May Day 1971: A Lesson from the Bent Penny Brigade

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After more than 45 years I finally got around to writing about my involvement in the nation’s biggest anti-war protest on May Day 1971, which included the most arrests in a single day in U.S. history. What amazes me is how forgotten all these things have become, including the planning, the unique features of the event and the degree to which the Nixon government was working behind the scenes, as this story will show.

When I’ve shared my experiences from that time, it always surprises me how few peers actually recall that this event even happened. Ken Burns included it in his Viet Nam documentary, but it’s still relatively forgotten, as are many of the lessons it contained. One of these is this brief story about the Operation Bent Penny.

What was the Bent Penny Brigade?

Naturally this is the kind of story that would not have come out at that time because this kind of undercover work was undoubtedly going on in a variety of guises and any kind of awareness would have resulted in greater suspicion. We all know about the Plumbers and Watergate.

According to this 2011 story by Charles H. Lutz on the HistoryNet website, Operation Bent Penny was an undercover operation designed to interfere with the upcoming May Day antiwar protests slated for the first days in May 1971.

In the weeks leading up to this particular antiwar gathering there were a number of significant events including a gathering of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in which veterans, including a young John Kerry, discarded their service medals.

Lutz writes that the machinations he was involved in had their origins in the White House. A secret plan was drawn up to disrupt the demonstrations. The plan involved the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) with the aim of showing that the organizers were violating the terms of their special events permits and that there was drug use taking place.

For what it’s worth, it wouldn’t have taken 200 undercover agents to discover that drugs were being used. You could smell it in the air, and periodic announcements from the stage itself warned about bad acid.

Nevertheless, 200 BNDD agents — Lutz a war veteran himself — did their best to look like they belonged in the mix. They were told, however, that they could not bring guns, weapons or any form of identification. In the event that they were arrested, they would be recognized by the bent penny which they each carried in their pockets.

The speech they were given on Saturday afternoon came directly from a White House staff person. “We have an estimated 200,000 demonstrators on the Mall. We expect a lot of drug use tonight. So we brought in you drug experts to document it. No arrests. Just mingle with the crowd and observe.”

Needless to say, “It didn’t take more than a few minutes on the Mall to observe enough illegal drug use to fill a police blotter. Drugs were everywhere.”

I strongly encourage you to read the full story, which I link to at the end of this blog post. Depending on your age and life experience, you’ll find it both informative and more or less amusing. Lutz’s observations are colored by the lens of his own perspectives, but it’s a fairly accurate relating of events, the only exception being that I don’t personally believe Nixon’s veiled interference contributed much to the failure of Monday’s protest action.


Here a couple lessons we can extract from this Bent Penny story.

Things Are Seldom What They Seem

In the 48 years since May Day 1971 I have seen numerous protests and assemblies covered in the media. How many police, agents or spies have been embedded in the World Trade Organization protests or the Yellow Vests in France or various other large scale actions?

Charles Lutz was concerned about “fitting in” with the hippie crowd and not stick out like a sore thumb. What about today’s Antifa disturbances? Is it possible that there are agents embedded here and there who have less to worry about because their identities are more concealed behind the masks they wear?

The Government Took This Protest Seriously

As a participating sheep in this antiwar demonstration I was unaware that more than two years of planning had taken place in advance of this 1971 May Day protest. And the Nixon White House was exceedingly concerned.

I know this because of the quantity of police and National Guard that were assembled. I learned afterwards that there were even machine guns set up at the top of the steps of the Supreme Court. I would call that a pretty chilling thing to see. (Reminder: Kent State took place only one year earlier.)

The powers that be no doubt drew up many plans for how to disrupt or derail the protesters. Charles Lutz was part of the Bent Penny Brigade but how many other activities were set in motion that he himself was unaware of.

Here’s the story about Operation Bent Penny:

If you were in Washington D.C. on May Day 1971, I’m very interested in learn more. What’s your story? And even if you weren’t there, do you remember reading about it in the news? What was your take on all this?

Please leave a comment.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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