World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

1971 May Day protests

The 1971 May Day Protests were a series of large-scale civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., in protest against the Vietnam War. These began on May Day of that year, continued with similar intensity into the morning of the third day, then rapidly diminished through several following days. Most members of the Nixon Administration would come to view the events as damaging, because the government's response led to mass arrests and were perceived as violating rights.


  • Planning 1
  • The protests 2
    • Saturday May 1 2.1
    • Sunday May 2 2.2
    • Monday May 3 2.3
    • Next several days 2.4
  • Aftermath 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5


By the middle of 1970 many leaders of the anti war movement had come to believe that tactics of massive, non-violent political protests that had been used previously would not end the war, and that more aggressive actions were needed. Rennie Davis and Jerry Coffin of the War Resisters League began planning the actions; later in 1970 Michael Lerner joined their number.[1] The May Day tribe[2] was formed. It was made up of Yippies and others among the more militant members of the anti-war movement. It was decided that small groups of protesters would block major intersections and bridges in the capital.

The protests

Saturday May 1

35,000 protesters camped out in West Potomac Park near the Washington Monument park to listen to rock music and plan for the coming action. The government planned to use low flying helicopters to disrupt the protest. This tactic was stymied by the launching of large numbers of helium filled balloons - some of which were tethered by cables large enough to snarl a helicopter's rotors.

Sunday May 2

The Nixon administration canceled the protester's permit. U.S. Park Police and Washington Metropolitan Police, dressed in riot gear, raided the encampment. The police formed up in phalanxes and slowly moved through the park firing tear gas and knocking down tents, forcing out the campers. The campers scattered towards the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. At this point the campsite was closed down, forcing some protesters to abandon the demonstration while others were forced into the nearest car and others were ordered to leave the city by police. The remaining protesters, estimated at 10,000, or more regrouped at various churches and college campuses in the area.[3] After the cancellation of the Sunday concert and the day's actions many protesters left the city leading to hours' long gridlock.

Monday May 3

The government put into effect a plan it had developed in the 1960s to combat urban disorders. While protesters listened to music, planned their actions or slept, 10,000 federal troops were quickly moved to various locations in the Washington, D.C. area. At one point, so many soldiers and marines were being moved into the area from bases along the East Coast that troop transports were landing at the rate of one every three minutes at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, about 15 miles from the White House. Among these troops were 4,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division,troops from Marine Barracks lined both sides of the 14th St bridge. These troops were to back up the 5,100 D.C. Metropolitan Police, 2,000 D.C. National Guard and Nixon’s internal security forcesthat were already in place. Every monument, park and traffic circle in the nation's capital had troops protecting its perimeters. Paratroopers and marines deployed via helicopter to the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Protesters announced that because the government had not stopped the Vietnam War they would stop the government[2] and told troops, many of whom were of similar age, that their goal was to prevent the troops from being sent to Vietnam. In response troops were rotated frequently. While the troops were in place and thousands held in reserve, the police clashed with members of the May Day tribe. The Yippies engaged in hit and run tactics throughout the city, trying to disrupt traffic and cause chaos in the streets. Politicians were harassed by protesters.[4] President Richard Nixon, who was at the Western White House in San Clemente, California, refused to give Federal workers the day off, forcing them to navigate through police lines and May Day tribe roadblocks. Most commuters who tried arrived at their jobs, despite being delayed somewhat. Federal Employees for Peace held a rally in Lafayette Park.[4]

While the troops secured the major intersections and bridges, the police roamed through the city making massive arrest sweeps and used tear gas over the gate each time they pushed the crowd back. Other forms of gas were used including pepper based and one that induced vomiting. Police helicopters also dropped tear gas on the university's lower athletic field where protesters had camped the night before. Numerous people were severely injured and treated by volunteers on campus. By afternoon the police had suppressed the disruption efforts and the protesters had mainly dispersed.

Next several days

Smaller protests continued resulting in the arrests of several thousand more, bringing the total to 12,614 people, making this the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. [2][5]


Conspiracy charges against May Day tribe leaders were dismissed. Out of the 12,000 demonstrators arrested most were released without charges and 79 were eventually convicted.[6] The ACLU pursued a class action suit brought by thousands of detained protesters and ultimately the US Congress, recognizing the illegal nature of the arrests, agreed to pay a settlement to those arrested, making them some of the only citizens in US history to receive financial compensation for violation of the constitutional right of free assembly.[7]

Richard Helms, who was Central Intelligence Agency director at the time, said "It was obviously viewed by everybody in the administration, particularly with all the arrests and the howling about civil rights and human rights and all the rest of a very damaging kind of event. I don't think there was any doubt about that."[4]


  1. ^ "Order of Battle".  
  2. ^ a b c Page 5 "Vietnam Demonstrations: 1971 Year in Review, United Press International Accessed 2009-04-13.
  3. ^ Weber, Galen (January 28, 2010). "Saxa Politica: A penchant for protests". The Georgetown Voice. Archived from the original on 2011-08-16. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  4. ^ a b c d Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost by Joe Allen excerpt reprinted by May 30, 2008
  5. ^ 1971 Year in Review Archived United Press International 2009-05-05.
  6. ^ The Nixon Years Down from the Highest Mountaintop Time Magazine August 19, 1974 issue
  7. ^ pg 12
  • The Washington Post, various news articles, May 1–7, 1971.
  • Barber, Lucy G. (2002) Marching on Washington . University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. (

Further reading

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.