In 1971, the People Didn’t Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down
The most influential large-scale political action of the ’60s was actually in 1971, and you might not have heard of it. It was called the Mayday action, and it provides invaluable lessons for today.
An excerpt from Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, by L. A. Kauffman, on sale February 21.
This piece originally appeared in Longreads.
The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.
That year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the totemic organization of the white New Left, had disintegrated into dogmatic and squabbling factions; the Black Panther Party, meanwhile, had been so thoroughly infiltrated and targeted by law enforcement that factionalism and paranoia had come to eclipse its expansive program of revolutionary nationalism. But the war had certainly not ended, and neither had the underlying economic and racial injustices that organizers had sought to address across a long decade of protest politics. If anything, the recent flourishing of heterodox new radicalisms—from the women’s and gay liberation movements to radical ecology to militant Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements—had given those who dreamed of a world free of war and oppression a sobering new awareness of the range and scale of the challenges they faced.
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.
The history of American radicalism since the sixties, when it’s been considered at all, has typically been misunderstood as a succession of disconnected issue- and identity-based movements, erupting into public view and then disappearing, perhaps making headlines and winning fights along the way but adding up to little more. Mayday 1971 provides the perfect starting point for a very different tale, a story about deep political continuities, hidden connections, and lasting influences. It’s a story rooted less in radicals’ ideas about how the world ought to change than the evolving forms of action they’ve used to actually change it—whether hastening the end of an unpopular war, blocking the construction of nuclear power plants, revolutionizing the treatment of AIDS, stalling toxic trade deals, or reforming brutally racist police practices. Many movements contributed to this long process of political reinvention, but feminism and queer radicalism played special, central roles, profoundly redefining the practice of activism in ways that have too rarely been acknowledged. And because this is an American story, it’s shaped at every level by questions and divisions of race. The story begins with a major racial shift in the practice of disruptive activism, as the direct-action tradition refined by the black civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties to such powerful effect was taken up and transformed by mostly white organizers in the seventies and eighties.
The Mayday direct action took place a year after the Nixon Administration invaded Cambodia, an escalation of the Vietnam War that had provoked angry walk-outs on more than a hundred college and university campuses. At one of these, Ohio’s Kent State University, National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesters, killing four and wounding nine; ten days later, police killed two students and wounded twelve more at Jackson State University in Mississippi. The deaths sparked strikes at hundreds more campuses and inspired thousands who had never protested before to take to the streets. By the end of May 1970, it’s estimated that half the country’s student population—perhaps several million youth—took part in antiwar activities, which, in the words of former University of California president Clark Kerr, “seemed to exhaust the entire known repertoire of forms of dissent,” including the bombing or burning of nearly one hundred campus buildings with military ties. So many people were radicalized during the spring 1970 uprising that the antiwar movement suddenly swelled with a new wave of organizers spread all throughout the country, many in places that had seen relatively little activism before then.
The tumult of spring 1970 faded by the fall, however, and an air of futility hung over the established antiwar movement. Many of the longtime organizers who had persevered beyond the movement’s crisis year of 1969 were now burning out. As one antiwar publication put it in an unsigned piece, for the previous seven years “we have met, discussed, analyzed, lectured, published, lobbied, paraded, sat-in, burned draft cards, stopped troop trains, refused induction, marched, trashed, burned and bombed buildings, destroyed induction centers. Yet the war has gotten steadily worse—for the Vietnamese, and, in a very different way, for us.” It seemed that everything had been tried, and nothing had worked. “Most everyone I know is tired of demonstrations,” wrote New Left leader David Dellinger. “No wonder. If you’ve seen one or two, you’ve seen them all … Good, bad, or in between, they have not stopped the war, or put an end to poverty and racism, or freed all political prisoners.” In this climate of grim frustration, the national antiwar movement split, as long-standing tensions about the political value of civil disobedience divided activists who were planning the antiwar mobilization for spring 1971. A new formation named the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) called for a massive legal march and rally on April 24. This coalition boasted a long and impressive list of endorsers, but was centrally controlled by a Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party, and its offshoots.
NPAC aimed to build a mass mobilization against the war—organizer Fred Halstead called it “an authentic united front of the masses”—bringing together the widest possible array of forces. Toward that end, NPAC put forth just one lowest-common-denominator demand: “Out of Vietnam now!” NPAC also vehemently opposed the use of any tactics that went beyond legally permitted protest. Civil disobedience, the coalition’s leadership believed, accomplished little while alienating many from the cause. “In our opinion, small civil disobedience actions—whether in the Gandhi-King tradition or in the vein of violent confrontation—are not effective forms of action,” declared the SWP’s newspaper, The Militant. “While we do not question the commitment and courage of those who deploy such tactics, we feel that they are not oriented toward winning and mobilizing a massmovement.” The Mayday action came in for special criticism: “When people state that they are purposely and illegally attempting to disrupt the government, as the Mayday Tribe has done, they isolate themselves from the masses of American people.”
The other major wing of the antiwar movement ultimately renamed itself the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ), and was anchored by pacifist organizations ranging from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to the War Resisters League. PCPJ favored a multi-issue approach to antiwar organizing and worked to build alliances with non-pacifist organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization, drawing connections between the foreign and domestic policies of the US government. The coalition also felt that stronger tactics than mere marching were called for, and emphatically endorsed civil disobedience. “Massive One-Day Demonstrations Aren’t Enough,” read the headline of a PCPJ broadsheet issued that spring, “More’s Needed to End the War.” PCPJ didn’t openly discourage people from attending the April 24 NPAC march, but focused its efforts on a multi-day “People’s Lobby,” which consisted of planned, coordinated sit-ins outside major government buildings.
Into this fractured political landscape came the Mayday Tribe, a new player with a very different approach. The group was launched by Rennie Davis, a white New Left leader who had become nationally famous after the melees outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the federal government prosecuted him and other prominent organizers—the Chicago 7—for conspiracy. In Davis’ conception, the Mayday Tribe would bring the most politicized hippies of the time together with the hippest of the hardcore radicals. The word “tribe” itself was a countercultural code word, having been appropriated by whites to signal groovy distance from the dominant culture (the 1967 San Francisco “Be-In” that propelled hippiedom to the national stage, for instance, was known as “A Gathering of the Tribes” despite a notable lack of Native American participation), and Mayday had a long-haired freaky flavor that was decidedly missing from either the Trotskyist or pacifist wings of the antiwar movement. Jerry Coffin, an organizer with the War Resisters League who teamed up with Davis when Mayday was only an idea, recalled it as an attempt “to create a responsible hip alternative” to the Weather Underground: “merging radical politics, Gandhian nonviolence, serious rock and roll, [and] lots of drugs.” Many—perhaps most—of the people who took part in the action were relative newcomers to the movement, from the generation that had been radicalized by Cambodia and Kent State.
Davis took the idea of nonviolently blockading the federal government from a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to paralyze New York City traffic on the opening day of the 1964 World’s Fair. CORE was an important interracial civil rights group founded in the 1940s, with pacifist roots and a strong commitment to nonviolent direct action. The organization is best known for the daring Freedom Rides it organized in 1961 to challenge racial segregation on interstate buses in the Deep South. These rides, with small groups of black and white activists defying Jim Crow through the simple act of traveling and sitting together, were met with extreme violence, with one bus firebombed and many Freedom Riders brutally beaten by white mobs. CORE was most active in the North, however, particularly in Chicago where it was founded; there, and in other northern cities, the group used sit-ins and other direct-action tactics as part of a major campaign in the early 1960s against school segregation.
By 1964, many in the civil rights movement were growing impatient at the slow pace of change. The Brooklyn chapter of CORE, younger and more radical than the organization as a whole, decided to use the occasion of the World’s Fair to draw attention to the deep racial inequalities in the event’s host city. CORE proposed disrupting the fair’s opening day through a “stall-in” at strategic points on the city’s highways, with protesters deliberately allowing their cars to run out of fuel so that the vehicles would block the roadways.
“Drive a while for freedom,” read a leaflet that organizers distributed throughout Bedford-Stuyvesant and other black neighborhoods. “Take only enough gas to get your car on exhibit on one of these highways.” The goal of the planned disruptions was to pressure the city’s government to take action on housing, education, police brutality, and other issues of urgent concern to New York City’s black and Latino population. But the outcry over this obstructive plan was enormous, with everyone from New York City officials to moderate civil rights leaders to President Lyndon Johnson denouncing the protest as one that would, in Johnson’s words, “do the civil rights cause no good.” CORE’s national director, James Farmer, was so appalled that he suspended the Brooklyn chapter. In the end, very few people went through with the highway action. They almost didn’t need to: the controversy had already garnered massive publicity, Fair attendance was a fraction of what had been projected, and civil disobedience protests inside the event led to 300 arrests.
The Mayday protest, with its goal of blockading the nation’s capital, echoed the CORE plan in mischievous tone and disorderly intent. The Mayday protest was to entail “action rather than congregation, disruption rather than display.” As one Mayday leaflet circulated in advance of the 1971 protests declared, in a clear allusion to the April 24 NPAC event, “Nobody gives a damn how many dumb sheep can flock to Washington demonstrations, which are dull ceremonies of dissent that won’t stop the war.” Mayday wouldn’t be a standard protest rally, where a series of speakers (usually chosen through an acrimonious behind-the-scenes struggle) would lecture to a passive crowd. It wouldn’t be a conventional protest march, where demonstrators would trudge along a route that had been pre-arranged with the police, shepherded by movement marshals controlled by the protest leadership. With much antiwar protest having become dreary and routinized (“Should I take pictures, I kept questioning myself, or would photographs from past identical rallies suffice?” asked one radical after April 24), Mayday promised to be novel and unpredictable.
Mayday would also diverge from the traditional form of civil disobedience that PCPJ supported. That type of action, the tactical manual explained, usually “involved a very small group of people engaging in ‘moral witness’ or action that involved them breaking a specific law, almost always with advance notice to authorities.” In a typical civil disobedience protest, participants would sit down at the entrance to a building or inside some official’s office and wait until police—who knew ahead of time what the protesters would do—carried them off to jail. If they were attacked or beaten, they would neither fight back nor run away. “Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering,” Mohandas Gandhi, the great Indian practitioner of nonviolent resistance, had declared. The philosophy of civil disobedience that he and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. propounded, and most pacifists embraced, entailed a willingness to accept violence and a refusal to engage in it, even in self-defense.
In the activist climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this kind of civil disobedience had acquired an aura of piety and passivity distasteful to many radicals; as Jerry Coffin observed, “very few of [the Mayday protesters] would have identified themselves as being members of a nonviolent movement.” The organizers of Mayday had a somewhat difficult sell to make, and the tactical manual emphatically distinguished their disruptive direct-action scenario from conventional nonviolence: “We need to be clear that we are not talking about an exercise in martyrdom; we are not talking about negotiated arrests; we are talking about using a tactic to attain an objective.” Explained S.J. Avery, who was working with the Quaker Project on Community Conflict at the time and ran some of the training sessions in nonviolence for Mayday protest, “The kind of nonviolent direct action that we had always been talking about was the very classic, traditional Gandhian sort, where you did your action and then you stayed there and you took your consequences. That was not part of the Mayday rhetoric. People wanted to keep it nonviolent, but I think a lot of people went down there thinking it was going to be pretty much guerrilla action. And that some people would get arrested, and some figured if they could get away, that was great.”
The Mayday organizers hoped to tap into the revulsion many felt toward the tactics of the Weather Underground and other violent groups, while steering clear of the submissiveness and sanctimony radicals associated with nonviolence. Explained Maris Cakars, editor of the influential pacifist magazine WIN, “The idea of ‘we’ve tried everything, now there’s nothing left but violence’ was pretty much replaced with the notion that now that violence—trashing, bombing, off the pigging—had failed it was time for a really radical approach: nonviolent civil disobedience.” The tactical manual explained that Mayday would be militant in a way “that conforms more with our new life style” and deploys “joy and life against bureaucracy and grim death.” An organizing leaflet elaborated: “The overall discipline will be non violent, the tactic disruptive, and the spirit joyous and creative.” To underscore their gently irreverent take on the sometime pious tradition of nonviolence, Mayday’s planners used witty remixed versions of social-justice artist Ben Shahn’s line drawing of Gandhi in their mobilizing materials, sometimes showing a crowd of Gandhis, sometimes rendering him with a raised fist.
The most novel aspect of Mayday, though, was its organizing plan. Unlike any national demonstration before it, this action was to be created through a decentralized structure based on geographic regions. “This means no ‘National Organizers,’” the tactical manual explained, in contrast to all the big DC marches and rallies that had come before. “You do the organizing. This means no ‘movement generals’ making tactical decisions you have to carry out. Your region makes the tactical decisions within the discipline of nonviolent civil disobedience.”
This approach reflected a major shift in activist temper over the previous two years or so: a growing disdain for national organizations, movement celebrities, and structured leadership, all of which were felt to stifle creativity and action. “Following the disintegration of SDS,” the radical magazine Liberation explained, “there were many in the movement who were thoroughly disillusioned with the whole idea of a national political structure. They came to feel that authentic radicalism must grow out of involvement in local or small-group activity, that it cannot flourish within a national organization.” The now-defunct SDS certainly came in for special scorn, along with the “movement heavies”—influential or hardline radical men—who so often represented the group to the media. But the criticism also extended to the national antiwar movement in its various organizational guises, which had “really well known people who were on the letterhead and [acted as] spokespeople for the movement,” as Ed Hedemann of the War Resisters League put it.
A pamphlet published by an anonymous group of West Coast activists not long before Mayday (and circulated among anarchists ever since) outlined an underlying critique of the very idea of a national or mass movement. Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives defined “the mass” as an intrinsically alienating and repressive structure of capitalist society, designed purely to facilitate consumption. Radicals who aspired to create a mass movement—like the Socialist Workers Party with its April 24 NPAC march and rally—were reproducing the very structure they should be challenging. “We don’t fight the mass (market) with a mass (movement),” the essay argued. “This form of struggle, no matter how radical its demands, never threatens the basic structure—the mass itself.” The antidote to mass society, the pamphlet declared, was a decentralized movement based on small, self-organized collectives.
A related impulse toward decentralization characterized the radical identity-based movements that had emerged between 1966 and 1969—the multi-hued array of “power” movements (Black Power, Puerto Rican Power, Chicano Power, Yellow Power, Red Power), and the women’s and gay liberation movements. A central theme of each was the question of representation: who speaks for whom; who makes decisions, and in whose name. As Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton wrote in their influential 1967 manifesto Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, “Black people must redefine themselves, and only they can do that. Throughout this country, vast segments of the black communities are beginning to recognize the need to assert their own definitions, to reclaim their history, their culture; to create their own sense of community and togetherness.” By 1971, identity-based movements were fixtures of the radical landscape, whose very existence challenged the idea of an overarching ‘capital-m’ Movement that could speak with one voice. A mass movement—or, to put it another way, a movement of masses—seemed to drown out difference in the name of unity, something that many activists could no longer accept. The radical women’s liberation movement made this challenge to mass or national organizing explicit. Its signature contribution to radical activism was the assertion that the personal is political, a proposition that was electrifying in its day. Building upon the New Left project of countering personal alienation by uncovering “the political, social, and economic sources of [one’s] private troubles” (to quote from the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding document of SDS), the mostly white radical feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s made consciousness-raising a centerpiece of their politics. This process of self-examination and collective discussion was best suited for small groups, which facilitated greater intimacy and internal democracy than large organizations. By the early 1970s, the small group was the predominant radical feminist form, characterized by “a conscious lack of formal structure, [and] an emphasis on participation by everyone,” in the words of organizer and theorist Jo Freeman. Though Mayday could hardly be termed a feminist initiative—there was a women’s tent and a women’s contingent, but the mobilization was planned and shaped by New Left men—the decentralized and radically democratic organizing principles of the women’s liberation movement helped shape the larger political climate that gave rise to the Mayday Tribe.
The Mayday organizers proposed that everyone who wanted to help shut down the federal government organize themselves into “affinity groups.” Affinity groups are small assemblages of roughly five to fifteen people who take part in an action jointly, planning their participation collectively. Mayday was the first time they were used in a large-scale national demonstration in the United States, as well as the first time they were used in an explicitly nonviolent context. Affinity groups have been a recurring feature of many large protests since and a defining structure of a great deal of direct action organizing. Movements with such wide-ranging concerns as nuclear power, US military intervention in Central America, environmental destruction, AIDS, and global trade agreements have organized their actions on the basis of affinity groups; they have been especially important to movements that have explicitly defined themselves as nonviolent. There’s an irony there, for these groups began as underground guerrilla cells, and entered US radical circles through the most violent segment of the white New Left.
The term dates back to Spain in the late 1920s and 1930s, when small bands of militants from the Iberian Anarchist Federation (F.A.I.) undertook a series of guerrilla actions: first against the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera; next against real or suspected fascists during the Spanish Republic; and finally, against the fascist regime of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. They called their underground cells “grupos de afinidad,” explained Murray Bookchin, the writer and social ecologist who first introduced the term to the United States, “because people were drawn together not by residence, not even by occupation, but on the basis of affinity: friendship, individual trust, background, history.” The groups reflected both anarchist ideals of free association and military needs for security. The stakes were tremendous: a small slip-up could lead to torture and death. Because affinity groups were small and formed only by people who knew each other well, they were difficult to infiltrate or uncover. Because the groups acted autonomously, with no central command, the discovery or destruction of one would not obliterate the underground altogether.
The phrase and structure entered the New Left in the United States around 1967, when some in the movement were beginning to reject the philosophy of strict nonviolence and shifting, as the saying of the time went, “from protest to resistance.” Initially, that meant employing “mobile tactics” during demonstrations, notably the fall 1967 Stop the Draft Weeks in Oakland and New York. Sitting down and awaiting arrest increasingly seemed only to invite beatings from the police—and to accomplish little or nothing in the process; nonviolence had come to seem like passivity. Young militants began to experiment with more chaotic and aggressive measures: dragging mailboxes or automobiles into the streets to serve as temporary blockades; blocking traffic; remaining always in motion in order to create “disruptive confrontation.”
To pull that off well, you needed some kind of agile, streetwise organization—something, perhaps, like “a street gang with an analysis.” That’s how Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, the SDS chapter from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, defined the affinity group in a broadside published around 1968. The Motherfuckers, in their own words, were “flower children with thorns,” a fierce and disruptive group devoted to creating a “total break [from the present]: cultural, political, social, everything.” Ben Morea, the founder of the Motherfuckers, had learned about affinity groups from conversations and debates with Bookchin, who had done extensive research during the 1960s on the Spanish Civil War. “Murray really understood the history of Spain, and he was telling me about the grupos de afinidad. And I immediately saw the possibility,” remembered Morea. He was intrigued by the idea of “groups of like-minded people that weren’t public,” the sort of group that was “totally unknown to anyone else.” Embracing this clandestine structure, the Motherfuckers engaged in outrageous actions, which ranged from dumping garbage at New York’s Lincoln Center on its opening night (its construction having displaced a Puerto Rican neighborhood) to pelting then–Secretary of State Dean Rusk with bags of cow’s blood.
The Motherfuckers’ conception of affinity groups partly mirrored their Spanish antecedents: “Relying on each other,” explained one leaflet, “the individuals in an affinity group increase their potential for action and decrease the dangers of isolation and/or infiltration. The necessity for these relationships should be obvious at this stage of our struggle.” But security was not their only purpose. The Motherfuckers viewed affinity groups in grander terms as well. “In the pre-revolutionary period,” they wrote, “affinity groups must assemble to project a revolutionary consciousness and to develop forms for particular struggles. In the revolutionary period itself they will emerge as armed cadres at the centers of conflict, and in the post-revolutionary period suggest forms for the new everyday life.” Morea and the Motherfuckers soon introduced the idea of affinity groups as teams for street combat to Weatherman, the faction of SDS that aspired to be a revolutionary fighting force and to “bring the war home” to the United States. It was during the October 1969 Days of Rage, perhaps Weatherman’s most notorious action, that affinity groups made their true US debut. Some three hundred of the group’s followers converged on Chicago, where they went on what might best be termed a rampage: battling cops, smashing windshields, running through the streets, and creating mayhem. Jeff Jones, one of the founders of Weatherman, explained that as early as 1967, militant members of SDS began debating whether to adopt more violent tactics during street protests. “We had that discussion over and over again,” he recalled in a 2000 interview, “and each demonstration that we went to became a little bit more militant, until it was in our heads to organize a demonstration that was entirely street fighting, which we did, in which affinity groups played a very important role.”
All the participants in the Days of Rage were organized into the small groups, which Weatherman treated less like egalitarian collectives and more like military platoons. “There was a pretense made of contributions from everyone, but there was really a final yes or no from the top leadership. There would be a representative of the leadership in each affinity group,” recalled Judith Karpova of her time in Weatherman. As Shin’ya Ono described the group’s preparations on a Weatherman bus heading to Chicago for the Days of Rage, “In order to get to know each other and learn to move as a group, we divided ourselves into several affinity groups of six or seven persons each and did a couple of tasks together,” he wrote. “We discussed the functions of the affinity group, what running and fighting together meant, what leadership meant, and why leadership was absolutely necessary in a military situation.” Another account of Weather-style affinity-group organizing during that period by Motor City SDS similarly emphasized a paramilitary command structure: “The tactical leadership explains the plans using maps which they have drawn up, and our forces are divided into affinity groups. Each group sticks together, protects each of its members, acts as a fighting unit in case of confrontation, and functions as a work team.”
The Days of Rage were widely viewed as a disaster. The tiny turnout was a fraction of what the Weather organizers had expected; the street fighting left most participants injured or jailed or both, with little or nothing to show for their bravado. When mainstream figures like former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg denounced the actions as “vandalism and hooliganism without a program,” many on the left agreed. The tactics used, Dave Dellinger of the Chicago 7 later wrote, “proved counterproductive in terms of their results—injuries, military defeat, an unsatisfactory choice at the end of the action between long prison sentences or enforced [time] underground, and unnecessary alienation of a potentially sympathetic public.” Some months later, one anonymous Weather sympathizer calling herself “a daughter of the Amerikan Revolution” published an essay on affinity groups in a spring 1970 issue of the radical Berkeley Tribe, endorsing their use for armed struggle. “The term ‘affinity group’ means different things to different people,” she explained, “anything from a group of people that run together in a riot to a basic armed unit for the revolution, which is my conception of it.” But already by 1970, even some of those who had flirted with street violence were concluding that rioting and armed struggle were dead ends for the movement, relegating activists to a terrain in which they could always be overpowered by the police or the military, while undermining their moral authority in the process. Affinity groups had proven too useful in practical terms to be abandoned—“they are to many people’s minds both safer and more politically acceptable than the marshal system for organizing participants at a demonstration,” an organizing manual of the period explained—but their significance and function began to change.
“The reason it changed, and went from a violent to more of a nonviolent kind of thing,” said Jeff Jones, “is because violent street fighting played itself out kind of quickly. We took it to the max at the Days of Rage, and the price was too high, and everybody knew it.” By the time the Mayday Tribe put out its call to protest, the concept of affinity groups had begun to blend with the other small-group forms that were rapidly growing in countercultural popularity: collectives, communes, cooperatives, consciousness-raising groups. Perhaps there was still a slight frisson of clandestinity attached to the use of affinity groups, given the sense among many that “Mayday was sort of the above-ground Weatherpeople,” in the words of the John Scagliotti, who worked as a full-time staffer in the DC office for the action. And certainly the impulse toward direct physical confrontation with authority would remain a recurring (and constantly debated) element of disruptive protest for decades to come. But on the whole, affinity groups were coming to be seen as more expedient and sociable than paramilitary or insurrectionary. “Affinity groups at Mayday,” remembered John Froines, another Chicago 7 defendant centrally involved in the action, “were both a tactical approach in terms of the street and also something more, connected to people’s linkages to one another.”
That said, there was a haphazard quality to the Mayday organizing; a lot of the action was put together on the fly. “We had no organization, so we made a virtue out of our weakness, which was what guerrillas had always done,” Jerry Coffin explained. “If you’ve got no organization, what do you do? You create something where no organization is a virtue, and that was the whole affinity group thing we’d been promoting.” Much of the initial outreach was done in conjunction with the speaking tours of Rennie Davis and John Froines to campuses throughout the United States. Much of the rest was done by mail, thanks to a resourceful activist who had figured out a do-it-yourself way to reset postage meters. “There was the notion,” Froines recalled, “that people from University of Wisconsin or Florida State or Smith College or wherever would come, and they would have encampments of their own, and they would develop tactical approaches to what they were doing.”
This decentralized structure, organizers hoped, would also help them avoid the legal entanglements they had faced after the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protests. At first glance, Mayday might look “like an engraved invitation to a conspiracy trial,” as one activist told Time, but it would be virtually impossible for the government to pin responsibility on one or more individual organizers. Everyonewas responsible. As one participant from Richmond College in Staten Island explained afterwards, “As affinity groups you have to make your own decisions and be fully responsible. You’re not simply following a leadership up at the head of a march … Rather than one conspiracy, it was thousands of conspiracies.”
The lack of formal organization, however, tended to undermine the ideal of egalitarian participation as a result of what radical feminist Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness,” in one of the most influential essays of the time. Drawing on her experiences in the women’s liberation movement, where collectives and consciousness-raising groups had flourished, Freeman described how the lack of formal structures and decision-making procedures—so democratic in intent and appearance—in fact allowed informal and unaccountable power dynamics to flourish. Structurelessness, she wrote, “becomes a way of masking power,” for decisions were always being made in a group: “As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few.”
That was exactly the character of the Mayday organizing. Local affinity groups might choose their own targets and tactics, but a small group of men around Rennie Davis wrote the organizing materials, controlled the finances, called the press conferences, did the big-picture planning, and spoke for the action as a whole. Scagliotti remarked, “While Rennie and all these guys were the leaders, most of the people in the affinity groups didn’t know that, they didn’t know who the leaders were. They were just being organized in their local whatever to come to this thing.” The looseness of the overall structure gave considerable autonomy to local groups, but it also meant there was no transparency or accountability, no way for affinity groups to have input into the overall decision-making or to dispute what the informal leadership was doing.
Early on Monday morning, 25,000 or so members of the Mayday Tribe began moving into Washington to block their designated targets. The government was ready, having mobilized a combined force of 10,000 police, National Guard, and federal troops, with at least 4,000 more troops available on reserve. Their orders were to arrest every demonstrator on sight. (Attorney General John Mitchell explained to Nixon during a White House meeting to plan the government’s response to the protests, “I know they want to be arrested but, Mr. President, I don’t think that’s any reason for not arresting them.”)
“Small battles raged all over the city as demonstrators would build crude barricades, disperse when the police came and then regroup to rebuild the dismantled obstructions,” one underground paper reported. The protesters’ nonviolence pledge did not preclude building barricades; nobody felt “that because we will be nonviolent that we could not also be militant and creative.” The barricades were indeed inventive: “We threw everything available into the streets,” one participant wrote afterwards in the Berkeley Tribe, “garbage cans, parked cars, broken glass, nails, large rocks, and ourselves. To add to the confusion, we lifted hoods of cars stopped for lights and let air out of tires.” Some of these obstacles—like the one in Georgetown that was constructed by overturning a tractor trailer—were even effective in stopping traffic for relatively long periods of time.
But ultimately, the government had the upper hand on the streets, thanks to a military operation that, in Newsweek’s words, “seemed more appropriate to Saigon in wartime than Washington in the spring.” Waves of helicopters landed alongside the Washington Monument, ferrying Marines into the city, and federal troops lined the Key Bridge. A Marine battalion was stationed at Dupont Circle; Ann Northrop, who was working as a journalist at the time and went on to play a major role in ACT UP, recalled “tanks around the rim pointing out toward the street with their big guns.” The city was effectively under military occupation. “The scene was midway between that of a sham battle and a war of death,” one protester wrote afterwards. “Police vans careened around corners, frantic to discharge their human load and return for another. Helicopters chopping overhead made us aware that the ground troops had surveillance of all of our movements.”
Remembered Perry Brass, “There were people just running through the streets, there were cops running after them. Any time you stood still you’d be arrested, so you had to keep moving.” There was more order to the protest chaos than there seemed to be, thanks to the affinity groups and a sophisticated communications system. “We had all these very expensive radios,” explained Jerry Coffin, “thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of radios. And every major group that had a target had a radio and was in communication with our base.”
But all the planning and organization counted for little in the face of the government’s sweep arrests: there’s not a whole lot that nonviolent protesters can do when the government decides to send thousands of troops to round them up. Many of the 7,000 arrestees caught in the dragnet that first day were people with no connection to the protest, who just happened to be where sweeps were taking having not yet committed illegal acts. To transport the mass of prisoners, the police had to commandeer city buses; when even that wasn’t enough, they hired Hertz and Avis rent-a-trucks. Another 6,000 were arrested over three more days, most of them for blockading the Justice Department and the US Capitol. The city jail quickly filled, even though the police crammed as many as twenty people into two-person cells. Another 1,500 were packed into the jail’s recreation yard. That still left thousands of prisoners, whom the police herded into an outdoor practice field next to RFK Stadium. Conditions were awful, with next to no sanitary facilities, blankets, or food. One anarchist wag made a sign proclaiming the football field “Smash the State Concentration Camp #1.” People who had strongly disapproved of the Mayday Tribe’s shutdown plan were appalled by the flagrant violation of civil liberties, and upset to see the nation’s capital under military occupation.
But the government was clearly more concerned with maintaining control than with maintaining public sympathy, as would prove to be the case time and again—during the Seattle WTO blockades; at an array of Occupy encampments across the country; in Ferguson, Missouri—when direct-action protests threatened public order. Local residents, especially African Americans, almost immediately began supporting the imprisoned Mayday protesters by bringing food, blankets, and notes of encouragement to the football field and throwing them over the fence. Within a day, leaders of the district’s black community, predominantly from the civil rights generation of the 1950s and early 1960s and representing more than fifty organizations, organized a large-scale food drive for the crowd of arrestees, delivering the supplies in a twelve-car caravan. “We’ve been through all the head beatings and open compounds and we’re not going to do it again. But we did want to help them,” veteran civil rights activist Mary Treadwell said to the press. “We gave them food so they could put their bodies on the line and disrupt the government,” she explained, noting that anything that “can upset the oppressive machinery of the government will help black people.”
In retrospect, the moment seems rich in symbolism, like a passing of the direct-action torch. The black civil rights movement of Treadwell’s generation had made extraordinary use of nonviolent direct action in the United States to challenge segregation and racial inequality, from the pioneering Montgomery bus boycott to the legendary Southern lunch counter sit-ins to the daring Freedom Rides and even the abortive “stall-in” plan. But white resistance to change, and the unrelenting violence directed toward the movement, had propelled many organizers toward very different approaches. Over the course of the 1960s, black radicals increasingly rejected even militant nonviolence to advocate in favor of self-defense and, if necessary, armed revolution. As Black Power pioneer Stokely Carmichael put it in a 1966 essay, “We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.” Malcolm X had made the point even more forcefully in his famous 1963 “Message to the Grassroots”: “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution,” he said. “Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms … singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging.”
But taking up the gun, literally or metaphorically, had only provided the white power structure with new justification for violently targeting black movements. As longstanding organizer Kai Lumumba Barrow recalled, “There was a major shift in the political expression of the black liberation movement in the mid sixties.” Barrow was raised in a radical black nationalist family and played a key role in the revival of direct action in movements of color at the turn of the millennium. The Black Panther Party and other black nationalist groups, she explained, “took the position that nonviolent direct action placed us in a very passive position,” and came to view it as a tactic for the privileged. “But what we did,” she continued, “was we went to the extreme and started engaging in armed struggle or at least self-defense, and we didn’t have enough experience with that perhaps, or we didn’t have enough support for that, and we were beat. We were beat pretty badly.” Terry Marshall, an activist who was deeply involved in a range of direct-action projects in the 1990s and onward, beginning with the Student Liberation Action Movement and continuing into Black Lives Matter, recalled, “I remember being little, I remember I thought everyone must be dead—Malcolm X was killed, Martin Luther King was killed, I was like, Angela Davis must be dead, all the Black Panthers must be dead.” He continued, “The movement was defeated because of internal weaknesses, but it was also militarily defeated.”
In the wake of all the repression, recalled Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, an organizer and radical theologian who led direct-action trainings in Ferguson after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, “There was a shudder. They say a wounded lion won’t fight. It makes sense, it was a shudder,” a pulling back from confrontational tactics more generally and from direct action specifically. Black-led movements in particular would not pursue direct action as a strategy to any significant degree until the anti-apartheid upsurge of the mid 1980s, and even then they would employ it in very different ways than their white counterparts; it would not be until the mid-to-late 1990s that movements of color would really begin to embrace and adapt direct action again on a significant scale. The movements that built on the innovations of Mayday to create a new direct-action tradition in the 1970s and 1980s were overwhelmingly white in composition and generally unsuccessful—sometimes spectacularly so—in addressing race.
Mayday wasn’t the last antiwar protest by a long shot, but it was the last big national one, and the last major one with ties to the fading New Left. “The white ‘New Left’ movement of the 1960s is dead and gone,” one radical wrote in Space City!, a Houston underground paper, soon after the action. “Although government repression had something to do with its demise, the main cause of its death was its failure to confront honestly [the] problems of sexism, racism and ego-tripping in general.” For all the efforts to create a decentralized action without “movement generals,” Mayday was criticized as too centralized and dominated by Davis and his circle. It was, one activist observed, “hate-the-heavies time,” and the complaints about Mayday revealed how dramatically the radical landscape was shifting. Another participant declared, “There were a lot of things about Mayday that were totally wrong. It was a mass mobilization, a national mobilization. It was elitistly organized, mostly by males. It was going to Washington.” As Scagliotti put it, “[Mayday was] the end of that sort of male radical leadership, the Rennie Davises, the Chicago 7, all those guys, the whole world of the counterculture mixed with radical street politics.”
An acrimonious follow-up conference in Atlanta that August revealed the fissures within the Mayday Tribe. There were separate gay and women’s gatherings beforehand, which set a consciousness-raising and identity-focused tone for the conference as a whole. Activists from these groups challenged the rest of the Tribe to examine and overcome their own internal chauvinisms; many participants were left feeling defensive and attacked. “No one seemed to think the conference was functioning to resolve any political problems or effectively to plan any future actions,” one attendee reported. “Yet most stayed to engage in the personal struggle with the questions of sexism and elitism in the Movement in general, in Mayday, and in themselves.” The heavies didn’t show, infuriating everyone else and underscoring in many people’s minds the problem of “macho tripping within the movement.” Straight white men, including more traditional leftists, just found the whole situation mystifying and uncomfortable. “Gays Dominate Mayday Meeting in Atlanta,” the left-wing paper The Guardian disapprovingly headlined its post-conference report. A number of the women and gay participants, however, were energized by the gathering. Or rather—in a sign of the separatism, personalism, and inward focus that would characterize identity politics for much of the seventies—they were energized by the time they spent among themselves. “For a number of us, gay and straight, the women’s part of the conference was getting to know one another through dancing, swimming, making music together, singing, rapping in small groups, in twos and threes, digging on each other,” one woman wrote in Atlanta’s underground paper.
“We blew each other’s minds by our beauty, our strength. We grew by loving each other.” A gay man similarly described the gay caucuses as “really a high for me … I’d forgotten about the atmosphere of total personal openness, openness about one’s deepest confusions, that is so lacking in straight-dominated meetings.” The Mayday Tribe ceased to exist soon afterwards. But in May 1972, when Nixon announced the mining of seven Vietnamese harbors, the underlying political shifts that had shaped Mayday were dramatically on display. Demonstrators all around the country quickly organized themselves and blocked highways, key intersections, and railroad tracks. The sites were mainly not notorious hotbeds of radicalism: they included Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Boulder, and Gainesville; Evanston, Illinois; East Lansing, Michigan; Oxford, Ohio. Protesters blocked the New York State Thruway and Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway; others shut down Santa Barbara’s airport by occupying its runways. In Davis, California, demonstrators sat down on Southern Pacific tracks; still more did the same on the Penn Central commuter line in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In St. Louis, the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War occupied the top of the Gateway Arch, while another group of radicals took over the decommissioned mine sweeper USS Inaugural, saying they wanted to repair it and take it to Vietnam to clear the harbor of Nixon’s mines. It was nationwide mayhem, neither coordinated nor led by anyone. Longtime activist Leslie Cagan, one of the participants in the mine sweeper action, who would later go on to coordinate many of the largest protests of subsequent decades, from the million-person 1982 anti-nuclear protest in Central Park to the enormous 2003 protests against the Iraq War, recalled that there wasn’t “any kind of national organization or network that put out a call for these kinds of bolder actions. It was just one of those moments where a lot of people were on the same wavelength.”
The Mayday Tribe hadn’t succeeded in its stated goal—“If the government won’t stop the war, the people will stop the government”— and its singular experiment in nonviolent obstruction was soon forgotten, too messy or perhaps too unsettling to be part of popular understandings of the Vietnam War and the movements that opposed it. But the daring action had in fact achieved its most important aim: pressuring the Nixon Administration to hasten the end of the hated war. While neither activists nor anyone else would remember this unpopular protest for the outsized impact that it had, the political innovations of Mayday would quietly and steadily influence grassroots activism for decades to come, laying the groundwork for a new kind of radicalism: decentralized, multivocal, ideologically diverse, and propelled by direct action. As one participant observed in the protest’s immediate aftermath, “Twenty thousand freaks carry the seeds now, and they’ve been blown to every corner of the land.”
Seeds, of course, are small, and only sprout and grow after a period of dormancy. A new era of political retrenchment was beginning, and many of those who dreamed of fundamentally reshaping American society and politics were trying to put down new roots, as the first act in a long process of radical reinvention.
This extract is from Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, by L. A. Kauffman, on sale February 21.
This piece originally appeared in Longreads.