Friday, May 1, 2009

The Quiet Riot

As a new month of May quietly arrives, my thoughts turn to an earlier more riotous May. As riots go, it was a pleasant one.

In the spring of 1971, ARVN troops launched an ill-fated offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The sudden re-escalation of the war put new life into the anti-war movement in the US. 200,000 protesters jammed into Washington, DC, for a May Day march. The initial march was peaceful, but leaflets spread all over the city announced a plan for May 3 to shut down the government by occupying key bridges and intersections thereby preventing government workers from reaching their offices. The Metro was still under construction, so commuters relied entirely on cars and buses.

This was my freshman year at GWU and I lived in Mitchell Hall, an 8-story dorm at 514 19th St NW in DC, three blocks from the White House and a short walk from the Mall. The rooms and hallways of the dorm were crammed with out-of-town students who were there for the demonstrations. I'm afraid my primary interest was unpolitical: it was whether any of the visitors were pretty.

On the night of May 2 my friend Don and I walked to the Washington Monument grounds as we had done the day before. Loud rock music was coming from a stage on the far side of the grounds. I saw only one police officer. He stood in Constitution Avenue trying to direct traffic. A young blonde woman in jeans and buckskin, and high on something more than the thick haze of marijuana in the air, stood next to him and "assisted" with grand sweeping gestures in the direction of walls and lampposts. Finally he became exasperated and gently shooed her away.

"You're a good cop!" she shouted far too loudly into his face.

"Yeah, I know," he said, shaking his head as she staggered toward the Monument.

Trying to navigate across the crowded Monument lawn, I stepped over and around human beings, who sat and lay about in various states of consciousness. The spaces between them were filled largely by blankets, coolers, and knapsacks. It was a surreal scene, so Don and I mingled and lingered. Eventually, we moseyed back to our dorm.

Our timing was fortuitous. Just before dawn on May 3, thousands of police and National Guardsmen surrounded the grounds and the Mall. Most of the  protestors were fleet-footed enough to evade immediate arrest. The assault on the roads and bridges went forward. It was no small event. Over the next three days 12,000 demonstrators were arrested. The practice field by RFK Stadium was used to hold them.

I opted simply to observe, and Mitchell Hall proved a good vantage point to watch some of the action. I kept to the rooftop and upper floors, not only for the better view, but to get above the street-level tear gas. The tang of the stuff cleared my sinuses even on the roof. Below, protestors drifted from intersection to intersection, while convoys of police cars and squads of CDU police on foot chased them away. One rag-tag troupe surrounded a Metro bus in the street below; they opened the engine cover and tried to disable the bus, but police cars arrived before they could finish. They scattered. This was a typical scene all over town. The protesters definitely interfered with traffic, but they didn't stop it. Government commuters got to work, though they could not have enjoyed driving through tear gas. Some street action sputtered on for a couple days, but by May 6 it was all over. A fellow student passed by me in the dorm hallway with books under his left arm. "Revolution's over," he said to me. So it was.

What struck me most about the whole affair was the remarkable lack of rancor in the tone of the event. Police and protesters seemed, if anything, to be having fun. I heard more than a little laughter from both sides. Yes, protesters were violent and police did get rough, but there was no overall sense that the violence would turn deadly. None of my dorm residents who had gotten arrested had so much as a small bruise to show off for it.

Many civil disturbances in this era and since were both mean and deadly. Why was this one such a soft riot? In large part it was because the police were professional and restrained. Also, it was because the protesters by and large were overwhelmingly middle-class college kids. They came from supportive families where they had been raised on Disney and Dr. Spock. They weren't angry enough to be truly dangerous.

So, my first large scale riot was pretty tame, by the standards of such things. I'd just as soon avoid being present at a second, since odds are it would be different.

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