May Day 1971: Correcting the Narrative

“All we are saying is Give Peace a Chance.” — John Lennon

For more than three decades Ken Burns has provided a remarkable look at American history by means of themed documentary film series. Some of his best known work includes The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, Prohibition and The Vietnam War.

The remarkable achievement of these histories, in my opinion, is the manner in which the American Negro experience is woven into each of the narratives. It would have been so easy to tell the “white” story. Ken Burns’ inclusiveness is wonderful, and completes these significantly American stories.

In 2017 Burns released a ten-hour documentary about one of the most divisive events in our history, The Vietnam War. This series covered every aspect of the war, from the withdrawal of French colonialists to the abandonment of South Vietnam by American troops from Saigon.

I believe it was the 7th segment of this series that dealt with the anti-war movement which included footage and details about the May Day protests of 1971 in Washington D.C., an event that I experienced first hand. I have spent decades desiring to write about this, not entirely sure how to approach it.

According to the documentary there were more people arrested in a single day than in any day in U.S. history, more than 7000. Though I was aware that there were more arrests that day than any other, the number of arrests that I recalled was over 14,000.

This discrepancy interested me, and as I began researching, to write about what I saw and heard and felt, I discovered a whole range of discrepancies in some of these stories, many of which I found most bizarre, some of which were useful, though, correcting a narrative in my head based on rumors.

What surprised me was how little was written about the event in its aftermath. A few articles but little else. Did the government put the kibosh on the media lest there be a national uprising? Was the press ordered to downplay what they saw?

I plan to write my story in a longer essay sometime, but here wish to pick apart one article that I found online while researching for my own account. The photos are accurate, and you should follow the link at the end to check them out.

The HannahBHist390 Wordpress story has a useful opening quote by Jim Morrison: “Whoever controls the Media controls the mind.”

What you see in italics are my responses to the statements in this story.


The 1971 May Day Protests took place in Washington D.C and the Georgetown area. The people who took part in this three-day protest from May 1st through 3rd were members of the MayDay Tribe which were made up of “yippies” (radical youth-orientated anti-war individuals) .

I went because it was an anti-war protest. I was not part of any “tribe” or organization. To my knowledge the 64+ students from Ohio University were not members of this tribe and I am guessing that the majority of protesters were citizens and students who came out of a groundswell of interest in representing their viewpoints about the war.

It is useful to keep in mind that the Kent State shooting had been just the previous spring. Many of us who went to college at Ohio U were aware that the 1970 school year ended early due to protests that erupted after that dark event. Several times during the following couple years I experienced a tense vibe from the campus police, stories for another time.

Starting on May 1st, 35,000 protestors camped out and gathered in West Potomac Park to listen to rock music and plan the protests.

This is a hilariously low estimate. When I was there my guess was 300,000 people were gathered in that park. The entire Washington Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington monument was full of people. Wikipedia repeats this same absurdly low number. A New York times story stated that there were 200,000, which is probably closer to the truth.

As for the “rock music and plan” … There was indeed rock music. The Beach Boys were playing on stage when I arrived, perhaps around noon or shortly after noon. The Jefferson Airplane were slated to perform, but were a no show. (Rumor was that they were pressured to withdraw.) Phil Ochs did a set sometime after midnight. There were speeches, but I do not recall any planning. How do you “plan” with 200,000 people facing a stage? The planning took place on Sunday.

These protests aimed to shut down the nation’s capital to show that they were against the war in Vietnam.

OK, so we have two groups of people in this crowd. A portion of the crowd did indeed have this larger mission in mind, to shut down the government. The May Day organizers had actually orchestrated this over a period of two years. But many, if not most of us, were sheep. We were there on Saturday, May 1, to stand in alliance with the mission of letting our government know that there were citizens who did not approve of the war.

On May second the U.S Park Police and Washington Metropolitan Police raided the park and fired tear gas to drive the protestors away.

Really? Total bunko. Here is what happened. As the speakers droned on into the wee hours, many if not most were falling asleep under the stars. At 4:00 a.m. there was an announcement made from the stage, followed by bullhorns from police, that we did not have a permit to remain in the park and we had to leave.

I woke from my slumber to see the entire park surrounded by police, as many as four or five thousand, spaced to completely surround Washington Green/Potomac Park. Half awake we rolled up our sleeping bags and trudged through the dark following whoever was around us to wherever they were going. I ended up at Georgetown University. Some buildings were opened and I found a section of floor space to unroll my sleeping bag and return to my slumbers.

There was no tear gas required. I saw no tear gas and no pushback. It was a parade of half awake sleepwalkers who headed to three university campuses and other locations nearby that welcomed the tired masses.

This stirred up violence and started a riot which caused many protestors to abandon this demonstration of civil disobedience.

Huh? I saw no riots. I smelled no tear gas. Not at this point in time. That would come later, on May 3 when there would be more than enough to tear gas go around, both on the streets of D.C. and on the Georgetown campus.

Those individuals that stayed took refuge at various churches and more specifically at Georgetown University, setting up tents on its athletic field.

It was a big crowd, and there were other places people went because I know they did not all go to Georgetown U.

By Monday, May 3rd troops and police were prepared, filling up every traffic circle, park, monument and street in the DC area.

What I remember from Saturday May 1 were several speakers who late in the day were saying, “You didn’t come here just for a party. You came to shut down the government.” Those were pretty incendiary words, which on Sunday were presented in this manner: “We are shutting down the government for one day by blocking off the city. Government employees are on our side and will go home for the day.” Well, hardy har har.

Sunday May 2 was a training day. We were trained in the rules of engagement for non-violent civil disobedience. Monday May 3 was to be the action day.

The training went down like this. The leaders broke us up into groups of 100. An instructor with a bullhorn would present the rules of non-violent protest.

During the Q&A period, one question that was asked had to do with “how do we respond if the cops start beating us.” The bullhorn leader, for our group a young woman with dark har in her 20s, said, “Don’t worry. This is a non-violent protest. They won’t hit you.”

To which someone else replied, “Yes, but what if they do start hitting us?” And the training seemed to fall apart at that point because she didn’t give a satisfying answer.

What we were unaware of was how many National Guard troops were being flown into D.C. that day, a plane-load every three minutes at one point.

Another piece of this action included knowing where to go. All the key intersections and bridges were to be blocked so that there could be no traffic flow into D.C on Monday. The organizers had divided us up based on what state we were from. Everyone from Ohio was to block the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge.

On Monday morning, May 3, the day of the civil action, I overslept. I fell asleep on the basement floor of a room with more than 100 people. I woke by myself, hastily rolled up my sleeping bag and threw it in the corner. As I left the Georgetown campus I headed in the direction of the Mall and noticed that on all four corners of every single intersection there were four uniformed police standing, talking to one another or watching. I asked the first officer I encountered which way was the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. He smiled and pointed. A few blocks later I asked another. I think they got a good laugh at my expense. Eventually I neared the bridge…

When the protestors entered, the police attacked and started to arrest anyone and everyone that was protesting.

This sentence is confusing. “When the protesters entered…” Entered what?

As I drew near to the Teddy Roosevelt Bride, standing about a half block away, I could see that the bridge traffic was stopped because of the protesters seated and standing at the near end of the bridge. In the distance I heard sirens approaching. 36 squad cars came flying across the bridge at what looked like 60 miles per hour, coming in on the outbound lanes. As they approached the protesters they never slowed down. The hippies, students and others scattered.

The protesters rushed back into their positions, continuing to block traffic. Some were handing out leaflets to the cars backed up on the bridge. Meanwhile, the squad cars must have made a circular return because they were now coming back from the other way, once again dispersing the crowd by not slowing down. On their third passage the cop cars all stopped and began the engagement, striking protesters with clubs. Buses arrived and the rest of this morning would be officers clubbing people and throwing them onto buses, transporting them to a makeshift concentration camp at RFK Stadium because the jails were so quickly filled.

It was at this point tear gas began to fly. Helicopters flew about, shooting tear gas down into any crowd larger than 100 people.

The yippies engaged in hit and run tactics, causing more chaos in the streets. Tear gas was being fired everywhere and the riot continued to build. The city’s prisons were full and an emergency detention center had to be set up next to the RFK stadium.

This part is accurate, though disconcerting. Seeing protesters attacking police, and protesters throwing barricades in front of moving vehicles (See the latter part of the Ling video below) so as to cause accidents seemed contrary to the purported intentions of the civil action. This is why to this day when I hear of a protest being organized somewhere I totally anticipate that there will also be violence or vandalism while some of the media interviews the naive in order to paint a totally innocent picture.

As the afternoon of the third day approached, many were drawn away from protesting. This was the largest mass arrest in US history, with arrests close to 12,614 people. Later the conspiracy charges against the MayDay tribe leaders were dismissed. Overall, this act of civil disobedience that led to a chaotic riot and mass arrests got the anti-war message across very clearly to Nixon and his administration.

It’s hard to say what message was actually communicated. It’s my understanding that the bombing in Southeast Asia accelerated, that tens of thousands of innocent civilians continued to become the “collateral damage” of our misguided policies.

Here is the link to the origin of the above account.

Here are a pair of YouTube videos with footage that captures a sense of the times. The sound track is odd on this first one but the footage is real. Looks like a lot more than 35,000 people to me. At 3:30 into this first one there is a guy with a red and black checked jacket that may have been me. That was the jacket I had worn as I hitchhiked to D.C. for the long weekend.


2. William Ling film
No sound? Don’t worry. The pictures tell the story.

Here is the original article which I attempted to dissect:

Here is a page of anti-war protest photos from that period of history.

If you were there that weekend, I would be interested in hearing your story. Please leave a comment or contact me directly.

Originally published today at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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