Washington, DC protests against the war in Vietnam (Mayday), 1971

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Actions at the end of April 1971 contributed to the May day protest but were organized by different groups.
1 May
3 May
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Washington, DC
The purpose of this campaign was to shut down the U.S. federal government for at least one day, as a sanction for the government's not having committed to ending the Vietnam War.

The Mayday protest was a series of large-scale demonstrations against the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War. It happened in 1971 in Washington, DC from May 1 to May 3 and diminished within several days. The goal was to shut down the federal government offices, because the Mayday Tribe (a largely young and more militant segment of the U.S. anti-war movement) had given an ultimatum to the Nixon Administration that this would happen if it did not end the war. "Mayday" was a play on words, since the protest was planned for the first of May but "Mayday" is also a codeword signaling crisis or emergency.

The Mayday protest took place one year after President Nixon and his administration decided to invade Cambodia, a neighboring country of Vietnam. When Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, and his administration came into power they stated the goal of bringing an end to the war. However, an escalation took place in which masses of people died and the war widened to neighboring countries.

Many citizens, especially university students, responded to the escalation of the war by heightening their staging of nonviolent actions. During one of the walkouts in Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guardsmen fired their guns into a crowd of protesters killing four and wounding nine.

Ten days later, two students were killed and twelve wounded at Jackson State University in Mississippi. These actions, as well as previous measures taken by the government, pushed more of the undecided people to oppose the war. As a result, by the end of May 1970, it was estimated that one half of the student population took part in anti-war activities.

Mayday protests occurred after nearly two weeks of intense anti-war protests. The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (WAW) made protests between April 19th and 23rd, followed on April 24th, which was a day of national demonstration against the war. The purpose of these actions was to shut down the government for at least one day. Organizers said that the aim of the Mayday actions was to raise the social cost of the war for American rulers. One of the organizers said, “…Creativeness, joy and life against bureaucracy and grim death. That’s nonviolent civil disobedience; that’s Mayday.” Protesters wanted to stop the government by going into the downtown streets of Washington, DC, and stopping government officials from getting to work. Their slogan was: “If the government will not stop the war, we will stop the government”. The protesters called themselves the Mayday Tribe and took the image of a sitting bull as their representation.

Before the actions took place, protesters were given a manual that described 21 detailed key bridges and traffic circles. Protesters were told to block the roads nonviolently using stalled vehicles, jury rigged barricades, or their bodies. They were also told to break down into “affinity groups.” These were groups of five to fifteen people who would jointly take part in the actions. The manual asked the protesters to come in waves, thus one affinity group would sit down at the target until arrested and then additional waves of demonstrators would follow.

On May 1, around 25,000 members of the Mayday Tribe moved into Washington to block their designated targets. However, the government was already prepared for their move. Combined force of 10,000 police, National Guard, and federal troops with around 4,000 troops available on reserve were ready to act. They got the order to be “firm” and to arrest every demonstrator on sight.

One of the protesters recalls, “There were people just running through the streets, there were cops running after them. Any time you stood still you’d be arrested, so you had to keep moving.” The protesters used radios in order to communicate with each other. One of the other protesters recalls, “We had all these very expensive radios…. And every major group that had a target had a radio and was in communication with the other base.”

As a result of actions that took place on May 1, more than 7,000 people were arrested; another 6,000 were arrested over three more days. In order to transport all the protesters, the police had to commandeer city buses and when that was not enough the police had to hired trucks. Even though the police put as many as twenty people in a two-person cell, the city jails were not enough for all the arrested people. Another 1,500 people were put into the jail’s recreational yard, and the rest of protesters were taken to the fenced practice field of Washington Redskins football team, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Most of the protesters were let out the next day; nevertheless, the arrested protesters had a very hard time because the conditions at the jails had been awful. There were no sanitary facilities, blankets or food. Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was also held in detention, said: “Calling this a concentration camp would be a very appropriate description.”

This massive arrest made many people feel sympathetic towards the protesters. Local residents that lived near the football field supported the protesters by throwing items over the fence such as food, blankets and notes of encouragement. Most of the local people were African American, and within a day the leaders of their communities organized large-scale food drives for the arrested people. One of the leaders of the Mayday Tribe, Rennie Davis, who was a militant activist and one of the Chicago seven, was convicted under the federal anti-riot law and was taken into custody.

Mayday protests did not achieve the desired goal of shutting down the government on May 3rd and most of the government employees got into work while just being late; yet, the Mayday tribe played a role in damaging Nixon’s career and made the process of getting US troops out of Vietnam faster. Richard Helms, the CIA director, has admitted about Mayday protests, “It was obviously viewed by everybody in the administration, particularly with all the arrests and howling about civil rights and human rights and all the rest of it… as a very damaging kind of event. I don’t think there was any doubt about that.”

Research Notes

May day protests were influenced by previous protests against war in Vietnam that were organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1).

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Halloran, R. (1971). 7,000 arrested in capital war protest; 150 are hurt as clashes disrupt traffic. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0503.html

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Chomsky, N. (1971). A special supplement: Mayday. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/jun/17/a-special-supplement-mayday-the-case-for-civil-dis/

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Yulia Senina, 02/03/2012