Moods and Fears Looking Back on Mayday
(This is the first of two feature articles on last week's Mayday actions in Washington. A second analysis will appear in tomorrow's CRIMSON.)
IF YOU weren't in Washington for Mayday, I'm not sure I can explain to you what it was like. And I'm not sure you'll want to know.
Because if you're one of those people who say, yeah, well, the war is bad and all, but this is still the best country in the world, then you're not going to want to hear what I have to say. And if you're the kind of person who says all we have to do is beat Nixon with some nice solid liberalism and then everything will be fine, you're not going to like what I say either.
And you might not believe me. Because you might not have read about the things I'm going to tell you in your newspapers, and if you really think the Times prints all the news there is, then you'll think I'm lying. And if, in some kind of final desperation, you scream out It can't happen here, then I'm going to tell you you're wrong. It did happen here. Again.
Perhaps the best way to talk about Mayday is to talk about the little isolated events that stick in my mind. Like the police busting twelve of us for obstructing traffic when we were going 25 miles an hour in a 25 zone, and then, as we're being arrested, an officer taking his Louisville Slugger and smashing the front windshield of our van, and then slashing the tires with a knife. And coming back four hours later to try to pick up the van, and finding the police had exploded popper gas inside, and watching the cops across the street laugh as we choke. A police sergeant came up to me, "What's the matter boy?" "I ran into a little gas." "Oh, well, watch it, you could get arrested for hanging around places where there's gas." (Two of our friends went back again in the evening for the van. They were arrested. Again.)
And then there's the memory of the young couple being arrested near George Washington University on the way to their wedding. The guy had long hair, so he was suspicious. They got married in the detention center.
There's the picture I'll always have in my mind of the paratroopers landing on the grounds of the Washington Monument Monday morning, six Marine helicopters ready to protect America against itself. And the little ironies: thinking as the Marines landed that here they were landing on ground dedicated to a revolutionary who fought against oppression. Big George didn't work within the system.
PROBABLY the strongest memory of all is of the detention center. In stories phoned in from Washington, I wanted to call the ball-field-turned-prison next to RFK Stadium a concentration camp; the editors, sitting in Cambridge, kept changing the wording to detention center. Perhaps they were right; after all, Metropolitan Police Chief Jerry Wilson called it a detention center and not a concentration camp, and he should know. But if that wasn't a concentration camp, I never want to see one.
Try to picture it: more than two thousand people crammed into this tiny field by a wire fence. All that was missing was the barbed wire. There was no food until the evening, after many had been there more than twelve hours. There was little water and no toilets to speak of Army trucks with pepper gas propellers circled the wire fence; occasionally-just to keep in practice I guess-lobbing gas canisters into the crowd. And, of course, the 82nd Airborne next door in the Stadium.
But the police were generous; they moved the crowd indoors Monday evening. But think of the Colliscum: 40 degrees instead of 30; some food but few toilets; hardly any blankets to warm the crowd forced to curl up on the stone floor. And still the troops patrolled outside, protecting America against these worst of criminals.
What I'm trying to say, the impression I'm trying to create, is one of total fear, absolute and utter paranoia. If you "looked suspicious" (and you know what that means) you could not leave the sanctuaries of the three downtown universities without fear of getting arrested. You could not walk down a street or drive a car without being stopped repeatedly, questioned and often arrested. And you could never go anywhere alone. If you did, if you had no witnesses around, you were risking a lot of pain. I remember driving around Washington Tuesday morning, feeling like a spy in an enemy camp. I was stopped twice in a single trip around Washington Circle; once for going too slow, once for going too fast.
Well, you could say, the government had to do what it did, it had to bust us so it could keep functioning. You're right, of course, if you say that, the government did have to arrest us, did have to stay open in spite of a large number of its citizens, and every one of us who went to Washington was prepared to go to jail.
But that wasn't it. The point is, the government decided that it had the right and the mandate to terrorize a significant group of citizens; to completely suspend the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and any civil liberties we are used to having, in order to gas, drive, and club dissidents from its doorsteps. It wasn't that the government jailed us; it was that it declared war on us. The death machine brought out the full force of its fire-power to protect Washington, and it was awesome. The American government probably imposes order better than it does anything else, and it showed this past week.
But think about it. There were probably over 15,000 police, federal troops and National Guardsmen mobilized in the streets of the District of Columbia. Estimates of the number of troops on call ranged as high as 200,000. When you think that the government was forced to go to this extreme to defend itself against Americans who say No, you don't have the civil right to carry on business as usual when this business as usual means death and destruction for millions, you see just how scared they were. And their fear, their fright that Mayday might actually challenge the way power is distributed and decisions are made in this country, is the real victory of this country's first attempt at mass civil disobedience.
Before I end this piece, I want to tell you a little about the moods of Washington; the way the demonstrators felt, because I feel it's important in assessing any significance the first week in May might have had. You could read about what happened in the Times or the Post, and find out what this police captain or this Senator had to say, but you probably knew it anyway. To appreciate the real dynamic of Mayday, you had to live it.
In the week before Mayday, things looked very tense. The first people to arrive on The Land, the campsite in West Potomac Park, were the angriest, and their anger was not always just concentrated against the government. There was, people say, a lot of ripping off, and the woman talked of rapes and sexism. The predominant atmosphere was fear and suspicion; anyone you didn't know had to be a government agent, or, at best, an enemy of the people. When the people in the Boston region found out I was a reporter, they told me they would only talk to me if they could write the article collectively.
But somehow, between Thursday evening and Saturday evening, a lot happened. Perhaps it was the arrival of thousands of new people, the newer, more idealistic radicals whose militance had not crushed every bit of love they had out of them. Friends gathered, hugged, and began to care about each other. Perhaps it was the rock concert Saturday night and the people who came to hear it. Everyone on The Land had nothing but scorn for the "weekend hippies" across the road who, it was felt, would leave before the action started Monday. The radicals with their commitment had no use for the freaks with their acid and bummers. It was the first time the people at The Land could unite about anything; after days of endless meetings and infighting, they finally had a cause of unity.
In many ways, the police bust of The Land helped this out. For the first time, there was a sense of urgency, a sense of fear among the Mayday people. For the first time, they had no time for bickering and quarrels: decisions had to be made and plans finalized. The people got together; the police on the periphery looked too real.
So by Monday morning, there was a mood of togetherness and common purpose among the demonstrators, and they rushed off to get arrested pretty joyfully. The Mayday people made the effort to talk to the police who "captured" them. I remember standing for four hours on the banks of the Potomac (forty police were guarding twenty-five of us) and laughing, staging guerrilla theater, joking with police, throwing donuts to passing motorists. We did calisthenties, and tried to have one-to-one raps with police. Most of us had discarded the V-sign around the time of the McCarthy campaign, and it felt strange to unclench the fist again and flash those two fingers, but we did it. Every now and then someone would flash the sign back; sometimes they'd throw out another finger. The police couldn't figure us out. "You're the roughest bunch of criminals I've ever guarded," one said to me.
But it didn't last long. By Tuesday afternoon, Washington was exhausted.
The demonstrators, who had been getting up before dawn and spending nights planning and getting friends out of jail, had run out of gas. At the gathering places like American University, where two days before you would see people in intense discussions of political tactics, now all you could see were bodies stretched out on floors, tables, chairs: any place they could get an hour or two of sleep. Where the demonstrators had made the effort to rap and persuade on Monday, now they were just too damn tired to care.
And the police, most of whom had been working 18-hour shifts for several days, seemed to just want to go home. Mayday was over.
There are two other things which need mentioning here. The first is the schizophrenia of the police in Washington (and in Boston last week at the JFK building). For the most part police were open, enjoying conversations with demonstrators and not causing trouble. But suddenly an order would come or an incident would happen, and the nice guy who had been telling you about his wife and children was suddenly beating the shit out of you, and judging by his face, loving every minute of it.
And then there were the two moods of the demonstrators. Sometimes, like during the two demonstrations at the
Justice Department, the demonstrators were peaceful and joyous, kind of David Harris-like. People were even singing "We Shall Overcome" again. It was like 1963 all over, as if the Kennedys and Malcolm and King and Evers had not been murdered, as if we all returned to the days when we were pure and innocent and moral and non-violent. You almost expected Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger to come cruising in by helicopter.
And then there was Monday morning: street fighting, anger, hatred. Nobody sang "We Shall Overcome" in Dupont Circle Monday morning. The idealism was gone, burnt out by a system that is so good at burning out idealism, replaced by a harsh militance.
Neither strain of the movement, it seems, is enough. If our task is to combine the peacefulness and love of the passive resister with the activism of the militants, we have a long way to go.
Thinking back about Mayday, it's one of those phenomenons about which you can make any conclusions you want, and back them all up with good evidence. Was Mayday a victory or a defeat? Well, we said we would stop the government and we failed, so I guess it was a defeat.
But something much more important happened in Washington. There was the vision of just what Nixon had to do to preserve order. There was the vision for all America of the chaos that would come unless this war is ended. There was the realization for all of us just what law and order without justice means.
Before he was arrested by the FBI Monday afternoon, Rennie Davis said that of course, Mayday had been a tactical failure, but that it had won a much larger victory. For Mayday was the resparking of spirit and commitment for a generation of Americans; a regeneration that will lead eventually to radical change.