denouncing the civil disobedience campaign as "unauthorized"
>> and "dangerously
>> violent." Only the loose network of local alternative
>> papers, then numbering around
>> 500, seemed to understand the potential represented by these
>> new activists.
>> Work in the early months of 1971 centered on
>> distribution of the People's
>> Peace Treaty, a document "negotiated" between student and
>> the Vietnamese
>> delegation in Paris. This campaign was designed to allow the
>> 73 percent majority
>> that opposed the war to symbolically declare peace over the
>> heads of their
>> non-responsive government. The SWP, without missing a beat
>> in its denunciation
>> of Mayday's "ultraleftism," declared the treaty a "liberal
>> hoax."
>> Despite the escalating effort to undermine
>> <I>Mayday!<I>, regional
>> organizing flourished. For the first time, organizers
>> proposed to let
>> community-based groupings determine action in Washington. In
>> the words of the
>> 24-page tactical manual distributed weeks ahead of time,
>> "Every phase of the
>> <I>Mayday!<I> actions is organized on a regional basis. ...
>> There are no national
>> organizers. You do the organizing. This means to 'movement
>> generals' making
>> tactical decisions you have to carry out. Your region makes
>> the tactical decisions
>> within the discipline of non-violent civil disobedience."
>> By the time the April 24 march stepped off, many of the
>> estimated
>> 500,000 marchers had made up their minds to stay in
>> Washington for the full week
>> of lobbying and the May 3 start of civil disobedience, both
>> of which had been
>> endorsed by the People's Coalition for Peace and Justice.
>> The SWP broke its agreement with PCPJ by publishing a
>> special issue of
>> <I>The Militant<I> newspaper purporting to tell "the truth
>> about <I>Mayday!<I>" The
>> plans for civil disobedience, the paper claimed, "almost
>> certainly guarantee a
>> violent attack on the demonstrators." NPAC speakers
>> reiterated this attack verbally
>> from the stage that day, warning demonstrators to go home
>> after the march.
>> The sabotage didn't work. Throughout the following
>> week, the People's
>> Lobby campaign descended upon congressional offices and
>> various government
>> agencies. Their demands were those formulated by the
>> Students and Youth for a
>> People's Peace, originators of the <I>Mayday!<I> call: (1)
>> immediate withdrawal of
>> all U.S. troops and logistical support from Indochina; (2) a
>> guaranteed minimum
>> annual income of $6,500 for a family of four and massive job
>> training programs;
>> and (3) freedom of all political prisoners.
>> On Sunday, May 2, the government began to retaliate in
>> force. This was
>> the day before the major civil disobedience was due to
>> begin, the morning after a
>> huge rock concert, when-according to the tactical manual-
>> "we'll sleep late." Instead,
>> the estimated 50,000 activists legally encamped at West
>> Potomac Park (renamed
>> Algonquin Peace City) were awakened at 6 a.m. by the drone
>> of low-flying, fully
>> armed police helicopters. The permit had been revoked,
>> sleepy activists were
>> warned by bullhorns, and anyone not out of the park in 30
>> minutes would be
>> arrested.
>> Despite that rude awakening, at least 20,000 activists
>> (several sources
>> estimate as many as 35,000) were back on the streets Monday
>> morning, ready to
>> stop business as usual by putting their bodies on the line.
>> As it became apparent
>> that the elaborate tactical manuals had served police
>> planners all too well, most
>> demonstrators abandoned the original fixed-site strategy for
>> mobile tactics.
>> In downtown Washington, the Civil Disturbance Unit
>> threw a cordon
>> around demonstrators, drawing it tighter as they seized
>> anyone who looked
>> remotely "different." When 75 demonstrators took refuge in
>> the Union Methodist
>> Church, the police unit responded to Rev. Andrew Meeder's
>> attempt to negotiate by
>> tossing two pepper gas canisters into the lobby, then
>> beating and arresting anyone
>> who came out to breathe.
>> In Georgetown, the 300-strong Gay Mayday contingent
>> managed to block
>> traffic better than most groups, although they paid heavily
>> in blood for looking
>> extremely "different." Throughout the city pervasive tear
>> gas made business as
>> usual an impossibility.
>> By 10 a.m. it was all over for the day, except for the
>> mopping up. By
>> mid-afternoon the cordon had been lifted, and by evening
>> nearly 8,000 people were
>> under arrest. Washington's jails were overflowing, so
>> several thousand protesters
>> were herded into Robert F. Kennedy Stadium-where National
>> Guard troops shared
>> their food and blankets with their prisoners, Dr. Benjamin
>> Spock posed for press
>> photos with the generation his advice had supposedly helped
>> subvert, and Abbie
>> Hoffman escaped over the fence. In Georgetown, 80 gay
>> activists defied the curfew
>> to disrupt the annual convention of the American Psychiatric
>> Association.
>> The next morning, the newly released detainees got up
>> to do it all over
>> again. Black religious and community leaders, appalled by
>> the martial crackdown of
>> the day before, held an impassioned press conference to
>> promise sanctuary and
>> material aid to the overwhelmingly white <I>Mayday!<I>
>> activists. They then led a
>> march to the Justice Department where 5,000 rallied and sat
>> down; 3,000 were
>> promptly arrested. Attorney General John Mitchell watched
>> from a balcony with
>> evident satisfaction.
>> By Wednesday noon, several thousand government workers
>> had
>> organized a support rally in Lafayette Park. Afterward they
>> marched over to the
>> Capitol steps, where the <I>Mayday!<I> protesters were
>> listening to Rep. Ron
>> Dellums, who had been instrumental in getting the military
>> cordon lifted on Monday.
>> Suddenly the police moved in and arrested Dellums' audience
>> out from under him.
>> The final tally of arrests now stood at 13,300, making
>> <I>Mayday!<I> the largest
>> mass arrest in U.S. history.
>> The class action lawsuit growing out of the May 5
>> arrests was the first to
>> establish the right of plaintiffs to recover monetary
>> damages for violation of First
>> Amendment rights. There were also dozens of individual
>> lawsuits growing out of
>> the May 3 and 4 arrests, and altogether the American Civil
>> Liberties Union
>> estimates that the federal government had to pay out over
>> $2.5 million in damages.
>> Congress was forced to pass a special appropriation to cover
>> the cost.
>> Politically, the legacy of <I>Mayday!<I> was mixed. The
>> affinity groups and
>> regional forms that were its greatest strength never
>> coalesced into an ongoing
>> structure, and the sectarianism that prevented
>> organizational unity before
>> <I>Mayday!<I> still bedevils the anti-war movement.
>> The multi-issue "Movement" that seemed unstoppable in
>> the spring of
>> 1971 soon lost momentum as it was undercut by declining
>> draft calls and rising
>> sectarianism. The alternative press network eventually
>> collapsed under the weight
>> of this retrenchment, combined with economic recession,
>> disinformation and grand jury dragnets. Its demise left a
>> gap that remains to be
>> filled.
>> But the <I>Mayday!<I> organizing did establish a
>> visible role for women
>> and gays in the anti-war movement. "For the first time,"
>> commented a reporter from
>> Boston's <I>Fag Rag<I>, "many people were forced to deal
>> with us as a real part of
>> the movement, not just some lunatic fringe of queers which
>> has nothing to do with
>> 'real' politics."
>> And even <I>The Guardian<I> noticed the difference. The
>> <I>Mayday!<I>
>> tribes, that paper finally conceded, "turned strategic
>> defeat into what may ultimately
>> be seen as a moral victory. They showed above all and
>> despite errors that were
>> willing to fill the jails of Washington, in fact, to keep on
>> filling them until they
>> overflowed, in solidarity with the Vietnamese revolution and
>> in reaction to an
>> imperialist war."
>> In an editorial that same week, <I>The Guardian<I>
>> applauded the spring
>> offensive as "the most sustained and effective mass
>> political manifestation of the
>> anti-war movement," citing the "variety of tactics which
>> permitted the expression of
>> the spectrum of political and tactical views held by the
>> majority who oppose the
>> war." The paper also expressed hope that the sustained
>> character of the campaign
>> would set the tone for future organizing.
>> Finally, what won't stay buried is the legacy of a
>> sustained, multi-tactical
>> offensive-and particularly the massive, non-violent civil
>> disobedience organized by
>> local and regional groups of independent activists acting
>> outside of and in
>> conscious opposition to the pre-existing anti-war
>> "establishment." As the editors of
>> <I>Ramparts<I> magazine remarked shortly afterward, "if they
>> hadn't paralyzed the
>> nation's capital, they had at least sent shivers down its
>> spine."
>> ________________________
>> Mimi Morris is the editor of the <I>Columbus Guardian<I>, a
>> local news and
>> entertainment weekly in central Ohio. This article was
>> originally published in the
>> May 22, 1991 issue of the (now defunct, and unrelated)
>> national independent
>> radical newsweekly, <I>The Guardian<I>.
>> Research assistance was provided by Steven E. Conliff,
>> Michael Weber, Stew
>> Albert, Judy Clavir, Colin Neiburger, and the staff of the
>> Tamiment Library at New
>> York University.