They Shut it Down
January 22, 2017 5:46 PM   Subscribe

In 1971, the people didn't just march on Washington--they shut it down.
The most influential large-scale political action of the ’60s was actually in 1971, and you’ve never heard of it. It was called the Mayday action, and it provides invaluable lessons for today.
The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.
posted by Joseph Gurl (44 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment.

I wasn't there, it may have been just that, but I'm pretty sure they meant to write "foment."

I'll read the article now.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:51 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

They're using ferment completely correctly in this sense:
agitation and excitement among a group of people, typically concerning major change and leading to trouble or violence.
posted by peacheater at 5:55 PM on January 22, 2017 [13 favorites]

Foment is a verb.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:56 PM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

And foment wouldn't make sense in any case, given that it's a verb.
posted by peacheater at 5:57 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

OK, we're done with that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:58 PM on January 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

We're off to a great start here at PedantFilter.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:58 PM on January 22, 2017 [100 favorites]

As someone who has participated in similar types of direct actions, it was great to read some of the history behind it - particularly that of 'affinity groups'. Thanks for posting it, and very timely, considering the uptick of protest we're currently experiencing.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:02 PM on January 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

Actually, I do remember the Mayday action, and the others that year, including the one where John Kerry and I got arrested. That was a hell of an education in how far privilege extends, as he got the VIP arrest, and I was in with the proles.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:03 PM on January 22, 2017 [37 favorites]

MetaFilter: Nationwide but largely unchronicled foment.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:04 PM on January 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

MetaFilter: Nationwide but largely unchronicled pedant.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:08 PM on January 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Pretty optimistic headline, given that in the first few paragraphs we learn that they didn't shut anything down, and that the whole thing was widely considered a failure.
posted by crazylegs at 6:10 PM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Fomentos - fresh and full of dissent
posted by thelonius at 6:10 PM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment.

Is that where the dirty/smelly hippy stereotype comes from?
posted by eviemath at 6:24 PM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thank you for this post! People don't like to learn from 'failures,' as many of the deflecting posts in this thread demonstrate. But you can't deny the effectiveness of this tactic and strategy under certain conditions. Seattle 1999, for one.

Sanders' run at the democratic party is another strategy that will be seen as a 'failure,' until someone adopts it and wins. but without that first conception of the strategy, there would never be the successes.
posted by eustatic at 6:39 PM on January 22, 2017 [17 favorites]

Glue up DC and force the government to take action to

A) End the war.


B) A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history.
posted by adept256 at 6:53 PM on January 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

What's always been nuts to me about mass protest in DC (or New York) is the inability to see the utter simplicity of blockading business as usual. Just sit down and nap. There will be 1.2 million people on the mall and no action--but all they would have to do is stop moving for a bit.

People complain about traffic every day. How easy and wonderful is it to become the kind of traffic people like to get stuck in? But I guess I live in a city with carnival traditions, so it's easy for me to think about. My car got stuck on the road today in front of some amazing dancers, it was great.

Anyway, thanks for this post, it's obviously very relevant.
posted by eustatic at 7:12 PM on January 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Miami Model is very good at turning a pleasant sit-down-and-nap protest into a tear gas and riot shields protest, unfortunately.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:36 PM on January 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I was there and was one of those 7,000 arrests, because I was just a kid and not smart enough to leave when warned. I was also one of the first released, probably because I was just a cute little kid, barely 18. Hundreds of us were jammed into what was essentially a precinct drunk tank, fed only with bologna on white bread sandwiches wrapped in newspaper and supplied by church volunteers. The DC police had it down to a system and were generally friendly about making the arrests. I was put on a bus half full of gay activists, the first I had ever seen, and they made the bus trip quite hilarious. The jail stay was not as hilarious, but it didn't last long.
posted by tommyD at 7:45 PM on January 22, 2017 [40 favorites]

Love the first person accounts in this thread.. Please keep them coming!
posted by latkes at 7:53 PM on January 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

Agreed--so awesome that some of you were actually there. This is all new to me and I love it.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:57 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment.

Is that where the dirty/smelly hippy stereotype comes from?

No, I think it may have had more to do with a rather poorly thought-out action on the part of the Yippies which involved pelting the Pentagon with sauerkraut.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:00 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey, this was a great article. Very informative, and I thought I knew a lot of this history.

Thanks for posting.
posted by latkes at 8:29 PM on January 22, 2017

This was fantastic, thanks for posting it. The point about affinity groups is well made, and maybe the strongest element to take away for the present moment.
posted by codacorolla at 9:07 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

background on the miami model, because it does seem like we are going to see an acceleration of such. Miami only held tens of thousands of demonstrators, though. How many were arrested in New York in 2004?

How many could be? How many of us could be put inside the football stadiums? Y know, since the US has IMF'd itself and conjured forth the ghosts of latin america within its own borders lately...

Timoney calling people "pussies" is echoing in my head, given yesterday.
posted by eustatic at 10:15 PM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you enjoyed the first chapter, peel an eye for L.A. Kauffman's book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, out on February 21.
posted by Scram at 10:27 PM on January 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is very interesting and lately it seems to me that everything I come across is related to protests. I'm listening to the excellent Revolutions podcast and the episode on the women's march on Versailles coincided (for me, since I'm catching up) with the woman's march on Washington. Two rather different marches, sure, but still. And I just started on cstross' latest book in the Merchant Princes series, which is set against a revolutionary and police state backdrop.
posted by Harald74 at 11:55 PM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

and you’ve never heard of it...

Yeah, I was there too. Not demonstrating, which I’d done earlier during the Moratorium March in D.C., just in town visiting my then-girlfriend, a student at George Washington University. That morning we watched out the window of her apartment as protestors dragged trash cans and other debris into the intersection of 22nd and F NW, so that rush hour traffic got completely backed up. After a while, official types would come by and clear the street, and then a little after that other people would run by and clog things up again.

Later that morning she said was short of cash – maybe needed to pay the rent – and told me she had to go to the bank. We were walking a few blocks from her place when suddenly around the corner a squad of riot police in full gear came toward us at high speed, spraying tear gas, and grabbing people to lock up. We immediately took off running, not away from them but sideways into the nearest university building – long time ago, but I think it was Bell Hall, on G St. NW. And kept on running all the way up the stairs to the third or the fourth floor. The gas stunk up the whole street, but nobody came inside after us. How unAmerican/radical, going to the bank.

p.s. If you want more detailed history from the beginning of the protest era, check out Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives. Subtitled “The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”
posted by LeLiLo at 12:10 AM on January 23, 2017 [13 favorites]

We had a house guest this weekend at our home in DC, here for the march. She used to live here back in the late 1960s and early 1970s and said she kept a damp cloth in her car in case she was accidentally tear gassed, which apparently happened one time.
posted by exogenous at 5:52 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in May Day!, here is a previous front-page post with a number of good links and comments.

I was involved, full time, organizing May Day!; at the age of 19.

Last May, I had the honor of attending a 45th re-union of the May Day Tribe in Washington, DC., complete with a reunion FaceBook page. (The acknowledged truth was that we might not all make it to a 50th reunion, as the lead organizers were mostly older than even I!) I was among the youngest attendees, and it was marvelous to hear what everyone was doing now; and the various views about what is to be done, or might be done, now.

More people arrested May 3, 1971, than any other single day in US history.... They literally began arresting people based on their haircuts or clothing....

FOUR WORDS ON TACTICS for MayDay, Seattle, "Miami model:" Affinity groups! Mobile Tactics!
posted by swlabr at 6:32 AM on January 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

More on the tribe.....
posted by swlabr at 6:40 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

So if I take the author's point, it's that the protest was functionally completely ineffective, but the United States Government was so badly shaken by the fact that huge numbers of its citizens disapproved strongly of its policies that it actually changed them.

That seems so quaint, almost Victorian today. Sort of like Watergate. Remember the massive impact on the American political system and cultural psyche that echoed for years, all resulting from the President being involved in a snooping operation against the opposition party, and then lying about it. Try to imagine that happening under even the G.W. Bush administration, much less, God help us, Trump.
posted by Naberius at 6:44 AM on January 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I was there, sort of: my parents participated less than two weeks before I was born. If mom had been arrested things could have been quite different for my birth.
posted by buildmyworld at 8:41 AM on January 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

So if I take the author's point, it's that the protest was functionally completely ineffective, but the United States Government was so badly shaken by the fact that huge numbers of its citizens disapproved strongly of its policies that it actually changed them.

Exactly. LA Kaufmann is a friend and I helped (in a small way) with the research for this book. It's hard to write histories of counterculture movements because history tends to be written by the winners, but she's done a great job of telling the stories even of when things didn't go so well.

Tactics are challenging because usually you have to go into a campaign with "SHUT EM DOWN" or whatever as your stated goal, but often there are a lot of subgoals including raising awareness, signing on more people to your cause, causing a scene, etc.

Thanks for this post.
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 AM on January 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I miss read 1971 as 1979 and thought it was about the tractorcade, where D. C. blocked the tractors in with garbage trucks. Then 2 ft. of snow fell over night, the protesters started plowing the streets, delivering Drs. and Nurses to hospitals, volunteering to cook and clean in hospitals. They burned 1 tractor in effigy and donated 1 to the Smithsonian. I think they reseeded the Mall afterwards.

It didn't do much good, things just got worse out here, Archer Daniels Midland Company got bigger. "American Agriculture Movement" if you want to Google it.
posted by ridgerunner at 9:28 AM on January 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Freeman described how the lack of formal structures and decision-making procedures—so democratic in intent and appearance—in fact allowed informal and unaccountable power dynamics to flourish. Structurelessness, she wrote, “becomes a way of masking power,” for decisions were always being made in a group: “As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few.”
A good point, and one that I've made to libertarians in a different context. Taking away the rules and bureaucracy doesn't automatically give power back to the people; sometimes it has exactly the opposite effect. It doesn't take away the dynamics of power, it just makes them murky.
posted by clawsoon at 11:11 AM on January 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was there for the May Day event in 1971. At that time I was a long-term patient at Walter Reed Army Hospital. I had been hospitalized around Christmas, and I would remain there until June, 1971. In May I was an ambulatory patient, with a bed on the porch of an intensive care ward, awaiting the paperwork for a medical discharge. My ward officer wouldn't give me a day pass, so I just put on my civvies and walked out.

I'd heard that some veterans were coming to the demonstration, and I wanted to see if I knew any of them. Turned out to be the VVAW. When I arrived, they made me welcome. The whole thing seemed to make sense in one great flash when I realized that many of the veterans were accompanied by their wives, children, and in some cases, parents. Quite a few Gold Star wives were there. Although I never found anybody in the group that I knew, they supplied me with a sleeping bag, food, and an offer of brotherhood. They were organized by state, and their evening strategy meetings were orderly.

They had been schooled on non-violent demeanor (probably by the militants in the Peace Movement), and told that their primary mission was to put on street theater to illustrate the immoral nature of the war. Specially trained persons were schooled in creating dialogue with onlookers. Their aim, they said, was not to try to convert the hawks in the crowd, but to seek out the fence-straddlers and engage them in respectful dialogue.

Some few people at these meetings wanted to coordinate activities designed to disrupt: throw garbage cans off the overpasses to jam up traffic, block the doors to buildings, confront the police, and so on. This was voted down, and these guys were looked upon as potential provocateurs.

I was standing by the statue of John Marshall during the ceremony of "tossing the medals." It was a very emotional event. John Kerry gave his speech, which set the tone. Each vet or wife walked to the microphone, holding medals. They said a few words and tossed the medals over the 2X4 and barbwire frame and into Marshall's lap. I guess the powers that be had gotten some false intel that the demonstrators were going to vandalize the statue, hence the barbwire--that couldn't have been more inaccurate. I just goes to illustrate how far off the pulse the government was in those days.

The line was long and orderly. About half an hour (maybe more) into the ceremony several sheriff's busses arrived, and the police began arresting the veterans and wives. The veterans all had been well-coached on civil disobedience, so they did the drill: do not resist, just go limp so that two or more officers will have to carry you. Then get on the bus under your own power.

I was snatched up more or less respectfully. They dragged my toes to the bus, and put me on my feet. Then one of them noticed the hospital wrist-band, and asked me about it. I told him I was a patient, yeah. They put me aside, and refused to let me on the bus. By this time I was so caught up in the moment that I nearly cried when they wouldn't let me get on the bus, but I reached up to the windows and tried to encourage those already on board.

Three policemen arrived, two carrying a veteran in a their arms, and a third with his wheelchair. They stopped at the door of the bus and exchanged glances. I'm pretty sure at least one of them had a tear coming down his cheeks. The one policeman snapped open the chair and they put the vet in it and pushed him to one side. He begged them to put him on the bus, but they refused.

Soon the busses were filled, and it didn't even make a dent in the crowd. I didn't know at the time where they took these guys, or what was going to happen to them, but I found out later that they took them to a baseball stadium for processing. They ran out of FI cards, so they just opened the gates and let everyone go.

The last night I was there, I slept near the reflecting pond, not far from the Washington Monument. At first light I heard a flight of Hueys come over us, low. It sounded like they landed somewhere, but that may have been an aural illusion. A low fog hung over the area. I guess there were about a hundred of us sleeping there. When I stood up I saw a line comprised of soldiers and police coming toward us, and heard the bump of elephant guns. My first thought was that they were firing M-79 grenades at us, and my heart may have stopped. But right away realize that they were firing tear gas. I started waking people up right about the time the first rounds began to land. Most people ran away, but I and several others took off at right angles to the skirmish line, and fled down a side street.

I found out later that the skirmishers were told to just move us off the mall, and not capture any of us unless they were attacked. The soldiers who reinforced the police line were Rangers from the 82nd. They weren't told that they would be moving against veterans until they arrived in their trucks (nobody was offloaded from those helicopters I'd heard). All the combat veterans among them turned away and went back to the trucks, rather than assault vets and their families. They were told to expect violence from the veterans in the form of nail-studded balls, and so on. This was a total fabrication.

I went back to Walter Reed that day. I'd been gone four days. Nobody seemed to missed me.
posted by mule98J at 11:24 AM on January 23, 2017 [55 favorites]

@ mule98J That was a fantastic read! Thanks!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:46 AM on January 23, 2017

This is a really great read and people's personal stories are really enriching to an already-great post. Thanks guys!
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 1:36 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was there too, and it was fun. Would have been even moreso had the government actually been shut down. Many years later, my sympathies were with the government workers stuck in their cars for hours when Justice For Janitors closed a bridge leading into DC one morning in 1996. For the male commuters, not such a problem; but trapping women who then have nowhere to 'go' isn't going to make many friends, nor will it change the world.
posted by Rash at 2:57 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a fascinating article - a quick skim (I'll read more in detail later) leads me to believe that the violent demonstrations of the 60's lead to a new approach - nonviolent protests that would have as a central core local organizing. And as a woman/humanist/wanna-be-activist, I find this to have huge appeal. I believe the Woman's March on DC is the beginning.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:26 AM on January 24, 2017

AWESOME, mule98J! Thanks for sharing!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:21 PM on January 24, 2017

MayDay was a success if you didn't buy into the idea that we were really going to shut the government down exactly as planned. The organizers were betrayed before the action took place as the campsite was dispersed pre-dawn Sunday morning and before training, etc. And then nevertheless thousands spontaneously headed to target intersections and bridges simultaneously for Monday rush hour. The US Army and law enforcement in DC, Va, and Md, were well aware of that plan and prevented exactly that. So, tens of thousands ran amuck and implemented, in small groups using mobile tactics, a complete disruption of the city during the time government employees were on their way to work. The next day we were back for mass actions at Justice and at the Capitol. The result was mass arrests of everyone who might look guilty.

I have the Washington Post front sections from those several days (one with an iconic photo I remember as being of US military moving from helicopters through tear gas at the Washington Monument) and I was among participants taking action for years afterwards. We STILL remember our power and how it was exerted. We know the media and academics will say it was a failure because people got to work that day. But for us, the action takers, it was a success: We substantially increased the domestic cost of the war, and we upped the ante with spontaneous tactics that will resonate and have resonated. Cheers!
posted by swlabr at 8:28 PM on January 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

By the way, the above recollection by mule98j is not about MayDay but a related action, called Dewey Canyon, that took place in early April (with the throwing of medals at the Capitol). Thereafter, on April 24th, was a mass march for peace. MayDay began on May 1 with a festive "gathering of the tribe" with music and fun (on a Saturday) and May 2 set for training in non-violent civil disobedience. May 3 we were to take our respective targets ....
posted by swlabr at 8:35 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Now that you mention it. I guess I never thought about it until I just now read "Dewey Canyon."

Yeah, that's correct. Thanks swlabr.
posted by mule98J at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2017

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