‘Mayday 1971’ is a close-up look at largest US mass arrest

Lawrence Roberts protested at the May 1971 anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington. Now, his comprehensive history sheds light on the influential event.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest” by Lawrence Roberts, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp.

In late 1970, a collection of disparate, fractious groups began organizing a massive protest against the Vietnam War. Planned for Washington the following year, the event was billed as a “disruptive but nonviolent” protest. In the words of the organizers, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” Some called themselves the “Mayday Tribe.”

This protest and its aftermath is the subject of “Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest” by Lawrence Roberts, who participated in the event. Later a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor, Roberts is a careful observer and he deftly organizes a complex, multifaceted series of events into a coherent, fast moving, and fascinating story.

The demonstrations started with a week-long protest by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, led by a savvy and charismatic former naval officer named John Kerry. The Nixon administration’s clumsy and ham-handed effort to limit the veterans’ protests backfired: It seemed to much of the American public that the government was treating the former servicemen unfairly. The president’s team was determined to manage the main event more effectively.

The next round of protesters were more diverse and less disciplined. Armed with a permit that allowed them to camp near the National Mall, they promised to block roads and bridges to bring the city to a halt. As the number of protesters swelled, the Nixon team suddenly revoked the permit and brought in troops to reinforce the District of Columbia police. As the dispersed demonstrators spread through the city, police officers arrested them indiscriminately.

The number arrested soon overwhelmed the facilities available to house them. So the police got creative: An outdoor practice football field was converted into a makeshift jail that housed thousands of people behind a chain link fence without sufficient food, shelter, or sanitary facilities. They were not permitted to make calls or contact lawyers. Eventually, some 12,000 people were detained, the largest mass arrest in American history.

The goal was to get protestors off the street, even if doing so required falsified arrest records. Eventually the district's public defenders – then often regarded as the nation’s best – were allowed to get involved. With the help of several judges committed to rigorous due process for the accused, virtually all the prisoners were freed.

Initially, the administration won praise for containing the demonstration and the president’s men celebrated. Nixon said to his aides, “I think we should have clubbed a few more of the bastards.” Even media outlets like The Washington Post applauded.

But several reporters had been jailed, and eventually the first-hand accounts of their experiences were published. As evidence of civil liberties violations emerged, the White House found itself under intense, withering criticism. The tide of opinion turned quickly and the protests became widely regarded as a huge defeat for the Nixon team.

This is a complex story with dozens of actors and events taking place simultaneously at different locations. Roberts effectively organizes the book by retelling the story through the eyes of several key participants. Readers get to know Jerry Vernon Wilson, the district's police chief; protest leaders Rennie Davis and David Dellinger; a special assistant to President Nixon named Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr.; an undercover police officer named John O’Connor, who was embedded with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War; and the heroic, hard-charging Barbara Bowman, who directed the Public Defender Service.

The Mayday protest has largely faded from popular memory with the passage of time, but the legal cases that followed had a profound impact. Before the Mayday demonstrations, the district government regularly limited the size and location of protests. Those restrictions were swept away and the rights of citizens to express their views were increased. Without the precedents set by the Mayday protests, events like the Million Man March and the annual Right to Life demonstrations could easily have been banned.

Other resulting judicial decisions curtailed police authority to make mass arrests and affirmed the rights of demonstrators to receive fair warning before being arrested. Still another case gave individuals the right of action against federal officials for violations of their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

Historical events can leave a lasting legacy, even as the urgency and details themselves cease to matter. The Mayday protests did not shut down the government or shorten the war. But they did help establish new standards for civil liberties, which are being tested today, as evidenced by President Donald Trump’s deployment of federal security forces to quell protests against racism and police brutality in Portland, Oregon. 

Thanks to Roberts, we now have a better picture of what those long-ago protesters really accomplished.

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