The city has been doing it a long time now—it seems like forever—and given the new justifications for protest that arrive almost every day, I don’t expect the protests to stop any time soon. I expect them to grow. So, the city has had to do a lot of thinking about protests, demonstrations, marches, and the nature of its dissent, and that will go on, too, I suspect.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and one of the most useful books to me has been Mayday 1971 by longtime investigative editor Lawrence Roberts. I met Roberts in Seattle at the very beginning of my own journalism journey, but Roberts soon left Seattle and spent most of his career in pursuit of answers to difficult questions, running investigations teams at the Hartford Courant, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Pro Publica, among others, leading three teams to Pulitzer Prizes along the way.
Mayday 1971, his first book, is about the week of anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, D.C., that led to the mass, illegal arrest of around 12,000 protesters by D.C. cops. Despite claims to the contrary at the time, they were operating under the authority and order of the Nixon administration, as it turned out. The book makes the connection clear. Maybe already you’re getting the idea that past protests can inform our own.
Think of Mayday 1971 as a case history of a specific protest, maybe, or a military history of a specific battle. Roberts discusses the thinking of both the protesters and the government leading up to the engagement, considers the strategies employed by each side, follows the events as they unfolded, and then tracks the legal and political threads afterwards. Are the seeds of Nixon’s eventual destruction apparent in his response to the May Day protest, the lies that were told and the dirty tricks that were played? These weren’t tea leaves; they were practice.
The joys Mayday 1971 provides are considerable, especially if you know something about the time. Roberts sketches characters as diverse as Richard Nixon and Abbie Hoffman, telling delicious stories about the bully boys in the Nixon administration and the lives of the protest organizers. He maintains a clear narrative thread through various digressions into their biographies, legal matters, drug consumption, paranoia and constant deceit. The stories are new, beautifully told, and get to the heart of the quixotic attempt by protesters to shut down the government for a day. They also reveal the absolute indifference to laws and the Constitution by the government, and the grotesque tough-guy talk they used to express it.
We learn, for example, that Nixon never for a moment thought about the position of the demonstrators, why they opposed the war and his part in it. He only thought of the demonstrators as enemies, maybe like the Viet Cong. As such, they didn’t deserve the truth, the protection of the law, or humane treatment once they were arrested. This idea—that those who dissent are automatically enemies—seems to be endemic to governments of all sorts. And it elicits a visceral, violent response to protests by the government, along with a whirlwind of lies and coverups. So yes, Roberts’ deeply researched account has a lot of parallels to our own tragic times.
Powell’s Books is hosting Roberts for a Zoom conversation about his new book at 5 pm today, Thursday, Sept. 24. I’ll be on hand, too, and we will be talking about some of these matters, I have no doubt. Please join us with your own questions and considerations?