Mayday: May 3, 1971
For about 5 hours on Monday, May 3, 1971 demonstrators used non-violent civil disobedience attempting to shut down the U.S. government in protest of the Vietnam War by blocking intersections and bridges throughout Washington, D.C. until the police and federal troops suppressed them.

Early attempts at human blockades at key intersections were broken up by overwhelming force. A total of over 18,000 police and troops were called upon to combat the protests.

President Nixon feared the international consequences of the nation’s capital being paralyzed by antiwar protestors and his administration worked closely with local police, revoking permits and suspending normal arrest procedures.

Ten Targets

Most of the ten targeted bridges and intersections were cleared quickly and protesters turned to hit and run tactics—blocking an intersection and then retreating when police or troops arrived.

The most effective blockades occurred around the 14th Street Bridge, Georgetown and the area south of Dupont Circle.

Marches by protestors on the 14th Street Bridge were twice repelled by police, but demonstrators changed tactics and began blocking access roads and nearby intersections. Unable to respond effectively, authorities called in the 82nd Airborne Division which ferried troops by helicopter to the nearby Washington Monument grounds.

In Georgetown, protestors left abandoned autos to blockade streets after failing to gain access to Key Bridge. The roving bands of demonstrators thwarted police until large scale employment of tear gas and mass arrests ended most of the action in this area sometime after 10 am.

Troops ringed Dupont Circle and used it as a temporary holding area for those arrested. Nevertheless, large groups of demonstrators succeeded in blocking downtown streets with their bodies, trash bins, abandoned autos and other available material.

Civil Liberties Suspended

Frustrated by the slow progress in clearing demonstrators, police suspended civil liberties sometime around 5:30 a.m. and locked up anyone who vaguely resembled a protestor.

In the area south of Dupont Circle, police blocked off both ends of a street and arrested anyone they thought looked like a protester or anyone who questioned them.

Among those rounded up were cab drivers, school children on their way to school, office workers, reporters and students in addition to those conducting the demonstrations.

Demonstrators and bystanders were taken to makeshift detention facilities at a practice field for the NFL Washington football team, a recreation yard at the D.C. jail and the old Uline Arena. On the unusually cold day, those arrested were housed for hours without running water, bathroom facilities, adequate shelter or food.

Background

The protests were organized by the Mayday Tribe was a loose-knit group composed of individuals, collectives and affinity groups across the country. After six years of demonstrations against the Indochina War, these frustrated antiwar activists turned to their bold and audacious plan to shut down the government.

A mass demonstration drawing over 200,000 against the war took place April 24. A weeklong set of protests in the city by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the People’s Coalition for Peace & Justice and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference resulted in over 1,200 arrests.

Protestors secured a permit for a gathering at West Potomac Park that included a rock concert featuring the Beach Boys, among others, on May 1. Sleeping was prohibited under the permit, although the protestors could occupy the space continuously.

Many of the more than 50,000 people set up tents awaiting Monday’s civil disobedience--most relaxed, listening to music, resting or smoking marijuana.

Authorities throughout the area were shocked at the number of people who showed up on Saturday. U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell’s office requested the permit be revoked. President Nixon ordered U.S. troops mobilized as back up to local police.

While local police cleared the camp in the early morning hours Sunday, May 2, thousands of protestors still showed up to block traffic Monday, May 3.

On May 4th and 5th, police employed mass arrests outside the Justice Department and at the U.S. Capitol.

In all, more than 12,000 people were arrested in the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. The total surpassed the previous record of over 7,000 arrested during the disturbances in Washington, D.C. after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Charges were later dropped against nearly everyone involved and thousands later received compensation from the government for their arrest.

U.S. troops continued to be withdrawn from Southeast Asia and nearly all the U.S. combat forces were removed following the Paris Peace Treaty in 1973. Armed forces of the Democratic Republic of [North] Vietnam and the National Liberation Front defeated the Republic of [South] Vietnam in 1975 leading to unification of the country.

In the end, the Mayday protests disrupted but did not stop government operations. However, the protest and countless other actions against the Indochina Wars helped to change Americans views toward U.S. military intervention against national liberation movements. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before the U.S. would embark on new misadventures.
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