As the world is still trying to come to grips with the Trump regime and the wave of nationalism around the world, the lessons of the Nixon era come to mind as to the kind of things America can and should expect to happen under Trump. The criminalization of protest is moving very quickly in Republican ranks, and after yesterday's Women's Marches across the country will millions participating, those efforts will now be top priority.
That brings us to the now largely forgotten Mayday Tribe shutdown of Washington DC in 1971.
On May 3, 1971, after nearly two weeks of intense antiwar protest in Washington, DC, ranging from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to do something brash and extraordinary: disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action. They called themselves the Mayday Tribe, and their slogan was as succinct as it was ambitious: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The slogan was of course hyperbolic— even if Washington, DC were completely paralyzed by protest for a day or week or a month, that would not halt the collection of taxes, the delivery of mail, the dropping of bombs, or countless other government functions—but that made it no less electrifying as a rallying cry, and no less alarming to the Nixon administration (Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, called it “potentially a real threat”). An elaborate tactical manual distributed in advance detailed twenty-one key bridges and traffic circles for protesters to block nonviolently, with stalled vehicles, improvised barricades, or their bodies. The immediate goal was to snarl traffic so completely that government employees could not get to their jobs. The larger objective was “to create the spectre of social chaos while maintaining the support or at least toleration of the broad masses of American people.”
The protest certainly interfered with business as usual in Washington: traffic was snarled, and many government employees stayed home. Others commuted to their offices before dawn, and three members of Congress even resorted to canoeing across the Potomac to get themselves to Capitol Hill. But most of the planned blockades held only briefly, if at all, because most of the protesters were arrested before they even got into position. Thanks to the detailed tactical manual, the authorities knew exactly where protesters would be deployed. To stop them from paralyzing the city, the Nixon Administration had made the unprecedented decision to sweep them all up, using not just police but actual military forces.
Under direct presidential orders, Attorney General John Mitchell mobilized the National Guard and thousands of troops from the Army and the Marines to join the Washington, DC police in rounding up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. As one protester noted, “Anyone and everyone who looked at all freaky was scooped up off the street.” A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history.
Many observers, including sympathetic ones, called it a rout for the protesters. “It was universally panned as the worst planned, worst executed, most slovenly, strident and obnoxious peace action ever committed,” wrote esteemed antiwar journalist Mary McGrory in the Boston Globe afterwards. In the New York Times, reporter Richard Halloran flatly declared, “The Tribe members failed to achieve their goal. And they appear to have had no discernible impact on President Nixon’s policy in Vietnam.” Even Rennie Davis, the Chicago 7 defendant and New Left leader who had originally conceived of the Mayday action, announced at a press conference that the protest had failed.
But the government’s victory, if you can call it that, came only as a result of measures that turned the workaday bustle of the district’s streets into what William H. Rehnquist, the assistant attorney general who would later become chief justice of the Supreme Court, called “qualified martial law.” While the government hadn’t been stopped, there was a very real sense that it had been placed under siege by its own citizens, with the nation’s capital city transformed into “a simulated Saigon,” as reporter Nicholas von Hoffman put it in the Washington Post. Nixon felt compelled to announce in a press conference, “The Congress is not intimidated, the President is not intimidated, this government is going to go forward,” statements that only belied his profound unease. White House aide Jeb Magruder later noted that the protest had “shaken” Nixon and his staff, while CIA director Richard Helms called Mayday “a very damaging kind of event,” noting that it was “one of the things that was putting increasing pressure on the administration to try and find some way to get out of the war.”
Mayday, the scruffy and forgotten protest that helped speed US withdrawal from Vietnam, changed the course of activist history as well. It came at a time of crisis for the left—indeed, the distress call embedded in the mobilization’s name could apply equally well to the state of American radical movements in 1971 as to the conduct of the war they opposed. The last major national protest against the Vietnam War, Mayday was also a crucial first experiment with a new kind of radicalism, one rooted as much in its practices as in its ideas or demands. This quixotic attempt to “stop the government”—so flawed in its execution, yet so unnerving in its effects—was organized in a different manner than any protest before it, in ways that have influenced most American protest movements since.
Nixon and Halderman broke out the National Guard and martial law to stop the Mayday protests. And that was just 25,000 people. If we had another mass shutdown, something larger, like on the scale of the hundreds of thousands who showed up for the Women's March?
Trump would be terrified. And the world would know.