Washington After Dark

(This piece appeared first in the CRIMSON four days after the March on the Pentagon in 1967. Many people called the March on the Pentagon a turning point in War Protest. Many people later called Lerner's article one of the reasons why, at Harvard, three hundred demonstrators turned up to lock a Dow Chemical Corporation representative in a room for seven hours.

In many ways Lerner's piece offers advice on what to watch for in Washington.)

WHEN my American Airlines flight touched down in Washington last Saturday morning the intercom snapped on and the stewardess announced in a voice straining to retain its routine cool, "Whatever your purpose in coming to Washington we hope you will have a pleasant day. On behalf of myself and the crew..."

A few moments before the same stewardess had been chatting with a handsome executive in the seat in front of me. Both of them had relatives who had been in the Air Force, and they were swapping stories about how many times their fathers had been shot down. With a touch of one-ups-manship, the exec finally ended the conversation by describing how his father had been killed in the Korean War. The stewardess shook her head knowingly and looked back at me. She obviously had my number.

Paranoia had already set in. Once inside the terminal, two women came up to me and apologetically asked me if I were a "-Hippy" and if I were going to the March. There was nothing to say. At the taxi stand marchers recognized each other with few words. The cabby who took me and four other marchers to the Lincoln Memorial questioned us in a non-committal attitude about the planned activities for the day. But when we reached the Mcmorial, his neutrality disappeared and he tripled the fare. This kind of harassment was reported by many of the marchers who had run into difficulties getting to Washington. Thousands of New Yorkers never made it because their chartered buses did not appear. Some bus drivers, half way to Washington, would find a pretext for delaying the trip-one of them actually turned around in New Jersey and drove back to New York because, he said, he was working overtime. A girl from lower Manhattan told me that when she learned her bus had been cancelled, she called up railroad information and explained her plight; the operator told her to spend the weekend in New York where she belonged.

The scene at the Reflecting Pool was something akin to a Be-in on the banks of the Charles save that the preparations were more elaborate. Some 50 Negro D.C. policemen were grouped on the far side of the gathering demonstrators getting a pep talk from a white police sergeant; a Red Cross station was set up by the Army as a constant reminder that the authorities expected trouble. As the crowd grew, the entertainment started-everyone seemed to be walking around aimlessly looking for someone.

As the hour that the march was to begin drew near, the picnic-like atmosphere began to fade and people congregated around banners or famous anti-war personalities. Many of the more militant groups-including contingents from the Communist Party, Progressive Labor, a group of NLF sympathizers, and Students for a Democratic Society-moved toward the head of the Refleeting Pool so that they could be close to the front of the parade. Ironically, they ended up in what had been the segment of the march designated for "religious groups." The tactics were clear. The militants had heard that authorities planned to keep the demonstration in the North Parking Lot, well removed from the Pentagon. If there was any confrontation, they didn't want to miss it.

As I stood with Mike Spiegel '68, National Secretary of SDS, and a number of other students from Harvard, it became clear that everyone expected trouble. Some were wearing crash helmets and others who wore glasses had remembered to bring along an extra pair. Vague plans had been laid to spend the night at the Pentagon, but no one really knew if the vigil was going to come off. There was a good deal of speculation about what kind of people had showed up and how they would react under stress. Spiegel was not pleased with the hippies and was afraid that they would make a joke out of the confrontation. "The authorities really know what they're doing,' 'Spiegel explained. "And they know that it's easier to control a crowd if there are a lot of small bands. All they have to do is put the Fugs on a truck and then make sure that they can control where the truck goes-the hippies will follow them like sheep."

But the hippies, true to their nature, were only a fringe group by the time the main body of marchers reached the Pentagon. Down in the Parking Lot, away from the action, they were exorcising the Pentagon, pointing their fingers at the building and chanting "Out Demons Out." It was an incredible circus with the hippies deign their thing, the politicos doing theirs, and, of course, the military doing theirs.

Charging towards the steps of the Pentagon, many marchers managed to bypass the Army's first line of defense and ran into a secondary wall of MP's. Piling up behind the MP's more troops moved in to re-inforce the original line; U.S. Marshals wearing white helmets, business suits and night sticks patrolled the lines. There was a little pushing on both sides, a few minor skirmishes, but nothing very serious. Most of the protestors were satisfied with the ground they had gained-what was later to be christened the "Free Pentagon" -and were convinced that the violence was over. As the afternoon wore on, the military attempted a few flanking movements in an effort to cut off the demonstrators sitting on the steps. They were repulsed. SDS had set up their microphones on the wall beside the top steps and was directing traffic and posting troop movements for those who couldn't see: "About 50 MP's are trying to block off the stairs... they're using tear gas... it looks like our people have them surrounded... yup, it looks like a rout," one of the speakers calmly announced to the crowd.

The whole spirit of the confrontation changed when some 500 demonstrators broke through the line of MP's from the North and raced toward the Mall entrance. While only two or three of the demonstrators actually made it to the door, hundreds of them sat down near the entrance. A number of them were lugged off to paddy wagons. Those who remained, still hemmed in by the MP's, began to settle down for the night. By then, many of the reporters decided that the action was over and that they had worked a full day. But in truth the violence had just begun.

Most people who left the demonstration around 7 p.m. Saturday night felt that while there were a few isolated cases of brutality by Federal Marshals, on the whole the troops had been well behaved in the face of a great deal of abuse and provocation. Those who stayed until midnight-when the last reporters had gone home and the last T.V. crew (BBC) had been told that it couldn't use its spot light because it was provoking incidents-went away with an entirely different impression.

A girl was slapped on the side of the head with a rifle butt and all of a sudden coke bottles; beer cans, pieces of wood, and stones flew into the phalanx of soldiers.

Word apparently had been passed to the troops that the last charge by the group of demonstrators who rushed the Pentagon doors was sufficient reason for cracking down on the protestors. The Marshals began to push the MP's forward until they were pressed against the sitting demonstrators. Then they would tell an unfortunate protestor to move-an absurd request because the seated crowd was packed knee to knee. When he didn't move, they clubbed him and anyone who tried to hold onto him. Many of the demonstrators pleaded with the soldiers to drag people out instead of clubbing them. But the soldiers evidently had orders to leave the removal of protestors to the Marshals; they were there only to hold the line and flatten anyone the Marshals decided to pick on.

The action slackened up long enough for the demonstrators to start thinking about their stomachs instead of their heads. Hundreds of people kept a constant supply of food and water flowing to the front until everyone had eaten his fill. But even after the hunger and thirst had been satiated, the supply line continued to bring food as if life were indeed dependent upon it. The fact that an unorganized group which had somehowcome together in a common cause was able to feed itself, set up lines of communication, muster lawyers and doctors to the scene was a source of a great deal of pride to many of the demonstrators.