May ’70: 16. The Other Side Of The Chasm

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

40 years ago this Thursday just past, around 100,000 people marched down Broadway in Manhattan. With thousands of safety helmet-wearing members of various construction unions in the lead and American flags everywhere, it was perhaps the largest single demonstration in support of the war during the whole Vietnam era. As the march traversed the Wall Street area, it was greeted by cheers from crowds on the sidewalks and showered, from the upper floor offices of bankers, stockbrokers and lawyers, with spirals of tape from stock tickers.

Naturally the media gave the march intense play, contrasting it with the campus protests, by that point near the end of the third week of the national strike. And this hooray-for-war rally was in fact a direct outgrowth of the campus explosion. Specifically, it was the culmination of two weeks of orchestrated actions in NYC aimed at pushing the idea that the working class of the US supported the war and hated the protesters, starting with the intensely violent “Hard Hat riot” attacks on peaceful protesters which I wrote about on May 8, forty years after the event.

Two subsequent demos, on May 11 and May 16, targeted the city administration, especially the anti-war mayor, John Lindsay (a Republican), with demonstrators calling him a “commie faggot.”

All were more or less openly organized from the top by Peter J Brennan, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice president of the city’s Central Labor Council, and it was he who pulled together the May 20th march. As with the May 8 riot, workers continued to be mobilized by their unions and to receive paid time off from the large construction companies to take part.

These demonstrations were localized in NYC and didn’t spread like wildfire, the way the student protests had after the invasion of Cambodia, That’s a phenomenon which requires a little comment, especially for those who weren’t around at the time.

In the first article in this series, I wrote of how deep the split was that the Vietnam War had produced in US society. Those of us who militantly fought to end the war remained a distinct minority, but through our work (building on the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people to liberate their country), a lot of people had gotten pretty sick of the war.

Still, in a Gallup poll commissioned by Newsweek Magazine very shortly after the killings at Kent State, 58% said that the students were primarily at fault. Only 11% blamed the National Guard. Maybe the numbers were exaggerated, the methodology was flawed, etc, but enough of us came from small cities, from towns, from rural areas–hell, from families–where this was the conventional wisdom to know that Newsweek wasn’t way, way off either.

There was an question of privilege here. The draft was the only way the ruling class could maintain upwards of 500,000 troops at a time in Vietnam and college students had had the best set of options for avoiding or postponing  having to show up for the fateful physical. Those who had served in previous wars, and those of our own generation who didn’t have that chance, mainly for reasons of class, had plenty of motive to resent those who did.

Beyond the war, the poll reflected a backlash against the whole new role that young folks were playing in society. We were setting the social norms–in politics, in sexual behavior, in clothing, in music, in every aspect of society, and we were rejecting, wholesale, the values and practices that our elders had lived their lives under and tried to inculcate in us.

In fact, one big reason that the New York City stuff wasn’t a nationwide phenomenon was the legacy of the ’50s, with its suburbanization, conformity and red-baiting: quite simply, Good Americans (white ones) didn’t demonstrate. Period. It was us, the black sheep, the outcasts, the unAmericans who did.