Holding out for justice

From John, Washington state: I was 23 years old, graduated from SUNY Stony Brook a year earlier, and was at that time living in a slum apartment in Staten Island and driving yellow taxicabs in New York.  I had attended several marches/demonstrations in New York and Washington, including the October 1967 Pentagon March and sit-in, and, like many others, this was my last anti-war event.

I was alone, and I did not run into anybody that I knew. I hitchhiked down from New York, probably leaving on Saturday morning [May 1], and arrived in Washington in the afternoon.  Somehow, I made my way to the rock concert in Potomac Park, and settled in for the event.  I remember the Beach Boys performance, and I was surprised at their beards, long hair, and clothing – the last time I had seen them was in 1966 at a concert at Fordham University in the Bronx, where they were wearing their concert togs, clean cut, etc.  They mentioned that they had very recently jammed with the Grateful Dead.  I also remember some women getting on the stage to announce sexual abuse and rapes occurring in the fringe of the event and demanding that this behavior be stopped.

I do not remember much about Sunday.  Sunday evening, I found shelter in someone’s house in DC, camping out on the floor.  I do not remember how I got there, and I do not think I had a knapsack or anything.

On Monday morning May 3 everybody got up early and went out into the street.  We milled at DuPont Circle, and as the attendance grew we watched as cars streamed through the circle, and it seemed like the cars were driving a bit faster than they needed to, probably trying to get to work before things got difficult.  A few demonstrators tried blocking the street, and the cars swerved to avoid them.  One guy pulled a “No Parking” sign out of the sidewalk – it must have been loose – and threw it into the street.  Cars swerved around it.

Suddenly a long line of army jeeps streamed into the circle, along with paddy wagons and police vehicles.  And then police were everywhere, standing quietly in the middle of the milling demonstrators, apparently waiting for a signal.  After a few minutes, the police began taking demonstrators and escorting them into the center of the circle.  A young officer, an African American, quietly took my arm and guided me into the center. He carefully searched me and was distracted by what he thought might be an object concealed in my pants leg, but it was my shin bone.  I smiled. I do not remember the policeman saying anything to me, and he did not fill out any forms, take my picture, or ask for ID.  He behaved carefully and respectfully, and that impressed me.

After some time, they loaded demonstrators, including me, into a bus, I think, and transported us to the practice football field.  The field filled up quickly.  I did not know that Dr. Spock or any other notable person was there.  I noticed in the photos in [the book] Mayday 1971 the bent fence, and I remember how that happened.  An army semi-truck pulled up along the fence, and the cattle-car style trailer was overloaded with new arrestees  People in the field ran over to the fence and jumped on it and cheered, and the people in the cattle car responded.  Within a few moments the fence and the cattle car were swaying violently from the combined ruckus, and the fence started to give way.  Finally the soldiers pepper-sprayed us.  I ran away from the spray, and then sat down and buried my face in my shirt and jacket until the air cleared.  I remember the baloney sandwiches, and I started trying to drum up support for a hunger strike but that went nowhere.  After a while I took a sandwich.

Sometime later they let a few attorneys into the field.  People gathered around, and an attorney described who he was and what efforts were being made to help us.  At one point, for some reason, he mentioned some distinction between the guys and the “chicks,” which drew pointed objections from several women, who said that there weren’t any “chickens” around here.  The attorney laughed and apologized, saying he was new to all this.

In the early evening they loaded us into buses and took us to the Washington Coliseum.  I spent the next two days there, holding out to the end.  I saw the tables where people could “process out,” meaning that they had to give their ID, pay a small amount, and acknowledge their arrest and guilt.  I destroyed my ID, placing it in one of the massive garbage bags – I think the toilets had clogged up.  I remember the naked dancing, which some people quickly discouraged because of the likely public reaction.

Detainees in Washington Coliseum
© DC Public Library/Star Collection


Finally, on late Wednesday afternoon they loaded us, the remaining holdouts, into buses and took us to court.  A tall Justice Department attorney argued scornfully and gravely that we should be detained, but the judge was having none of it, and he set us free on the spot.

I connected with another guy from New York who, amazingly, had a car parked somewhere in D.C.  We drove back to New York, and I made my way back to my apartment on Staten Island.  I was terribly full of myself from the experience, and thoroughly (but temporarily) radicalized.

1 thought on “Holding out for justice”

  1. Thanks, John. Great re-telling, especially the description of the cop and the patdown. I wasn’t at that march but was there in ’67 where a number of us from Notre Dame slept on the floor of some Pentagon Colonel’s house whose daughter was in our group. The Sixties got more right than wrong (civil rights, the rights of women, Vietnam, etc.) but seem now like a distant mirror.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Charles in Pennsylvania


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