Prologue: Nixon’s Insurrection City
At daybreak on saturday, May 1, 1971, two helicopters banked over the monuments of Washington, D.C., and hovered above the Potomac riverfront. The pilots relayed sobering news back to their superiors. It wasn’t long before Jerry Vernon Wilson, the city’s chief of police, left the downtown hotel room where he’d been sleeping all week. He headed to the Department of Justice for an emergency private meeting. There, he joined eleven men from Justice, the White House, the Pentagon, and the National Guard—the institutions most vested in preserving order on the streets of the capital.
For weeks, demonstrators had been flowing into Washington for marches, rallies, and sit-down protests, demanding an end to America’s war in Vietnam. The nonstop action had exhausted the government men, eroded their patience and their confidence. Now they worried about what was coming next.
Down by the placid blue-tinged river, a ragtag encampment was growing fast. Tens of thousands of young people were turning West Potomac Park into the staging area for the most zealous of the protests. When the workweek got underway on Monday morning, May 3, the militants, who called themselves the Mayday Tribe, planned to stream out of the park into the city, using their bodies and their cars to block bridges, traffic circles, and the approaches to government office buildings. Deprive Washington of its workers, and the federal city would stall. Mayday’s leaders hoped this unprecedented show of public disaffection would raise the “spectre of social chaos,” knocking President Richard M. Nixon off course and forcing him to bring all the troops home from Southeast Asia.
Nothing about the protest was secret. The group published its order of battle in a twenty-four-page tactical manual, distributed by the thousands and reprinted in underground newspapers. It displayed detailed maps and photographs of the targeted chokepoints, as well as tips for thwarting police. For months, posters with the Mayday motto had been pasted on walls and bulletin boards at hundreds of universities, coffeehouses, and bookstores across the country: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”
Despite more than six years of petitions, speeches, teach-ins, door-to-door organizing, electioneering, campus uprisings, and enormous parades for peace, the war was grinding on. Not only had Nixon failed to end the conflict as he promised when he ran for president in 1968, but he had expanded it—in secret, at first—by sending bombers and troops into Vietnam’s neighbors.
The U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970 had triggered a national student strike. Now Nixon’s latest incursion, into Laos, fueled the series of protests that its leaders had labeled the Spring Offensive.
May 1971 marked exactly ten years since President John F. Kennedy had dispatched a few hundred soldiers and advisers to South Vietnam, to prop up a regime besieged by a guerrilla force allied with the communist North. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was initially skeptical of committing more resources to Indochina. “I don’t see of defoliants and herbicides over millions of acres of greenery, in a vain attempt to cripple the enemy by stripping away its cover.
The conflict, with its mysterious battle lines and muddled military and political goals, so dominated headlines, the nightly news on TV, and debate on campuses and at kitchen tables that people in their teens and twenties could hardly remember a time when it hadn’t. The war had brought down LBJ and cost the Democrats the White House. The government’s new programs to combat poverty and injustice at home were being starved as billions of dollars poured abroad. The war inflamed class, generational, and racial conflict that sometimes turned violent, even deadly. National Guardsmen had shot and killed four young people at Kent State University in Ohio during a demonstration against the 1970 Cambodia invasion. Police fired into a Jackson State dormitory in Mississippi; two students died. When a crowd of student protesters in New York City tried to lower an American flag, construction workers stormed in and beat them bloody with their hardhats. The most fanatical members of the campus-based movement known as the New Left had declared themselves revolutionary soldiers and disappeared underground. They began setting off bombs at a string of police stations, courthouses, banks, and at college buildings with connections to the military. Vietnam was a centrifugal force spinning the nation’s self-image faster and faster, and pieces were flying off.
The organizers of Mayday wagered that huge numbers of people opposed to the war were ready to escalate their tactics. At first, as the weekend approached, their camp on the field by the river was thinly settled. It resembled the bedraggled remains of a Civil War regiment. A few hundred people slept there on the ground, wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags. Most were young men, bearded and shaggy-haired. The temperature sank into the forties at night and a cold breeze came off the river. Intermittent rain showers soaked their clothes and knapsacks. They reeked of smoke from wet firewood and marijuana. Some cobbled together lean-tos from tarps, rain ponchos, even American flags.
Informants walked among them—young police and federal agents, disguised in the worn green army-surplus field jackets favored by the peace movement, joining in the preliminary marches and the chants of “Stop the war!” and “Fuck the FBI!” They found the gathering less than impressive, predicting that in the end no more than five thousand hippies and radicals would show. One of Nixon’s top officials dismissed the boasts of the protest leaders as “just a lot of hot air.”
Yet by Saturday morning, as he stood in the conference room on the fourth floor of the Justice Department, Police Chief Jerry Wilson knew they’d misjudged Mayday. The incursion had swelled from a trickle to a flood. The helicopter surveillance confirmed that at least forty thousand people had arrived so far. Caravans of Volkswagen Beetles and microbuses continued to roll in from all over the country. Monday loomed as the largest act of mass civil disobedience the nation had ever seen, a coda to the most extraordinary season of dissent in Washington’s history. Nixon’s men were determined to make sure it failed. But how?
THE MAYDAY ENCAMPMENT rose on a couple of dusty playing fields, set roughly between the memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. It was the western edge of the National Mall, the grassy expanse that over a matter of decades had emerged as a platform for Americans to air their grievances with the government, a role not quite anticipated by the founders.
To Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the artistic French engineer hired by President George Washington in 1791 to design a federal city from scratch, the grand “public walk” he imagined from the Capitol to the Potomac River would serve as a majestic inspiration for democratic values. Washington fired the testy Frenchman for scrapping with his colleagues before the plan could be executed. It would be nearly a century before L’Enfant’s greenway was fully realized. Standing in the way were big patches of mars...