Friday, May 22, 2009

Creating Mayhem

"The aim of Mayday actions is to raise the social cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America's rulers," recorded the Mayday Tribe in their tactical manual. This would take some organizing… (below: protest poster)

Mayday Tribe To Do List:
· Coordinate with the National Peace Action Coalition and agree to sponsor acts of civil disobedience from April 24th, 1971 through the first week of May
· Establish plans to block entry points in to the heart of Washington, DC thereby preventing federal employees from getting to work. Shut down the government!
· Form “affinity groups,” of 6-7 people to act together and create mayhem on May 3, 1971
The anti-war protesters were organized, and they should have been. Protests against the Vietnam War occurred annually since 1963. The call to descend on the District in April was largely successful; over 200,000 showed up. There were performances with John Denver and Pete Seger. In May, a smaller group remained in DC. This group was different; the Mayday Tribe was a more militant faction willing to create chaos by force, but this time the Police and National Guard were ready. They too, had had nearly a decade of riot experience.

Law Enforcement To Do list:
· Infiltrate groups with undercover police agents to learn of protest plans
· Go to the courts to determine what minimum requirements are needed to make mass arrests. Establish how many people an officer can arrest in one day and still remember the details
· Create fill-in-the-blank arrest forms
· Supply paddywagons with Polaroid cameras to help officers recall arrestees and events
· Use new kind of handcuff, called a “flexicuff,” pre-marked with the arresting officer’s badge number
· On day before protest, evacuate 30,000 protesters camped in West Potomac Park, citing raging drug use. Use tear gas if necessary.

Madness ensued on May 3rd. 20,000 thousand protestors, many decked out in army fatigues, took the streets early, blocking key intersections from Dupont Circle to the Tidal Basin Bridge. At the Memorial Bridge they blocked entry using bike racks and other barricades. In Georgetown, one affinity group commandeered a pickup truck, by releasing the parking brake and riding it down hill on M Street eventually parking it in the middle of an intersection. 1,400 members of the DC National Guard mobilized, reinforces with 4,000 army soldiers. Using helicopters to monitor the protests, law enforcement tracked the movement of the mobs. By the end of the day over 7,000 individuals had been arrested. Police began ignoring the arrest forms and simply sticking anyone who looked like a protester into vans. When local precinct jails filled to capacity, the police held arrestees at RFK stadium. Despite the chaos, the federal government did not shut down.

Fall-out from the event is interesting. The Mayday Protest marked the last major anti-war protest as well as the largest mass arrest in DC History. Beginning that year, the Nixon administration began the first withdraw of troops. The public attitude toward the protest was mixed. Many condemned its violence as anti-American, while others saw the arrests a breach of first amendment rights. The mass arrests triggered several court cases regarding false arrest and infringement of free speech and assembly. The last case was settled ten years later, and resulted in the government paying protesters between $750 to $2500 for false arrest and violations of the first amendment.

Sources: Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington.

Jeff Leen, “The Vietnam Protests: When Worlds Collided,” The Washington Post (September 27, 1999), Page A1.


  1. I think an interesting about this is that the Mayday Tribe ultimately failed to gain traction and move the protest movement. While they wanted to incorporate "fringe groups," (like women, blacks, gays, middle-aged) over 85% of the protesters were young white males. Other anti-war groups denounced them for being anti-feminine and homophobic. Their protest movement, in sense, imploded from within rather than from outside forces (like the police or government).

    And yet, though they didn't succeed in their mission, they were media savvy and able to create stirring images that we remember from the Vietnam War. So I guess they must have had some impact in ending it...

  2. Reminiscence-The images of the teens of the sixties and seventies involved in war protests is a stark contrast to my other memories of the photos of our childhoods in the fifties. What was in our character and upbringing that prepared us for what was to come? We girls wore hats and white gloves and knew “to be seen and not heard” in our childhood. A dozen years later as a teen, I recall listening to girl friends, sisters who were active in war protests tell me that it was important to braid long hair and stuff it in your shirt, so the police couldn’t grab it and to wear tie shoes; not sandals and stuff the laces in the shoes, so you could run. It was time to be seen and heard.