Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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


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.

We were hastily dragged from the police bus, processed at a row of portable booking tables in a busy hallway, then tossed into a large and harshly lit cinderblock holding cell. Jerry said it had to be a drunk tank or something of that sort. It was twenty by forty feet, and already jammed when we got there. The noise of so many people talking and shouting at once was painful. There must have been nearly 200 of us in that cell and it reeked of tear gas that had soaked into people's clothes. Tear gas smells 50 times stronger than the most piercing vinegar, with hints of black pepper and onion thrown in to make your eyes burn and tear. Everyone had terrible, throbbing headaches from the gas, but our bandanas finally came in handy as something other than radical fashion accessories. There were a half dozen free-standing toilets lined up against the longest wall of the cell, and we soaked our bandanas in the toiletwater then knotted them around our faces to filter out the gas. It was better than nothing and it made us look like fierce, street-fighting outlaws in jeans and olive-drab army jackets.

The time dragged on and my pants were full from being knocked around by riot police during our arrest. I kept trying to find a discreet way of taking them off without embarrassment but I could not so I had to live with it. At least the tear gas overwhelmed the fruits of my dishonor. We were in that cell for almost fourteen hours and I do not remember ever being read my rights or gaining access to a lawyer. More people kept shuffling in and the cell got tighter with every new wave. And as more arrived another wave of tear gas came with them, and we all lined up to drench our bandanas in the toilets anew. 

I basically hung with my friends and talked to a few other people most of the time. Some had been in D.C. for two weeks and had attended the previous week's half million person march, camped out at West Potomac Park for days, taken part in other actions that week, and were planning to go out the following day to get arrested all over again. That was not my plan, if I were to get out at all. Actually, being released seemed unlikely. No one knew what was going on and release was by no means assured. I also had this small thing I had to attend to called "college" and I knew I had to get back.

It got boring. I wondered what I was missing outside and I was pissed about it. When new arrivals joined us they said the city was an armed camp and that they had never seen anything like it. We learned that our jail had filled up so quickly that most people were getting shuttled to an emergency outdoor detention center at a Washington Redskins' practice field near RFK Stadium. When that filled up they were bussed to the Washington Coliseum. Some people really had played cat-and-mouse with police and troops all day before their arrest. They had disabled cars by yanking out wires from distributor caps, pushed other vehicles into intersections and abandoned them, and tossed trash cans in the way as well. Some just clogged the streets with their bodies, as we had hoped to do. We were supposed to explain our actions to the citizenry we inconvenienced but I understand that precious little of this actually occurred. Entire sections of the city lay under clouds of tear gas, and tanks and troop trucks streaked through the streets. Newsweek would later remark that the government response seemed more appropriate to Saigon than to D.C. Still, 95% of everyone got to work on time. The action had truly and totally failed.

The women in an adjoining holding area started singing after a while and one male "movement heavy" shouted, "Quiet, our sisters are singing to us!" But that may not have been true. Did these women really feel obligated to shore up our resolve? Were we men really that much of an object of their concern, and did the world really revolve around us that much? Maybe they were just singing to themselves. 

Men in the movement had always held themselves in high regard, and a huge element of machismo and sexism had been present right from the start. "Chicks" were still seen as decorations by a lot of movement heavies, and women rightly resented it. Some women had momentarily taken over the stage at West Potomac Park during the rock concert two days before to justly rail against their subordinate status, but the sound system was so bad it was hard to hear what they were saying. To our credit, most of us in the cell ignored this man's melodramatics.

Around eight o'clock that night we were herded out of the holding cell, down long brick corridors painted dull gray, and back to the buses in the garage under the jail where we had previously entered that morning. The busses were idling and their exhaust fumes just added to the headaches we still had from the tear gas we had inhaled all day. We sat there for an hour, then our busses rumbled up the tunnel to the street and out of the underground garage, winding their way through now empty avenues to the rear of a large court house. Once again we sat in the busses behind the building for an hour. We were then unloaded, marched through a somber-looking back entrance, down stark high-ceilinged corridors filled with stern-looking men in suits and police uniforms, then herded into a dark, antique holding pen that was secured with a tall and imposing sliding gate made of cold brass lattice. 

We stood there like sardines jammed upright in a can for another hour and saw numerous people just like us--wearing jeans and army jackets and bandanas--slogging out of the court room and walking to a bank of pay phones directly across from us. They were calling their parents or friends and telling them they needed two hundred dollars to get out of jail (which is the same as over $1,000 today). Many were angry and more than a few were crying. Our spirits sank. Damn...Then came the great miracle of that day, one of the great miracles of my life. 

When you experience a miracle it is often hard to explain to others why it seems so significant in your eyes. A miracle often appears at an intersection of so many unpleasant events occurring all at once that the light and grace it represents seems intentional in a way you cannot explain. When you try, lacking the ability to re-create or elaborate the depth and significance of every thread of experience, feeling, and thought at that moment, you invariably fail and people will just nod their heads politely, unaffected, and say that it must have been "nice." This was not merely nice.

The strongest and most beautiful black man you have ever seen, wearing a handsome suit and with the deepest and most sonorous voice you have ever heard, walked up to the sliding metal gate we were caged behind saying, "You can stop worrying. You're all going to be freed. Charges have been dropped." He held up a large shopping bag bursting with hamburgers and smiled broadly saying, "Courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union." God had let his people go! We shrieked with joy and we grabbed the lattice and shook it so hard that fifteen heads atop their suits and uniforms turned and glared in our direction. You just have no idea of the relief I felt. I fought back the tears. I was so grateful. I couldn't believe it. At that moment--and to this day--if I had to lay down my life to save that man I would.

He passed the hamburgers through the gaps in the metal lattice gate and everyone got at least two. He told us that the ACLU had spent hours talking to a judge and that he had agreed to let us go. The next day, the Washington Post would report that Chief Judge Harold H. Greene of D.C. Superior Court had ordered the police and the National Guard to justify how they could arrest 7,000 people without even recording their names or any details of where they were arrested or why.

When we left the courthouse and walked outside--down the broad stone front steps this time and not through the back door--we were mobbed by throngs of supporters that cheered as if we were rock stars. And they were not the kind of people you might have expected. They were not wild and wooly freaks like us. They were normal people. Congresspersons, pastors and priests in clerical collars, Federal workers, and housewives.  They cheered for us trouble makers, and they cheered because they too had experienced a profound moment of clarity about the utter moral evil of this war and they were happy we had tried to do something about it beyond what had been tried before. One congressman shook my hand and told me we had all been brave and that the city had needed our action. Others rushed up the steps and invited us to stay at their homes overnight. They would be honored by our presence, they said. It was amazing. We thanked them all, but headed back to the Institute for Policy Studies to be re-united with the rest of our friends. It was after midnight when we returned.

When I got back to the Institute I spied some reporters and a congressperson talking to the heavies in the study. I sighed with resignation regarding my own deserved obscurity, and lumbered up two flights of winding, old-fashioned wooden stairs to the office where I'd stashed my pack. I noticed my gas mask had been punctured with an ice pick by the police and I was not surprised. I also took off the underwear I'd filled earlier that morning during the police assault, and not knowing what to do with them, I tossed them behind the desk of one of the radical intellectuals who occupied that office. I am sorry I did this, whoever you were, but any other method of disposal at the time would have been even more embarrassing. Besides, you know who I am because my mother had sewed my name in those underpants anyway. Yeah, that was what it was like. Downstairs, movement heavies were chatting with their peers from other fields, while upstairs I was stashing my soiled pants from view behind the desk of man ten times my intellectual superior. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride.



  1. In these stories... were you:

    a) ever thinking your life is over... not life or death, but you would never finish college because of an arrest or something?


    b) did you ever thing -- this is going to be a good story in 20 years?


  2. a) I had lost interest in the rhythms and protocols of ordinary life and thought my life would be characterized by something out of the ordinary that transcended those mundane boxes. I was wrong.

    b) I didn't think what was happening at the time was so unusual that it would be interesting later on. So many other people were living the same experience and at such a deeper level than I was that it never occurred to me that it would be of interest later on.

  3. Bert, I just read this series of posts for the first time. You tell a great story and I am learning a lot about the time period.


  4. Thanks, Lee. It was a strange and crazy time to be alive. I'm not proud of everything I did but I am less proud of what our country was doing at the time. You read 15,000 words so that is a lot. Thanks for sticking it out that long.