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.
Throughout the evening demonstrators talked to the guards about their political views, urged them to drop their guns and "join us," and offered them food. SDS loud speakers announced that three of the guards had defected and had then been recaptured by the military. Although it is hard to verify the defections, a number of the demonstrators say they saw at least one of the defectors. Right after the first announcement that an MP had "dropped his rifle, taken off his belt and helmet, and walked into the crowd," a soldier missing his rifle, belt, and helmet was marched (under what appeared to be armed guard) up the steps of the Pentagon and into the building.
But in all, the soldiers were unresponsive to the "teach-out" tactics that the demonstrators adopted. Occasionally one would break down and crack a smile, or mutter under his breath that he wasn't allowed to talk. Thus, save for the threats from the Marshals, the only time I heard a soldier speak was when the paratrooper in front of me turned to his sergeant and said in a disgusted voice. "Somebody's smoking grass."
Around 10 p.m. when the harassment started up again, units from the 82nd Airborne were brought in to replace the MP's. As they stepped into line, one by one, they stamped to attention and slapped the metal butts of their carbines on the concrete making a frightening sound. While the MP's looked like a bunch of frightened kids in uniform, the paratroopers looked tough and disciplined. The next two hours proved that they were as tough as they looked; as the soldiers inched further into the crowd more people were beaten and torn away from those who tried to hold them.
A messenger came running from the North side of the Pentagon with news of violent clashes between Marshals and demonstrators near the access roads. 'This is a picnic up here," he screamed, "people are being massacred down there. You can hear the heads splitting a block away." There was discussion about whether people should leave their positions and go down to the access roads but it was decided that it was best to stay. A boy next to me started memorizing the number of a local lawyer. Someone else from behind me said that they wouldn't mind being taken to jail, where it was warm, but she didn't feature getting clubbed.
Near midnight, the tempo of arrests and clubbing accelerated. People started singing all the old Civil Rights songs over and over. They sang because they were scared and because they felt less alone when thy could hear their own righteousness and the unity of the group ringing in their ears. They sang because otherwise they would have screamed or cried or run away. They linked their arms and legs, not so much because they didn't want to be dragged away, but because it was cold, they were scared, and holding onto someone else was reassuring.
People who had not talked with each other all evening introduced themselves and immediately befriended whoever was sitting near them. A scrawny boy named Cliff was sitting in front of me holding onto my feet. After telling me twice that he came from Maine but had been living in D.C. for the last two weeks, he admitted that he wanted to leave. "I want to get out of here. but I just can't desert-I don't know how I got here in the first place-I was going to spend the week-end in Maine."
A lot of people in the front lines were thinking this way and were asking themselves just what the hell they were doing waiting to be bashed in the head. "I didn't come here to do this." one boy announced before surrendering his front-line position. A paratrooper immediately moved up and filled his space. "Is it worth it?" one boy asked after his girlfriend had been abducted-no one had an answer.
There was a marked division of opinion between those people sitting at the feet of the troops and those standing in the back. When it was suggested that a tactical withdrawal might at least be considered, all those at the rear were for sticking it out. "It's easy for you to be so brave." a girl in the front line screamed. A boy next to her echoed her sentiment, "If you're so damn sure we should stay why don't you come up and take my place. This trooper's shoes are Goddamn hard."
During the debate a wedge of paratroopers and Marshals was forming. One of the SDS announcers asked that a military spokesman talk with one of the demonstration leaders in order to avoid further casualties. After several attempts, it became clear that the military was not going to negotiate. The wedge started moving through the center of the crowd, hacking its way through the demonstrators and splitting them in half. A girl was slapped on the side of the head with a rifle and all of a sudden coke bottles, beer cans, pieces of wood, and stones flew into the phalanx of soldiers. One trooper crumpled when he caught a beer can flat in the face. The people in front started begging with those behind not to throw anything because they were the ones who took the punishment, but it happened again and again. "If one more person throws something. I'm going to get up and leave," a girl whimpered. Another boy, right in front of the wedge (and obviously the next target) decided that he hadn't stretched his legs all evening and had to take a walk. "Yeah, you're going to stretch your way all the way outta here," the boy behind him complained. "Get LBJ out of his warm bed and bring him down here to see what's going on." someone said over the microphone. But nobody came to watch what was going on near the steps of the capital. Everyone who was anyone had gone home, disgusted with the conduct of the demonstrators.