While most journalists and observer's have contented themselves with pointing out the pacifity of the Washington Mobilization, making only passing references to a few "rowdies" or crazy militants who rioted outside the Justice Department, the significance of these militants' actions should not be overlooked.
The confrontation outside the Justice and Labor Departments on Constitution Avenue Saturday afternoon, and the street violence which followed the gassing of those demonstrators, was the most extensive militant action in the eight-year history of the post-McCarthy-Era Left.
Although estimates vary widely as to how many youths gathered on the broad avenue on the edge of the Federal Triangle area of Washington, it seems reasonable to say that between 10,000 and 20,000 were there. In any case, the crowd was larger than that at any demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and certainly larger than that at the Weatherman action last month.
Although nearly half the crowd seemed to be merely sympathetic onlookers, like the crowds at the 1968 convention, almost everyone joined in the chants calling for Bobby Seale's release and victory for the NLF.
The mood of the demonstration was different from that of the main march carlier in the day when thousands wayed small American flags donated by the New Mobilization Committee, the march's sponsors. Dozens of NLF flags moved above the crowd as the front ranks pounded on the two-story high grey steel doors of the massive Justice Department building.
The crowd at several points seemed unwilling to take orders from the Mobe marshals who tried to stop the militantsfrom breaking windows. The line between left-liberal and radical students seemed very clear as the marshals stood in front of the Justice Department, giving the peace sign.
The thousands of fist-waving American students cheered as the flag of their country was lowered on Constitution Avenue. A similar American flag-lowering incident by Panamanian students in January, 1964, produced an international crisis. Now, the students cheered as the NLF flag was raised on the flagpole. Many in the crowd eyed the machine gun nests atop the Justice Department warily, hoping that the guns wouldn't he used on them as they had been on Panamanian and Dominican students in the past.
Certainly, very few of the crowd would probably be willing to take the consequences of being true revolutionaries in America now-bullets rather than tear gas. But they showed more radical political sophistication in this situation than in similar recent actions. The issues on which they based the confrontation-the war and freedom for political prisoners-were weightier than issues such as a people's park or even an open political convention in Chicago last year.
And the crowd of militants was not easily scared by the police. They only moved off as far as was necessary when the tear gas was fired. The vast majority didn't panic and run, even after an all-out gas barrage around 5:30. They retreated and regathered only to have the police repeat the gassings several times.
After the demonstrators were finally driven away from the Federal Triangle area, many regrouped to lead an assault on the White House, Several thousand militants ran past two police checkpoints before they were finally stopped within a block of the White mansion's high black gates.
After the assault on the White House area, many of the radicals formed street gangs and broke windows for several hours in the downtown area before police could stop them.
One might ask what they would have done if they had reached the gates of the White House, and what purpose it would have served. That is a question which can't he answered. It is enough to say that thousands of middle class youths in America in 1969 feel that proto-revolutionary activities are the only way to demonstrate their contempt for the bourgeois capitalist milien in which they have been raised.
The militant actions in Washington showed the New Left inching up another notch toward their now off-declared goal of revolution. Many have thought until recently that the revolution would have to be non-violent, if it is to be. Saturday's actions indicated that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction-toward violence.