1971 May Day protests

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1971 May Day protests
Part of the Opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam
DateMay 1971
Parties to the civil conflict


12,000 - 15,000
12,000 federal troops
5,100 local police
1,500 National Guardsmen

The 1971 May Day Protests were a series of large-scale civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., in protest against the Vietnam War. These began on May Day of that year, continued with similar intensity into the morning of May 3rd, then rapidly diminished through several following days.

Members of the Nixon administration would come to view the events as damaging, because the government's response led to mass arrests and were perceived as violating citizens' civil rights.[1]


By the middle of 1970 many leaders of the anti war movement had come to believe that tactics of massive, non-violent political protests that had been used previously would not end the war, and that more aggressive actions were needed. Rennie Davis and Jerry Coffin of the War Resisters League began planning the actions; later in 1970 Michael Lerner joined their number.[2] The May Day tribe[3] was formed. It was made up of Yippies and others among the more militant members of the anti-war movement. It was decided that small groups of protesters would block major intersections and bridges in the capital.

The protests[edit]

Saturday May 1[edit]

35,000 protesters camped out in West Potomac Park near the Washington Monument park to listen to rock music and plan for the coming action. The government planned to use low flying helicopters to disrupt the protest. This tactic was stymied by the launching of large numbers of helium filled balloons - some of which were tethered by cables large enough to snarl a helicopter's rotors.[citation needed]

Sunday May 2[edit]

The Nixon administration canceled the protester's permit. U.S. Park Police and Washington Metropolitan Police, dressed in riot gear, raided the encampment. The police formed up in phalanxes and slowly moved through the park firing tear gas and knocking down tents, forcing out the campers. The campers scattered towards the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. At this point the campsite was closed down, forcing some protesters to abandon the demonstration while others were forced into the nearest car and others were ordered to leave the city by police. The remaining protesters, estimated at 10,000, or more regrouped at various churches and college campuses in the area.[4] After the cancellation of the Sunday concert and the day's actions many protesters left the city leading to hours' long gridlock.

Monday May 3[edit]

The U.S. government put into effect Operation Garden Plot, a plan it had developed during the 1960s to combat major civil disorders. While protesters listened to music, planned their actions or slept, 10,000 federal troops were quickly moved to various locations in the Washington, D.C. area. At one point, so many soldiers and Marines were being moved into the area from bases along the East Coast that troop transports were landing at the rate of one every three minutes at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, about 15 miles east of the White House. Among these troops were 4,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. Troops from the Marine Barracks lined both sides of the 14th St bridge. These troops were to back up the 5,100 officers of the D.C. Metropolitan Police, 2,000 members of the D.C. National Guard and federal agents that were already in place.[5] Every monument, park and traffic circle in the nation's capital had troops protecting its perimeters. Paratroopers and Marines deployed via helicopter to the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Protesters announced that because the government had not stopped the Vietnam War they would stop the government[3] and told troops, many of whom were of similar age, that their goal was to prevent the troops from being sent to Vietnam. In response troops were rotated frequently. While the troops were in place and thousands held in reserve, the police clashed with members of the May Day tribe. The Yippies engaged in hit and run tactics throughout the city, trying to disrupt traffic and cause chaos in the streets. Politicians were harassed by protesters.[6] President Richard Nixon, who was at the Western White House in San Clemente, California, refused to give Federal workers the day off, forcing them to navigate through police lines and May Day tribe roadblocks. Most commuters who tried arrived at their jobs, despite being delayed somewhat. Federal Employees for Peace held a rally in Lafayette Park.[6]

While the troops secured the major intersections and bridges, the police roamed through the city making massive arrest sweeps and used tear gas. They arrested anyone who looked like a demonstrator, including construction workers who had come out to support the government. By 8 am 7,000 protesters had been arrested. The city's prisons did not have the capacity to handle that many people thus several emergency detention centers were setup including the Washington Coliseum and another one surrounded by an 8-foot-high (2.4 m) fence was set up next to RFK Stadium. No food, water, or sanitary facilities were made available by authorities but sympathetic local residents brought supplies.[6] Skirmishes between protesters and police occurred up until about mid-day. In Georgetown, the police herded the protesters and onlookers through the streets to the Georgetown University campus. The police then engaged in a back and forth with the protesters outside the university's main gate on O Street, lobbing tear gas over the gate each time they pushed the crowd back. Other forms of gas were used including pepper based and one that induced vomiting. Police helicopters also dropped tear gas on the university's lower athletic field where protesters had camped the night before. Numerous people were severely injured and treated by volunteers on campus. By afternoon the police had suppressed the disruption efforts and the protesters had mainly dispersed.[7]

Next several days[edit]

Smaller protests continued resulting in the arrests of several thousand more, bringing the total to 12,614 people, making this the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. [3][8]


Conspiracy charges against May Day tribe leaders were dismissed. Out of the 12,000 demonstrators arrested most were released without charges and 79 were eventually convicted.[9] The ACLU pursued a class action suit brought by thousands of detained protesters and ultimately the US Congress, recognizing the illegal nature of the arrests, agreed to pay a settlement to those arrested, making them some of the only citizens in US history to receive financial compensation for violation of the constitutional right of free assembly.[10]

Richard Helms, who was Central Intelligence Agency director at the time, said "It was obviously viewed by everybody in the administration, particularly with all the arrests and the 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."[6]


  1. ^ Dean, John W. (2016-12-20). Blind Ambition: The White House Years. Open Road Media. ISBN 9781504041003.
  2. ^ "Order of Battle". Time. 1971-05-10.
  3. ^ a b c "Page 5 "Vietnam Demonstrations: 1971 Year in Review, United Press International Accessed 2009-04-13". Archived from the original on 2009-05-05. Retrieved 2009-04-13.
  4. ^ Weber, Galen (January 28, 2010). "Saxa Politica: A penchant for protests". The Georgetown Voice. Archived from the original on August 17, 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-16.
  5. ^ Network, The Learning. "May 3, 1971 | Mayday Tribe Holds Antiwar Demonstration". The Learning Network. Retrieved 2017-01-19.
  6. ^ a b c d Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost by Joe Allen excerpt reprinted by SocialistWorker.org May 30, 2008
  7. ^ "In 1971, the People Didn't Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down". Longreads. 2017-01-20. Retrieved 2017-02-13.
  8. ^ 1971 Year in Review Archived United Press International 2009-05-05.
  9. ^ The Nixon Years Down from the Highest Mountaintop Time Magazine August 19, 1974, issue
  10. ^ Goluboff, Risa (2016). Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s. Oxford University Press. p. 288. ISBN 0190262265.

Further reading[edit]