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A Special Supplement: Mayday: The Case for Civil Disobedience

My impression was that well-dressed people downtown were largely hostile and they may have reflected the immediate feelings of other middle-class residents. On the other hand, there were many instances of sympathetic responses. For example, when my group of eight tried to reach the Washington Monument before 6 AM, two people on their way to work stopped to offer us a lift, piled us into their car, and drove us to the Monument, obviously risking police harassment. They strongly supported the demonstration, as did the taxi driver who took several of us to the airport and who even offered some suggestions for more effective tactics. These sympathizers, incidentally, were local black residents (70 percent of the population of Washington is black).

I have heard similar reports from other demonstrators. According to the press, the only food given to many of those jailed was brought “by church groups and members of the black community.”50 A small sample, no doubt, but I have heard no contrary views. Though the purpose of the demonstration was not to win the sympathy of the local residents, possibly large numbers of them did sympathize with the demonstration. If so, the discipline of the demonstrators, which I though impressive for the most part, surely contributed to this, as did the treatment of the demonstrators by the police.

As I have already noted, many demonstrators attempted to carry out civil disobedience of the passive and conventional type: sit down and be arrested. Others, mostly young, attempted “mobile tactics”: disrupt traffic and then escape. The first type of civil disobedience is just beyond the margins of strict legality. The second goes a step further toward “punishment by tumults and insurrections.”

In the days preceding Mayday, many people were arrested, some repeatedly, in conventional civil disobedience, including more than 100 veterans, some of whom still face serious charges. The government was reluctant to use force against the veterans, and there were reports that the police and the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division would not have been reliable had force been attempted. The veterans in Washington evoked widespread and deserved sympathy and are clearly a new and dramatic force in the peace movement.

During the last week of April, when hundreds gathered in protest at government buildings, there were again fairly peaceful and legal arrests. On May 4, the day after the first Mayday demonstrations, several thousand demonstrators marched to the Justice Department and many were arrested, without undue violence, according to reports. On May 5, more were arrested on the steps of the Capitol building. It can be reasonably argued that they were engaged in peaceful assembly with a number of congressmen who had invited them to appear, and that the arrests were another exercise of illegal authority.

But May 3 was different in scale and character. There were many more demonstrators, and they announced that their goal was to prevent the orderly function of the government by marching to the Pentagon and disrupting traffic at designated and carefully chosen intersections, also announced in advance. The government reaction was instructive. The passive groups of demonstrators were dispersed by force. So far as I could see, the police refused to arrest the demonstrators, in effect foreclosing the option of passive civil disobedience at designated points. Only a saint can sit quietly in the path of a speeding police car or when a canister of CS explodes in his face.

The Pentagon march was barely able to begin. Early in the demonstration, I was with a group which included people who have for many years been dedicated to passive nonviolent civil disobedience. I saw none of them arrested, though it was certain that they would have in no way resisted arrest. Rather, they were dispersed by force on the streets or sidewalks or park grounds. Later in the morning, after the demonstrations were virtually ended, we saw a group of young people singing on a street corner (and blocking pedestrian traffic). They, too, were driven off by club-swinging policemen who refused to arrest them, though they gave no sign of resistance.

There were many similar incidents. A picture in Life Magazine (May 14) showing the Deputy Chief of Police macing (not arresting) a group of passive demonstrators sitting near the curb is typical of what we saw in various parts of the city. The order was given to make mass arrests—7,200 were arrested on Monday (May 3) alone. But as has been widely reported, these were largely a form of preventive detention, so blatantly illegal that most of those arrested had to be released.

The police tactics of dispersal by force and arbitrary mass arrest, though not unexpected, were clearly unlawful. After the later demonstration in Boston on May 6, the executive director of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union pointed out that “police have the power to arrest those who break the law. They do not have the right to beat people when there is no resistance.”51 Nor do they have the right to run down people with police cars. Do the police have the legal right to attack persons who are not resisting arrest (or merely standing on the sidewalk) with mace and tear gas? I doubt it. Though the degree of force and brutality was far from that of, say, Chicago, 1968, it was surely well beyond the bounds of law.

That the arrests themselves were illegal the courts quickly determined. A reporter heard a police officer give an order to “arrest anyone that looks like a demonstrator”; the order, she observes, was quickly obeyed.52 Henry Allen, an assistant news editor of the Washington Post, was illegally arrested and spent twenty-one hours in custody.53 Howard Zinn was arrested on May 4 when he asked a policeman why he was beating a long-haired young man who was simply walking on a sidewalk, with no demonstration in sight. This set off a chain reaction. A man taking a photograph was arrested, then two others who stopped to watch (all three young and, by their looks, possible demonstrators). These were typical incidents.

Finally, the conditions of treatment after the arrests were unlawful. Judge James Belson of the Superior Court ruled after observing some of these conditions that they constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”54 There are numerous reports of people forced into tiny, nearly suffocating cells for hours, and many were deprived of minimal standards of care and subjected to considerable abuse. Howard Zinn spent the day with as many as twenty other people in a cell designed for one person. For six hours they stood in a pool of water several inches deep. (After a disturbance the police had hosed down several cells.) Many others have similar stories to tell. Yet spirits and morale remained high, and many returned from jail or compounds to be arrested again in subsequent demonstrations.

The police strategy of illegal force and illegal arrest was reportedly developed in conjunction with the Justice Department,55 and Justice Department officials are reported to concede that up to 80 percent of the arrests were unconstitutional.56 There has been criticism, some of it from Congress (by Senator Kennedy, for example), of the illegal arrests; but none, to my knowledge, of the illegal use of force. President Nixon is said to be “totally satisfied” with the handling of the demonstrations.57

The Justice Department and police had a choice: to keep the traffic flowing or to obey the law, accepting the traffic delay that would have resulted from legal arrest. It comes as no surprise that the authorities decided to disregard the law.


Henry Allen was impressed, while in jail, by “the tough, almost amused cynicism of people who are no longer surprised that other Americans will sweep them off the streets on charges so ridiculous that no one even bothered to laugh at them.” But only the naïve are surprised, these days, at the far more serious matter of brutality and excessive force. Contrary to many reports in the press, those subjected to illegal force, illegal arrest, or illegal detention did not appear to be “indignant when [the system failed] to protect their rights.”58

Much more ominous, their reaction was the amused cynicism noted by Henry Allen. This suggests growing contempt for the institutions of American society, contempt inspired by the hypocrisy, the lies, the resort to brute force on the part of the Administration, which seems intent on demonstrating—in a trivial way in Washington and on a vast scale in Indochina—that it regards the law as an instrument for its purposes, not as a principle to be upheld. By so doing, it is preparing the ground either for further tumults and insurrections, or else for a still more dangerous submission to what Thomas Jefferson called “elective despotism.”

This contempt for law also appears in press commentary. The New Republic editorial comment considers it “paradoxical” that demonstrators should be “indignant” when their rights are denied, and the Christian Science Monitor comments editorially on the “ironies in the situation” as “demonstrators who sought to suspend the process of law and impose anarchy on Washington are now demanding the protection of law.”59

This remarkable view seems to be widely held. Is it also “ironic” or “paradoxical” for the murderer of dozens of Vietnamese civilians to expect the full protection of the law? If President Nixon were to be charged with war crimes, should he first be beaten bloody by arresting officers? In fact, if an embezzler, a burglar, or a murderer caught in the act were subjected to the abuse and violence directed as a matter of course against a person violating traffic ordinances to protest the war, the press and public would be appalled by this savagery. But there is slight attention when those committing this crime are brave and decent young people, with no thought of personal gain, who are simply demonstrating their commitment to end a miserable, criminal war. Those who are attracted by ironies and paradoxes would do better to look here.

The Boston demonstrations followed a similar pattern.60 On May 5, some 25,000 demonstrators gathered on the Boston Common. The following morning, several thousand attempted to block access to the Federal Building in downtown Boston. There was no hint of violence, nor was there resistance to arrest or even to police attacks. Apparently, a fairly friendly relationship developed between police and demonstrators. Nevertheless, the official policy was to refuse to arrest but instead to carry out repeated attacks against passive demonstrators, without provocation and without purpose beyond that of terrorizing the participants. Once again, it wasn’t Chicago, but it was bad enough. And once again, the press took little notice and the civil authorities (the mayor in this case) praised the police for their decorum and restraint. Since there was no point to preventive detention, there were no mass arrests as in Washington. But those arrested (more than 100) report brutal beatings under police custody.

One of those arrested was Howard Zinn, picked out of the crowd by plainclothesmen, and roughed up as he was dragged off. Zinn’s particular crime was that he had delivered an inspiring speech on the Boston Common the day before. The lesson seems clear. Some observers close by felt that the brutality of his arrest was an effort to provoke violence, since he was highly respected and extremely well-liked by the other demonstrators. If so, it failed. In spite of continued provocation, the demonstrators remained nonviolent and passive. Among those known to readers of this journal, Daniel Ellsberg was repeatedly clubbed, on one occasion at least, while trying to protect another demonstrator from police blows. One young demonstrator had his hand broken by a police club. After being released from the hospital, he returned to the demonstration, his first, incidentally. From all reports, this was typical of the spirit of the demonstration, as it was in Washington.

The police tactics in Boston, like those in Washington, naturally tend to discourage passive nonviolent civil disobedience. In Washington, the effect was to bring many people to adopt the mobile tactics of the more “militant” groups who were generally nonviolent but refused to sit passively. This of course raises the level of confrontation and increases the threat of potential violence. The government is acting in such a way as to foreclose, by violence, the possibility of undertaking actions that are on the border of legality.

If this is intentional, one might argue that from a narrow point of view it is rational, for passive nonviolent civil disobedience might appeal to large numbers of people willing to accept a measure of risk and discomfort to find some effective way to express their commitment to ending the war. A healthy democracy would strive to keep this option open. In the present instance, actions of this sort might enormously benefit American society, not to speak of Indochina, by helping to bring the war to an end. However, when the government is committed to policies that it can no longer defend (hence the unending and mounting prevarication) and that are intolerable to many citizens, including even many of its own soldiers, it is likely to close off effective channels of opposition whenever possible, resorting to unlawful violence where this proves necessary.

Suppose that the President continues to pursue the course of military victory in Indochina and that Congress fails to act. Then those who wish to end the war can submit and accept defeat, or continue to expose themselves to police terror in acts of passive civil disobedience, or raise the level of confrontation. Many possibilities will surely occur to those who consider the last course. It is a very dangerous course. The state has a near monopoly on means of violence, and support for state violence and elective despotism may well mount as the level of confrontation rises. But the Administration by its criminal policies and Congress by its weakness and complicity may leave no alternative for those who remain seriously committed to halting the murder and destruction in Indochina.

In April, 1965, between 15,000 and 20,000 people came to Washington to listen to speeches criticizing the war. In April, 1971, hundreds of thousands heard stronger, more militant speeches, while more than 15,000 tried to disrupt the normal functioning of the government in protest against the continuing war. Prediction is always uncertain, of course. But is it impossible to imagine that in 197? hundreds of thousands will march on Washington prepared for some form of civil disobedience if the war still continues or is followed by some new horror? Substantial parts of the population have shown the error in the Nixon-Kissinger calculation that the American people will consider the war at an end when American casualties decline. The government has apparently chosen to block channels of protest that are just beyond the borders of legality. By this decision, by its continuing commitment to its criminal war, it may bring about a domestic crisis of indeterminable proportions.

In a letter to the South Vietnamese journal Tin Sang, the well-known Catholic Professor Ly Chanh Trung writes,61 “Although the United States may have become as strong and as big as an elephant, she is being directed by the brain of a shrimp. Head of an elephant and brain of a shrimp. That is the tragedy, not just for the United States alone, but also for the whole world.”

  1. 50

    Trudy Rubin, Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1971. According to American Report, May 14, 1971, at a press conference at Pride, Inc., black lawyers, businessmen, professionals, and religious leaders announced their support for the demonstrations on the afternoon of May 3.

  2. 51

    Ken Botwright, Boston Globe, May 8, 1971.

  3. 52

    Trudy Rubin, Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 1971.

  4. 53

    Washington Post, May 5, 1971.

  5. 54

    Robert Smith, New York Times, May 8, 1971.

  6. 55

    Ben A. Franklin, New York Times, May 5, 1971. This has been denied by Attorney General Mitchell and Police Chief Wilson.

  7. 56

    Alan Dershowitz, New York Times, May 9, 1971.

  8. 57

    Trudy Rubin, Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1971.

  9. 58

    New Republic, editorial, May 15, 1971.

  10. 59

    May 8, 1971. Despite the “ironies,” the editors insist that the state should play by the rules. The New Republic editors too urge “restrained use of police power,” in spite of the “paradox” of the “indignant revolutionaries,” who in fact were neither indignant nor (in this instance) revolutionaries, so far as I am aware.

  11. 60

    I rely here on reports by participants, since I was in Texas at the time.

  12. 61

    For a translation of this letter, which should be read in full, see Thòi-Báo Gà, March/April 1971, 76a Pleasant St., Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

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