Americans blockade Washington, DC, to protest the Vietnam War, 1971

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Extensive planning went into this campaign prior to 1 May 1971
1 May
1971
to
6 May
1971
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Washington, D.C.
Goals: 
To shut down the federal government, and to stop the Vietnam War
 

“If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”
That was the central slogan of the Mayday campaign.

The Anti-Vietnam War movement included striking examples of nonviolent direct action. Many of the protests against the Vietnam War took place in the mid-1960s, when the war was still in its early stages, but demonstrations grew in numbers toward the end of the decade. One of the more dramatic efforts to end the war took place in 1971, when the war was rapidly losing public support among American citizens.

When a group of young anti-war activists concluded that their numbers were largely ineffective when the protests were not strategically planned, they decided to harness the unrest and create a bolder campaign.

The Mayday Tribe was formed by Rennie Davis and Jerry Coffin, who intended the group as what they called a more “responsible, hip alternative” to the Weather Underground, an anti-war group that had turned to violence. By 1971, many radical anti-war activists were convinced that violence was the only way to force people in power to listen – the failure of previous protests had demoralized them.

Davis and Coffin, on the other hand, were committed to nonviolent action, and they made very clear that the Mayday Tribe would have nothing to do with violence. Inspired by a failed 1964 blockade of New York City and a wildly successful blockade of Seattle freeways in 1970, Davis and Coffin began to map out a strategy for nonviolently forcing the federal government into complete shutdown.

The Mayday Tribe compiled a 135-page guide to the action, detailing exactly how protesters would blockade twenty-one different key sites around Washington. For example: “The regional groups will be broken into units of 10-25 people. The units will move in waves, one unit in each wave, onto the road. They will sit down in a circle, and pass the pipe and play music until arrested. The next wave will then move to the road.”

The Mayday Collective, made up of five or six key leaders, organized the Tribe into regions, and delegated all individual tactical decisions to regional leaders. Given widespread disillusionment with previous mass demonstrations that had been organized by top-down national structures, the lack of a national structure was attractive to many activists, and allowed them to personally reconnect to the movement.

More specifically, regions were encouraged to organize into small affinity groups. Each group, made up of roughly 15 people, was tasked with coming up with some way to nonviolently disrupt downtown Washington, but was not given specific guidance – only a place to go to perform their preferred tactic.

On Saturday, 1 May, 45,000 people gathered at West Potomac Park for final training and planning. They advertised “Free Music, Free Dope, Free Food.” The government had planned to disrupt this festival and scatter the participants with low-flying helicopters, but activists fought back by tethering enormous helium balloons to various points around the park with cable heavy enough to trap helicopter blades.

The festival continued as planned, and 40,000 people camped out at the Park that night.

On Sunday morning, activists awoke to riot police informing them that their permit to camp at the park had been revoked, and that everyone must leave immediately. The police fired tear gas liberally, and knocked down tents to awaken campers. Those that refused to leave were arrested, and police were stationed at other parks around the city to prevent the protesters from regrouping.

When police realized that many protesters had fled to Georgetown University, they lobbed tear gas over the gates of the college at the hundreds of protesters hiding there.

By the end of the day, only 25,000 protesters remained in the city, camped at various established anti-war centers throughout the city.

On Monday, 3 May, the day of the planned protests, more than 10,000 military and police forces flooded the DC area in order to combat the planned shutdown. They were ordered to arrest every demonstrator.

Protesters built barricades but scattered as soon as they spotted police. Police destroyed the barricades, but protesters rebuilt them as soon as they returned.

By 8:00 am, 7,000 people, including many bystanders that just happened to be in the wrong place, had been arrested. Since the DC prisons could not handle so many people, a temporary holding station was set up outside RFK stadium.

No food, water, or bathroom was provided, but local residents brought supplies to the detained protesters. Many of these residents had been harshly opposed to the Mayday Tribe’s disruption plan, but were shocked by the denial of civil liberties present at the detention center. The government’s oppression had pulled more people to the side of the protesters.

Though the protests seemed very disorganized – everyone had to keep running at all times, or they would be arrested – the affinity group structure and an extensive radio communication network kept everyone informed and updated on strategy at all times.

The massive police reaction guaranteed that the government would not be shut down, though many federal workers were certainly delayed several hours.

Some commented that the city seemed to be under siege.

Over the next several days, remaining un-arrested protesters continued to lay blockades at places like the Justice Department and the Capitol building. 6,000 more people were arrested over the next few days, shattering the record for most arrests in a single action.

Though the Mayday protest action did not directly lead to the end of the Vietnam War, and the Tribe disintegrated shortly afterwards, some observers believe that the protests eventually had an impact on public opinion. Some observers also believed that the regional nature of the organizing for the national action had a positive movement-building impact. The organizers hoped that Mayday was not an end, but a beginning.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Influenced by the failed blockade of New York City in 1964, and the successful Seattle blockade in 1970. (1)

Sources: 
"Ending a war, inventing a movement: Mayday 1971." Libcom.org. 27 July 2007. <http://libcom.org/library/ending-war-inventing-movement-mayday-1971>

Barber, Lucy G. (2002) Marching on Washington . University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kelly Schoolmeester, 19/04/2010