By DC Public Library
Fifty years ago the U.S. war in Vietnam had been raging for six years. More than 50,000 American soldiers had died in Southeast Asia. In April and May of 1971, anti-war protesters descended on the capital for an extraordinary run of demonstrations, to pressure Congress and President Nixon to bring the troops home.The finale came in early May. The protesters slogan was,“If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” Protesters blocked the city’s streets and bridges. The Nixon administration arrested more than 12,000 people over three days. It remains America’s largest mass arrest. Photographs from the People’s Archive of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library are used here and in the book, "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.
More than a thousand members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War are first to show up for the 1971 protests. They camp on the National Mall, and the Nixon administration tries to evict them.
About one hundred vets stage a sit-in at the Supreme Court steps, to protest the federal court order banning them from their campsite. Their arrests win them public sympathy.
John Kerry, 27, an ex-Navy lieutenant, represents the vets at a Senate hearing. The war’s a terrible mistake, he says: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Defiant, angry and sorrowful, the Vietnam vets end their foray into Washington by hurling their combat ribbons and medals onto the steps of the Capitol.
The Big March
The Saturday after the vets’ medal toss, dozens of anti-war groups march on Pennsylvania Avenue. At more than 400,000 people, it’s the largest protest in Washington to that point.
Demanding Social Justice
Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leads a rally outside the Justice Department. The civil rights group coordinates with the Mayday anti-war leaders.
To the dismay of the Nixon administration, more than 40,000 people from all over the country gather at West Potomac Park to prepare for the traffic blockade.
The Mayday camp in West Potomac Park takes on the air of a 1960s-style festival including a 24-hour rock show that opens with the Beach Boys.
Busted at Dawn
Nixon officials, worried about the growing crowd, secretly revoke the group’s camping permit. At dawn on Sunday, they dispatch riot police on a surprise raid to clear the park.
Leaders persuade most of the thousands of campers to leave peacefully, rather than risk jail and miss the Monday blockade. Some angry protesters burn makeshift lean-tos on the way out.
Sunday’s raid doesn’t prevent Mayday. At Monday’s rush hour, thousands of protesters mount their blockade. Their slogan: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”
Despite reluctance at the Pentagon, Nixon officials summon 10,000 active-duty military to help police and National Guard. Chinook helicopters unload troops on the Mall.
Soldiers and Marines are deployed throughout the federal city to guard bridges and buildings. The Pentagon puts seven military bases along the East Coast on “raised readiness.”
Jerry V. Wilson, the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, is ordered by President Nixon to use any means necessary to keep the city open and foil the protests.
Riot squads sweep through the city. Besides arresting people who block traffic, they go after thousands who are breaking no laws but have long hair or hippie-like clothes.
Jeeps cruise through Georgetown in a show of force. Troops aren’t making arrests, but their presence escalates tensions between demonstrators and police, and emboldens the riot squad.
After rounding up thousands of protesters, and bystanders who happen to look the part, jail cells overflow. Police turn a dusty football practice field near RFK Stadium into an outdoor prison.
Coming to Help
Concerned about conditions at the camp, Walter Fauntroy, D.C.’s first non-voting representative to Congress, confers with Senator Charles Mathias, R-MD (left) and Bob Rogers (right) of the City Council staff.
In the Coliseum
Prisoners are bused to the Washington Coliseum, where they spend hours or days under guard without formal charges against them. D.C. residents donate blankets and food.
The White House believes Monday’s mass arrests broke the will of the Mayday demonstrators. But the next day, police take another 2,000 people into custody outside the Justice Department.
Attorney General John Mitchell (far right) stands on his office balcony next to his deputy, Richard Kleindienst, watching with approval as 2,000 demonstrators are arrested outside Justice.
On the third day, the Mayday protests move to the U.S. Capitol. Some 1,200 people are rounded up and jailed, despite having been invited to the rally by members of Congress.
Criminal defense lawyer Barbara Bowman, head of the D.C. Public Defender Service, takes on the crushing task of freeing thousands of people improperly arrested during three days of Mayday protests.
Criticism mounts over the arrests. The White House conceals its role, saying local officials made all decisions. Nixon holds a photo op to congratulate Chief Jerry V. Wilson, Mayor Walter Washington and others.
In three days, police snare more than 12,000 people, loading prisoners onto buses like this one. Nixon’s overreaction to the protest helped sow the seeds of his administration’s demise.
All photos from the Washington Star Photograph Collection in the People's Archive, except for:
Breaking Camp - ©Washington Post/Matthew Lewis
Seeking Justice (Barbara Bowman) - ©Washington Post/Bob Burchette
Special thanks to Washington Area Spark for research assistance
and to the staff of the People's Archive.
Exhibit produced by Monica Miller.