Remembering Mayday 1971
Aspen’s Jay Cowan looks back on the last great anti-war protest
For the Aspen Times Weekly
This past Mayday marked the 50th anniversary of what was one of the last effective mass protests in Washington D.C. before the Black Lives Matter rally nearly half a century later. Demonstrators from all over the country convened for large-scale civil disobedience actions aimed at interfering with business as usual in the nation’s capitol.
I was 18 in 1971, a year out of Aspen High School and imminently draftable. People had been marching in America and Aspen for years to encourage our leaders to get us out of Vietnam, but instead the war was escalating. And those protesting it were being shot at Kent and Jackson State universities – 26 of them in one eleven-day period in 1970. Six died. The message seemed pretty clear: you should be prepared to sacrifice your life if you wanted to keep taking to the streets. A more direct attempt at a chilling effect was hard to imagine. And it worked.
As seniors at Aspen High, some of us had started to get involved in local and national issues. We led a march down Main Street on Vietnam Moratorium Day in May of 1970; staged a walkout from school when a teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed by officials who disliked her politics; and joined a group to demonstrate against an underground nuclear blast in nearby Rulison. I’d gotten involved in Joe Edwards’ progressive campaign for mayor while I was still in school, and my friend Hunter Thompson’s notorious bid for sheriff. Somehow I’d even been arrested in Paris in the fall of 1970 during demonstrations I didn’t know I was in while the trial of radical student leader Alain Geismar was going on.
With the exception of the school walkout, none of our efforts had much impact. I was ready to try something more meaningful.
Deciding not to go to college blew my military deferment, but I drew a high number in the draft lottery. Lots of guys my age didn’t. The son of local Claire Sanderson was one of the early casualties of that wretched and criminal war. She established a scholarship for graduates at Aspen High in her son William’s name and gave the first one to me for my activism in opposing the war. Since I wasn’t using it for school I’d spent some to go backpacking in Europe.
That left enough to buy a one-way plane ticket to D.C.
SATURDAY, MAY 1
Arriving at Dulles Airport to protest against the American empire felt decidedly dilettante-ish. It seemed like I should have walked there from Colorado, or at least hitched, which was the plan going home. But I got over my liberal guilt spasm soon enough and got off the airport bus at Algonquin and West Potomac parks just across the Potomac from the Jefferson Memorial.
A big concert was scheduled for that night and the crowd was ballooning to more than 50,000 live-music fans, revolutionaries, hippies, activists, movement honchos, the NAACP, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and random freaks – along with every street hustler and con artist from a three state area – in what turned out to be one last gathering of the tribes.
A loose central organization was directing people into open-air state caucuses, while others were collecting money for every cause in the book, as well as to bail us out in the days to come. I donated to the latter, bought a Free Angela Davis poster, and asked where I could find the Colorado contingent.
I was told to check near the Michigan area and when I couldn’t locate anyone from Colorado there I sat down and lit a joint. Shortly a smiling blonde in bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed blouse came over. “Hi. I’m Debby,” she said, and I passed her the smoke. “Where are you from?”
“Colorado. I’m Jay,” I replied.
She looked around and smiled and asked, “Have you found any other Colorado people?”
I shook my head and laughed and pretty soon she asked, “Do you want to join the Michigan group? I live in Ann Arbor.”
That was fine with me. She was funny, easy-going and cute, and later we went for the free meal of brown rice, beans and a salad. Of course. Combined with the love and revolution in the air, it all felt like some cliché pop-protest film. But that was fine too.
By that afternoon the celebration was in full swing. Serious demonstrating wouldn’t start until Monday. Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis, one of the leaders of the Mayday Tribe, spoke to the crowd about the increasing popular support from the people of South Vietnam. Circulars and petitions inundated “Peace Park.” Gay rights activists lobbied for understanding, feminists for courage, Black Panthers for solidarity.
Most of the music was second-tier and sometimes drowned out by the roar of jet traffic at nearby Washington National. Some of the Beach Boys played. We got a good, hard-rocking set from Mitch Ryder and Detroit (formerly Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, leaving us to wonder where the Wheels came off).
It was difficult to believe where I was, with a lady in my arms, the music blasting, the Washington memorial dominating the view and an electric sense of the drama to come.
All in all it was a good mega-party until we returned from a long trek to the stage and discovered that most of our camp had been stolen, except for Debby’s sleeping bag. She had wisely not left anything else, but I was out a good down bag and camera. After I finally grasped that I was an idiot for leaving anything there and needed to get over it, we settled in for the night.
SUNDAY, MAY 2
We fuzzily awoke on the Sabbath to helicopters clattering overhead and police bullhorns all around the park announcing that our permit to camp there had been revoked and we were to evacuate the site immediately or face arrest. In the ensuing exodus the impressive numbers of people left from the concert were whittled drastically back to the dedicated protesters, maybe 25,000. Those who had come just to hear the music, get high, get laid, say they were there and leave with a story, did.
The eviction seemed tactically mysterious because we were now much harder to keep track of. It became clearer the next day after National Public Radio’s (NPR) first broadcast ever came from our protests. Reporter Jeff Kamen started the coverage by saying that for many, “This was their Freedom Ride, their Selma March, their Mayday.”
Then he noted it also quickly became a test of their resolve. And a later NPR interview with a police commander revealed that the eviction and mass arrests were, “A city-wide strategy to keep the demonstrators on the run.”
The D.C. police didn’t want anyone congregating in large enough numbers to be able to block traffic with just their bodies. In the process they rounded up generally innocent people, beat some of them and filed charges that were mostly over-turned. It sounds like a script guaranteed to produce political embarrassment only no one was ashamed of a thing.
In anticipation of possible trouble, downtown D.C. was largely deserted on Sunday and we weren’t welcome as tourists at any of the famous sights. But meetings at all three major D.C. universities – George Washington, Georgetown and American – got out flyers with the word that “Mayday Lives!”
They also reminded us that the primary objective on Monday morning was to prevent as much commuter traffic as possible from reaching work, using whatever non-violent means were available for as long as we could remain effective. The goal was to stop Washington from conducting business as usual while the war raged on. We also wanted to show that we couldn’t be scared off from demonstrating.
In the directives coming out of the organizing committee it was made clear that we were not there to trash the capitol or harass the residents, and we were not to provoke confrontations with individuals in the army or police. No Chicago-style “days of rage” were planned, and the Weathermen had been conspicuously (and somewhat self-righteously) uninvited.
Specific targets for the traffic actions were left up to affinity groups to select from a list. Washington Circle, though a logical focal point for disruption, was ruled out because Mayday didn’t want to block access to George Washington University hospital, located on the circle. That could be disastrous for anyone needing emergency medical help, including us. (And indeed the next day an on-duty doctor told NPR they were, “Overflowing with lots of protestors getting gassed and beaten up… it looks like scare tactics to get rid of everyone.”)
We were provided with intel on how many National Guard and cops would be on hand (3,500), and what army troops would be seeing duty on the streets. The 503rd and 82nd out of Fort Bragg were described as largely antiwar; the 6th air cavalry regiment was said to be in very low morale, about to be broken up and uneager for action; the 519th was Vietnam vets, 70% Black, principally draftees, and we were told they didn’t want to be there. In the end more than 15,000 different army and police forces were deployed to carry out the plan of dispersing and arresting as many as possible. But as individuals they were not the enemy and we were told the obvious: to avoid taunting and obscenities and to treat them like fellow humans.
Instructions on how to build our own gas masks were provided, as was self-help for everything from bad dope to CS gas and Mace. Flushing your face and eyes with cold water was the main prescription for most of it. There were warnings about provocateurs, along with advice on how to dress for action. The sheer volume of information was impressive and well thought out, and the fact it was getting communicated at all was remarkable.
Another reason for police to scatter us from the parks was that it complicated our communications. We didn’t have cell phones and social media of course, but the word still got out via flyers. That’s worth considering today after the Internet and cell traffic were shutdown during unrest in China and the Arab Spring, and authorities have talked about how they could do it here.
We were invited to a church near the GW campus for the night and made ourselves comfortable on the floor, feeling snug and fortunate in our literal sanctuary. By that time two of the universities had been pressured not to allow any transients on their campuses, so the churches were filling up fast.
MONDAY, MAY 3
The next morning was smoggy and chilly as we geared up for lightweight urban guerilla action with a group called the Kalamazoo Krazies (what can I say?) who were planning on hit and run tactics. Acquiring experience at this sort of thing is tricky. Some juvenile delinquency in your past helps with the kind of instincts you need to successfully evade cops, and a sense of the theater of the absurd is also handy.
The traffic actions of Monday morning were to begin at 7 a.m. and last until 9 a.m. on the major bridges and interchanges all over Washington. Rumors of unsympathetic drivers with “brake problems” made people leery about using their bodies to stop high-speed traffic. And this was well before running over protesters had become fashionable amongst rabid right-wingers. So people had been encouraged to bring old clunkers to Washington that they didn’t mind abandoning in the middle of the 4-lanes. And we built used-tire barricades on the expressways while they were still mostly deserted.
When the police arrived we moved on to secondary streets with slower speed limits and more options for blocking the intersections. We tied things up at Pennsylvania and M Street for half an hour with just our bodies and the help of some drivers who staged engine problems. Then the cops fired a canister of tear gas into the middle of us from half a block away and it all turned to chaos.
Riot squads and cars advanced behind the toxic fog as protesters threw newspaper racks into the intersection while they fled. The dense layer of gas spread quickly and I sprinted away from it until I realized Debby and the Kalamazoo crew had headed down a side street the opposite direction.
Shit! I could see her waiting for me so I turned around, pulled my bandana over my face and ran back through the middle of the gas and the madness to join her. We made it nearly a block before we were too crippled to run, or even crawl, and everyone started dropping onto lawns, foaming, choking and rolling around trying not to rub the gas into our eyes and skin.
Soon the owners of the lawns were rushing outside, not to chase us off but to turn on their hoses and run them over our faces to take the fire out. It was a moment that made everything worthwhile, something I’ll never forget.
The cops were moving slowly toward us, arresting stragglers. Demonstrators were frothing and screaming and collapsing on strangers’ yards and those strangers knew how to help and were doing it. Black people had lots of experience being tear-gassed and we were in the middle of predominantly Black neighborhoods. Still, they had no reason to help us and every reason to stay inside with the doors locked, the way people were in the small businesses downtown and all the white suburbs.
“Are you alright?” Debby asked after a while.
I was nearly drowning under a hose because my eyes were on fire. “No!” I spluttered. “But I think I will be.”
I couldn’t breathe because of the gas and the water, and I couldn’t figure out which was worse – not breathing or not seeing. It took a few minutes to be able to do both and then we were off, red-eyed and soaked, but stoked to still be on the loose.
Then it turned even more bizarrely cinematic, like Robert Altman had taken over directing duties. A dozen Nazis in full regalia, wearing gas masks and carrying a swastika flag, were goose-stepping down Pennsylvania Avenue through clouds of gas and weaving cars. We were happy to see that the Nazis, the cops and the gas were tying up traffic just fine without us.
Eventually we headed back toward GWU and ran into swarms of other Maydayers retreating to the universities, seeking refuge. “Looking for love, in all the wrong places,” as it turned out, and running straight into police dragnets making massive, illegal sweeps of the campuses. We missed being cracked by half a block.
Some of this happened right in front of the International Red Cross offices where business went on just as if protesters weren’t being gassed on their doorstep. And fleeing kids were also getting scooped up in front of the dorms, where other kids – students – were refusing them admittance.
Debby shouted at a group of them out of sheer frustration, “If you’re so fucking pro-war, why don’t you drop out and enlist?”
Wondering where we’d be safe and clearly looking stranded, our group got an offer to move into an unoccupied house in the suburbs, plus transportation there and back. So 13 of us stuffed into a Bronco and headed to Maryland.
We returned to Washington for a mass meeting that afternoon at St. Stephen Church, arriving an hour late after checking out the multiple 16th and Newton locations in that fucked up city, where every address has three near-duplicates. Did the architect copy the street plan from the way government works, or did government copy their behavior from the convoluted streets?
At St. Stephen we heard that nearly 7,000 people had been arrested so far, 5,000 on campuses, meaning only 2,000 were caught on the streets possibly committing actual crimes. The rest was a form of wholesale preventive detentions that would turn into a legal nightmare for the District of Columbia.
The assembly split into regional groups that delegated representatives to attend a strategy session to decide what we’d do the next day. Two of us went to it because no one else wanted to. The meeting, consisting of about 25 people upstairs at the church, was run by a woman from the Mayday Tribe and was badly torn between three basic proposals. We were also tense about the numerous provocateurs and hard-core anarchists on site. Several people – an especially vocal woman in her 30s and a couple of other sullen, thug-looking guys – wanted to go stronger now and start full-on trashing, firebombing cop cars and generally lighting it up.
“All of this crap today failed. It didn’t do shit,” said one of them.
But the woman from Mayday kept moving the discussion back to the main strategies of a march on the Justice Department, a mass traffic action in Columbus and Washington Circles, and guerilla traffic raids nearby. She cautioned me when I started talking with the hard-ass-set during a break.
“There are a lot of weird people here. Some of them are crazy, some of them just want to burn it all down,” she waved a hand at one of the people I’d been talking to. Truly, for some this was the anarchists Woodstock and they were ready to rumble. “And some of them are cops and agitators. We’ve been keeping an eye on a couple of them because no one knows or trusts them. You need to be very careful.”
We were all hearing “the voice of rage and ruin” John Fogerty sang about. I didn’t always disagree with it, but it wasn’t part of the plan here. I finally made the obvious suggestion that we endorse all three options and it was unanimously adopted, mostly out of fatigue I think. The woman in charge said that since it was my idea I should announce it to the main assembly.
I was shocked and said, “I’m about the least qualified person here, I think that’s a bad idea.”
Someone else said, “You’re also the only draft-aged male in the room.”
But several others agreed with me and lobbied hard for the speaking job themselves. One was a guy dressed in army fatigues who was widely thought to be an agent. By the time we got downstairs he was doing everything he could to take over the podium and tell everyone to go nuts. Finally the NAACP had a couple of people isolate him and move him out. Then one of the NAACP leaders took over to introduce me to the crowd.
It all happened so quickly that it wasn’t until later I realized I’d been picked because no one sane wanted to be photographed speaking to this, or any other similar mob. Depending on how it went it could turn into inciting a riot, a federal crime. I didn’t exactly tumble to this on my own, either. Someone in our group asked me later, “Why do you think we didn’t even want to go to that big meeting? I don’t want my picture taken or my name on anything that happens here. You’ll be on some bad lists for the rest of your life.” So I’d been the perfect stooge – young, dumb and unknown.
But I hadn’t figured any of this out yet when I was in the pulpit, so I was still buzzed. As I looked out over the thousands of people in the cavernous interior of St. Stephen’s, it was stunning. We’d been cloistered, so to speak, since we got to the church, first with the regional meetings, then the strategy session, and all the tumult around the dais. I hadn’t realized how big the church was or how many people were there. And the sea of bodies and upturned faces I was looking across was less exciting than spooky.
“Okay. Let’s get this done so we can all get out of here,” said the NAACP guy. He asked for quiet, leaned over and adjusted the mike and stepped out of my way.
I stammered something, he said, “Louder,” so I dialed it up. “The outcome of the regional representatives meeting is to endorse three targets for tomorrow: A mass traffic action for 7:45 a.m. concentrated in Scott and Washington circles; Guerilla traffic actions from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. in the broad area around those circles; and a mass civil disobedience action coordinating with the People’s Coalition march on the Justice Department at 11:30. Affinity groups are encouraged to join any or all actions. It will be a busy day,” I added lamely.
Down in front people started shouting at me. “What about trashing?”
“Mayday organizers are strongly rejecting any calls for trashing. They do not endorse them and are not calling for them,” I read from a piece of paper. It was what we had agreed we needed to say, even though there was justified anger given our treatment so far.
But it wasn’t what we were there for. And it was easy to view everyone advocating violence as agitators because there were so many of them. At times in meetings or groups we were actually outnumbered by undercover cops and informants. A few days later we ran into an agent near the Capitol steps who abandoned all pretense in front of us and began openly taking photos of everyone. When we pressed him about it he looked at us like we were stupid.
“Grow up!” he snapped. “You’ve been photographed a hundred times by now. What do you think? You’re going to change anything hassling me? You should just move on and stay out of trouble.”
He was right. And frankly almost everyone there expected to be on file somewhere after all of this was over, no matter what they said. If they weren’t they would have felt cheated.
The situation at St. Stephens was increasingly surreal as the rally concluded with a wave of clenched fists from the crowd, and for a moment it looked eerily like footage of Nazi rallies in WWII Germany. I had a queasy realization of the power in a podium in a place like that where emotions were high and people were ready to vent, and left quickly.
TUESDAY, MAY 4
The planned traffic actions the next day failed almost utterly when riot cops showed up at every proposed target. What a shock. Never had anyone’s plans been more fully broadcast than ours. But we still got what we wanted. We didn’t totally stop traffic, but people had to drive through the streets of the nation’s capitol with throngs of fully accessorized riot police everywhere, looking very much like a Third World dictatorship.
Heading on foot for Dupont Circle early in the morning we had one minor skirmish with a cop car and two officers who decided to be our personal escorts. But we ditched them and struggled to keep the size of our group down on the off chance we could avoid attracting attention. It didn’t work.
Along the way to the Justice Department we stopped to talk with some Winter Soldiers, a highly respected and decorated Vietnam veteran’s outfit, and we picked up more groups there. The soldiers had just finished testifying in front of Congress about atrocities in Southeast Asia and were as grim and somber as that duty would imply. It added gravity to the moment.
As we walked along Connecticut a few minutes later we had grown to about 50 people and were strung out along the block in front of a construction site when the police moved in from all sides. A film crew from an NBC station across the street came over and passers-by and even some of the hardhats on the job site began to sympathize with us.
Once again people were being hauled off who had done nothing wrong, only this time it was in full view of civilians and on TV. They ran an interview that evening with a businessman on the street at the time who said we were doing nothing illegal he could see. When asked why we had stopped there he replied: “Because the traffic light said ‘don’t walk’.”
Our bus ride to jail was notable for the persistent loudmouth in the front who wouldn’t shut up and eventually got all of us near him Maced. It was way more immediate and debilitating than the tear gas and totally unnecessary given our confined state. I still have a ruptured blood vessel in one eye from it, and it didn’t even shut the loudmouth up.
After a tedious booking process where Debby and I were split up, they sent me with 17 other males to be stuffed into a two-man cell. I got to know a few interesting people and at one point glanced across the hall at another overbooked cage to see Rennie Davis looking bored and fatigued.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
He smiled weakly. “Fine. You?”
“I’m a little restless. Any idea when they’ll start cutting people loose?”
“It depends. We’re organizing to bail out some of the local citizens who have been in here for a long time on bogus charges. So it could be awhile, or they may let us all out when we start doing that.”
Just as predicted, once lots of us started posting for the locals, it didn’t take long for the police to turn everyone free. Seventeen hours after being picked up we were all back on the streets on $10 collateral bonds.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 5
After a lot of wild rice and not enough sleep we set out across state lines once again the next morning for the purpose of demonstrating. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that this could be another crime itself until someone in jail mentioned that the government was crafting language to be able to add it to anyone’s offenses that they could prove wasn’t staying in DC proper.
Six of us were dropped off in front of the Capitol thinking that today we’d be happy to be seen and not busted. We the People, in the form of Mayday demonstrators, had been invited to the Capitol steps to listen to speeches from several congress people, including Ron Dellums and Bella Abzug, both prominent antiwar leaders.
This fact was of no interest to the DC police who rolled into the area in division strength with a massive fleet of their ominous gray buses with barred windows. As we approached the steps a uniformed officer told us, “If you go to the Capitol steps you’ll be arrested. If you don’t want that to happen, go watch and listen from the other side of the street and the parking lot.”
Debby shrugged and said, “We’ve been invited here.”
So we joined what would eventually be 1,200 others who did nothing but listen to speeches, hold hands, chant, make out and enjoy the nice day. For anyone who wonders how this differed from the fascist insurrection on the same site this past January, none of our crowd invaded the building, broke windows, threatened congress people, rioted, or beat cops to death. For instance.
Another difference was, we got arrested. And that started before the speeches were done as the police began wading in, making their stupidest Mayday moves yet, clubbing congressman Dellums in the process and looking out of control on national TV. They had to remove about half of us physically when we went limp and forced their hands. It pissed them off and they bumped us down the steps like sacks of potatoes, then shoved us off to a whole Brave New World on-the-spot booking process, hitherto unknown and untried in the Land of the Free, with Polaroid photos and single-digit fingerprints.
Ten years and two months later most of us received a few thousand dollars each, courtesy of an ACLU class-action lawsuit against the District of Columbia. I kicked mine back to the ACLU but kept a letter saying: “Never before in American history had the courts awarded money damages to anyone for the violation of their First Amendment rights… the principle is now recognized that government can be held accountable for violating the free speech rights of its citizens.”
We were shipped from the Capitol to the Washington Coliseum, and it wasn’t to see the Ice Capades advertised on the sign out front. The bulk of us were held on the floor in what was dubbed Fort Richard Nixon, the latest in a long line of American concentration camps. Our government had apparently learned something from all the dictators it had befriended for years.
But we made the best of it. Joints and bits of acid began circulating on the floor, along with fruit, soup and sandwiches from local churches. Our keepers did their jobs without much enthusiasm, and looked the other way as the drugs were passed around. We even had some joints passed to us by a Guardsman.
MAY 6 & 7
At 10:30 the next day the police started dragging each of us to the exits where we were piled back in the buses and taken to Precinct One where 120 of us were closeted in a cell meant for fewer than half that. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees while we were served an endless supply of bologna sandwiches. With a packed cell full of ego-trippers, time passed slowly. We kept hearing that judges would be coming soon to inspect our overcrowded conditions and then we’d be released.
Fifty hours into captivity I made a note that the animals had taken over the farm, the mouth-runners were becoming unbearable and that there wasn’t enough food to go around. When the time came I bailed out using the legal-aid fund I’d already donated to. With over 70 hours of jail time total under my belt in the last four days I was happy to spend Friday night back in Maryland.
Debby and I made plans for her to come to Colorado, but we knew it was unlikely. Our last night together was sad as we crashed from a week’s worth of adrenalin. The revolution, the romance, the rock festival, running wild in the streets – it was all over except the war, and we were headed back to work and the real world. Business as usual, including in Vietnam.
SATURDAY, MAY 8
In the gray morning I made my goodbyes to everyone while collecting full names and addresses. Debby and I actually stayed in touch for a while, but I never heard from Doc Church, Erik Grabow, Bruce Jenkins or Ed Purtz again. I walked out to the freeway and stuck out my thumb and wasn’t sure we’d really accomplished anything at all.
However, on behalf of the 12,000 people arrested (the largest mass incarcerations in American history), the ACLU eventually won landmark court cases protecting free speech and the right to peaceful assembly.
And within a year our country was negotiating for peace in Vietnam. Mayday’s role in causing that is hard to quantify. But in a 2005 column by Mark Rudd, former student leader and founding member of the SDS and Weathermen, he wrote that, “Throughout American history, popular movements have made vast transformations in the social and political geography of this country – the abolition movement, the woman’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the gay movement. My own contribution is to tell the story of how an antiwar movement involving millions of people accomplished something unique in American history and almost unique in the history of empires: We helped stop a war of aggression by our own country. This was American democracy at its best.”
Jay Cowan is an Aspen-based writer. His most recent book is “Scandal Aspen: The Rich and Famous Run Amok in Paradise.“
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