Compare the legitimate complaints about police actions at OccupyWallStreet to those used during anti-war activities taking place in 1971 in Washington DC.
In November of 1970, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled to the city on the Potomac to tell the president and the Congress that the war must end. But the singing of John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" seemed to fall on deaf ears. In the spring of 1971, anti-war groups, frustrated and angry, descended on the nation's capital for a sustained period of protests.
Eleven hundred Vietnam Veterans Against the War, many in wheel chairs, mounted the first assault. Camping out on the Mall for nearly a week in April, they lobbied Congress and performed mock battles at the Capitol, protested the Supreme Court's refusal to decide on the war's legality, and held vigils at the White House. Racial strife, heavy drug use, and "fragging" of officers had come to characterize a tour of duty in Vietnam. Many GIs came home embittered, and physically and mentally wounded. On their last day, Friday, April 23rd, in a powerful act that symbolized their disillusionment with their country and its leaders, these anti-war veterans hurled their Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars over a police barricade, littering the steps of Congress with the medals of honor that veterans of another time had cherished.
The following day, Saturday, April 24th, the largest-ever anti-war demonstration of 500,000 people, a half million, organized by the National Peace Action Coalition, swamped Washington. As the demonstration was nearing an end thousands of protesters with backpacks, duffel bags, and tents began settling in at West Potomac Park, responding to a call that had gone out in March from the Coalition of People for Peace and Justice (CPPJ) who had planned a week of action.
Termed the "Spring Offensive," the CPPJ's goal was to shut down the city. Every morning, groups who had been trained in CPPJ's non-violent civil disobedience sessions, sallied forth to block intersections, bridges, and entrances to government buildings -- preventing, or at least delaying, the daily influx of government workers in reaching their places of employment. Others took on the task of leafleting government workers, asking them to stay home on Wednesday, May 5th. Organizers hoped these actions would paralyze the nation's capital.
On Tuesday, May 4th, nine days into this "offensive," my friend Ruth and I, both of us New Jersey residents, decided to go to Washington to take part. On our way down, the news over the car radio elaborated on the grand jury indictments that had been handed down in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the previous week against seven men and women for plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger, Nixon's assistant for National Security affairs, and to bomb government buildings.
Another report brought us up to date on the re-convening at churches and area universities of the forty to fifty thousand who had been cleared from West Potomac Park early Monday morning after Department of the Interior officials revoked the CPPJ's permit.
Leaving our car at a friend's, we took a bus into downtown Washington. A corner cafe, several blocks northeast of the White House, seemed a good place to get a bite to eat. Our table was next to a window, giving us a view of the street. As we waited for our egg salad sandwiches and hot coffee, we watched the scene outside with a mixture of fascination and concern.
A group of protesters, mostly people in their twenties, were sitting in a circle on the sidewalk with arms and legs interlocked while two police officers were trying to pry them loose, wrestle them up onto their feet, and into a paddy wagon double-parked off to our left, almost out of view, its rear doors open. Another officer was standing at the curb, directing pedestrians, while keeping an eye on the street. Amid the throngs of the lunchtime traffic, passersby would almost stumble upon the scene, and then pause to watch, trying to figure out what was going on. The officer was being very hard line, ordering onlookers to "keep movin', keep movin'." Those who dallied, especially if they were casually dressed, were also escorted to the paddy wagon.
"These protesters must be members of the same affinity group," I remarked to Ruth, who nodded agreement. The division of large numbers of people into affinity groups of eight to twenty allowed the flexibility necessary for street actions. Smaller groups could establish a bond quickly, make decisions promptly, and, by staying together, could look out for one another in tight spots.
Ruth asked, "Do you want to get involved in this?" and then suggested, "We could sit down in place of someone who has been put in the wagon."
"No, this looks like the tail end of this action. Let's see if we can get in on something else." More experienced in the peace movement than I, Ruth had actually been to north Vietnam, one of three delegates sent there by Women Strike for Peace. I felt uncertain as to what I would be willing to do, but fearful that my reluctance to plunge in might result in lost opportunities and I would end up doing nothing.
As police lifted the last protester, who had gone limp, into the paddy wagon, Ruth and I stepped from the restaurant. Looking across the street to a small park, we saw more protesters, resting, eating lunch, or regrouping for another try at tying up traffic. A D.C. mobile unit rode across the scrubby lawns on their motor scooters, heading directly towards one group or another, scattering them like chickens onto benches or low walls.
We walked several blocks west and had crossed at a light when we heard loud voices up the street. Turning to our right, we could see what was more than just an affinity group. There were hundreds marching in the middle of the street, four abreast, some arm in arm, chanting and singing. We stood and watched them passing until a group from Philadelphia recognized us and called to us to join them. We found out that we were headed to the Department of Justice, dominion of Attorney General John Mitchell, at Constitution Avenue and 10th Street.
Arriving at Justice, as the crowd swarmed around the entrance to the building, filling the block end to end, Ruth and I got separated from our Philadelphia friends. The leaders of the march, black ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had been here four days ago with a mule team, symbolizing the struggle for economic justice. They mounted the stone steps to an entranceway and began speaking to us about the demands of the spring offensive -- ending the draft and bringing the troops home, guaranteeing full employment and an income of $6500 to a family of four, and freeing all political prisoners. Within fifteen minutes they announced that lines of police were advancing toward us from each end of the block.
The police lines spread the width of 10th Street on both sides, effectively trapping us within a rectangle, since the Justice Building was in front of us and the Internal Revenue Building was at our backs. We were asked whether we wanted to file out in an orderly manner or whether we wanted to stay and face arrest. Without hesitation, three thousand people promptly sat down in the street, on sidewalks, or on steps -- wherever there was space.