Sunday, April 10, 2011

If my thought dreams could be seen: May Day 1971 (Part Eight)


I fell asleep on the floor of a small office that had room for only two or three others that night, the shade drawn to block out the street lights glaring in. I was unaware of this at the time, but at that precise moment 15,000 additional troops and police were arriving by convoy and airlift into D.C. to arrest us on-sight, with or without provocation. There were only maybe 20,000 of us left by then. Almost one heavily armed soldier or cop with the entire repressive machinery of the state at their disposal would confront every one unarmed activist that had only their bodies and their hopes for protection.

About twenty of us left the Institute for Policy Studies at 4:30 AM on Monday morning in four separate affinity groups and we all took a different circuitous route. Our mission was to block the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution, a few blocks from the Department of Justice and the FBI. If we had taken a fairly direct route at a brisk pace down Massachusetts to 9th St., then from Pennsylvania to Constitution, we would have gotten to the intersection in 45 minutes at most, even quicker if we jaywalked and ignored stop lights. We were young and daring and we could walk fast. But we were not going to jaywalk our way into jail when we had more a more important mission to accomplish. 

It was rightly assumed that twenty people with gas masks walking together at 4:30 AM down major streets in a highly-publicized exercise of direct action might attract too much attention. It was hoped, however, that four groups of four to six people each with gas masks zig-zagging up and down different side streets for an hour and a half would meet the challenge of getting us to our corner unscathed. We were all supposed to meet up at the same time at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution around 6:00 AM and merely keep crossing the street back and forth until we had enough people to fully shut it down. Our understanding was that many other affinity groups leaving from still other sites would meet us there at that time.

The mild chill in the morning air from the rains the day before did not dampen my optimism for success. I expected to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the police for most of the day, to set up make-shift barricades, then return to the Institute for Policy Studies to watch the news of the day's events just in time for dinner. I really did.

I had no idea where I was going so I merely followed Chook, the anarchist mad man, who had procured a map from the movement heavies on how to get to the intersection in a round-about way. All of us, Jerry, Amos, Doug, Steve and Chook and I kept pretty silent most of the time. We were trying not to attract attention, as if that were possible. It was dark as hell but there was no one else out on the streets. We didn't even see a cop car. Hey, this thing is going to work out fine, I thought. 

We walked down leafy streets, past tall row houses and by businesses, all under the glow of street lights reflecting off damp sidewalks. We appeared to be very exposed, yet we felt so invisible. We went in circles. We back tracked. We would come to a red light and just stand there obediently on a completely still and empty street corner, red bandanas, Mao buttons, gas masks and all, waiting for the light to change. It was like we were just ordinary citizens out for our morning stroll at 4:30 AM. "Top of the morning to you, Professor Kant." "And top of the morning to you as well, Meister Bert." We weren't breaking any laws. We were just out...walking, right?

Federal troops totaling 10,000 had entered the city overnight but we didn't see any. Not one. At Andrews Air Force Base transport planes bursting with paratroopers had been landing every three minutesWhen you toss in over 5,000 D.C. police and 2,000 National Guard and other security forces, I marvel in retrospect that we saw no one remotely close to that description as we ambled quietly and unnoticed to the corner of Pennsylvania and Constitution. Every park, every monument, and every traffic circle (like Dupont Circle, which we had assiduously avoided due to our fairly good instructions for getting to the site of our action) were being protected by heavily-armed men. 

I guess there was a reason our government was successful in killing so many of those over-matched peasants in South East Asia. They understood the element of surprise. When we came within sight of the intersection my pulse quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and beating in my throat. Nearby the Justice Department and the FBI buildings rose ominously from street level above us. There were already twenty people just like us slowly crossing the street and our additional group swelled their numbers. There was not a whiff of the man anywhere.

We had barely entered the intersection when we were surrounded by 30 to 40 riot police with visors down and clubs drawn. They had been hiding! The bastards! Hey, we hadn't done anything yet! They scorched toward us with amazing fury. They shouted and some of us screamed. They encircled us quickly, holding their batons horizontally to their chests by each end then thrusting them forward and bashing into us with the force of a freight train. People stumbled and fell over, we were trampled under foot by hard, thick boots, then crushed into a small, tight clump of moaning humanity so compressed we could not breathe. In a few moments they started to peel off those on the outside of the clump and literally toss us into a large, idling police bus. How had they been able to hide that thing from sight? It was gigantic!  

This was at 6:00 AM. Two hours later 2,000 people had been arrested and by 11:00 AM 7,000. At Dupont Circle, where we had spent the previous night, a Marine battalion with tanks was stationed, their barrels pointed out at the populace. D.C. was under military occupation. Anyone wearing jeans was arrested, and numerous people just on their way to work were caught in the dragnet. My former babysitter, a Republican stalwart who had moved from my small town in Indiana to do clerical work at the CIA, later told me that she did not go to work that day because she was sure she would be arrested  just for leaving her home.

I was brokenhearted on that short ride to jail. We all were. We had accomplished nothing. We hadn't even broken a law or stopped traffic for a minute. They had arrested us so early and easily we hadn't even been teargassed. We had set up no barricades. There had been no cat-and-mouse. A lot of good that damn gas mask had been. I wished I had gone with the people from Connecticut I'd met the day before and blocked that residential intersection with the telephone poles we'd seen lying in a vacant lot. 

I was also mad at myself and ashamed. When the police had charged and knocked us down with incredible force, they had literally knocked the crap out of me and I had shit my pants, right in the same underwear on which my mother had written my name on a small tag which she had sewn above the Fruit of the Loom tag in the back. She had not wanted my clothes to get lost in the shuffle in the dorm laundry room at Purdue. Note to self: when next time confront forces of repression, go to bathroom first. The bus turned a corner, took a tremendous jarring bounce, then swooped down a tunnel into what had to be a parking area under a police station. None of this had been in my plans.


1 comment:

  1. Ahhhh the story continues to spin, though not in the wash cycle.