“If the Government won't stop the war, we'll stop the Government."   -            May Day 1971

There needs to be a book on the organizing of the May Day Demonstrations, both the antiwar forces and the governments counter insurgency efforts to stop the  “...stop the war, [or] we'll stop the Government" demonstrations.

The organizing of this demonstration was unique, not only was the slogan a strategic step forward, but groups that normally wouldn’t work together, spent weeks planning how to combine militancy with drama and politics; all  designed to attract hundreds of thousands to a political anti-war Woodstock. In the end, the government did  cut the numbers down to only many 10's of thousands, but their paranoia and overreactions gave us a victory anyway. The federal city shut down for that week and their heavy handed actions reactions hinted at the thuggery that was later to be exposed in Watergate.

For months before Mayday, organizations that normally opposed each other joined in crafting a week of militant antiwar actions combining big name performers and creative civil disobedience.
Under the inspiring slogan threatening to stop the war or we will stop the government! they successfully recruited big name bands and performers and got DJ’s up and down the East Coast to publicize massive free concert on the Mall. A first night of anti-war, rock and folk music was to be followed by a second day of jazz, blues and mult-cultural performances. All designed to attract masses that could then join the demonstrations starting Monday to shut down the government.

It was an exciting idea, and the government afraid with good reason, mounted a secret counter insurgency plan. First they convened a grand jury in Washington state to investigate recent anti-war actions in DC. They then subpoenaed the talented 15 year old who had successfully recruited most of the rock bands. Innocent Leslie Bacon was given bad advice by a liberal lawyer who told her to just answer the prosecutors’ questions, you have nothing to fear. But their twisted questions such as “Leslie Bacon, why did you take the secret plans for Mayday to get approval from a Vietcong agent in New York City?” Leaked to the press as a suspected bomber it didn’t matter that she was totally innocent, or that the “plans were colorful pencil drawings of a young Virginia guy who offered his farm as a campsite and there was no Vietcong agent. The bad press was followed by anonymous letters (FBI, plumbers?) sent to the DJ’s warning them they had been duped into helping recruit the bands and audience by these extremist anti-Americans.

When the demonstrations looked like it was going to be a Woodstock with updated politics, the bands’ agents saw it as good publicity, but now they got cold feet and started to announce cancellations and many of the DJ’s told people not to go. So the government’s step one in cutting down the demonstrations worked.

Step two came in the early hours of Sunday after a great day and night of music and comradery when the thousands sleeping on the Mall were awaken by police megaphones on top of armored cars warning that the permits had been canceled and if we didn’t leave immediately we would all be arrested. Coming after hours of partying and little sleep, the ranks of police were enough to scare thousands more and the highways out of DC were lined with groggy hitchhikers.

The cancellations of permits also included the Sunday performances, of musicians that could have attracted thousands of Black youths from the DC area. That was the last thing the government wanted and so step three succeeded.

But still, came Monday morning tens of thousands of determined and brave demonstrators; pacifists, political groups, people from all around the US, poured out of homes and churches and into the streets determined to shut down the government.

The video recounts the massive arrests, the thousands covered with tear gas crowded into the ice rink without sufficient facilities and then released into the practice yard. A short video can’t cover the many incredible things that happened those days. The arresting and destroying of medical personnel and supplies, the destruction of their citizen band communications stations (the plumbers carried this one out), and the sweeping up of hundreds of ordinary citizens and many other illegal activities.

And finally, in spite of the government’s best efforts, their paranoia and overreaction not only revealed their immorality but also led to the success of the demonstration, for at least that week, the government did effectively shut itself down.

Or so I remember.

Walter Teague

La Luta Continua!


[I commented at the Wikipedia page on the May Day Protests:]

    I am relatively new to editing or contributing to Wikipedia, but on this topic I have some first hand knowledge. I will return with citations in the coming days, but want to say as a participant in both the planning and carrying out of this demonstration, this article is very week on all counts. The presentation is historically weak or wrong in many aspects. So far it seems to be an effort to construct a description of a major, complicated series of events under the title Mayday 1971 using a very small selection of sources.

Keep in mind that in 1971, the major newspapers were very unreliable sources about any anti-war protest.

Further, there were extensive government efforts to prevent, diminish and destroy this event. Further, the people involved in the extensive and unprecedented for the anti-war movement pre-event planning were at this point experienced and determined to construct a major event that could have a multi-facited effect on the prosecution of the war.

For example, the slogan calling on the government to Stop the War or they would stop the government was never expected to actually stop the government. In fact, many government offices were shut for the opening of the demonstration and workers allowed liberal leave. This exceeded the planners expectations. The number of verified arrests show that even with duplicate arrests over several days, the numbers of participants were significant even after extensive efforts by the government, both overt and covert (An I will return with more on that later) to undercut the turn out.

Also totally left out of this article are the efforts to recruit major bands and performers which initially was successful, but then was countered by the governments efforts to malign the demonstration via the subpoena of Leslie Bacon to a Grand Jury in Washington State. This is just to indicate how much is left to be covered if you want this to be a historically relevant article. Wdteague (talk)! —Preceding undated comment added 20:17, 27 May 2011 (UTC).

[In 2008, Jim Retherford asked me about our being subpoened before the Federal Grand Jury led by Guy Goodwin. I took place in May, 1971.]
Hi Jim,

Good to hear from you. But sorry to disappoint, I have no recollection of most of what happened around that event [Grand Jury supoena 1971]. I do not remember if I went in or not. I will work on it, along with lots of other things I want to recall and write down. My guess is that the lawyers did their job. I will see if I have any records that will jog my memory. Given all the other resistance to Grand Juries, HUAC, etc., it's unlikely that I would have cooperated to the point of participating. My vague recollection was that once they realized we weren't going to cooperate, they dropped the effort. Also, other similar resistance around the country helped.

Just visited Judy's site and read the article. Good work and glad to see it. Me and the NLF flag wavers were recently lumped with the Weather Folks as doing great harm to the peace movement on the Marxmail web list. A friend who is very active around Cuba and on this list (I think it is mostly present and past Trotskyists) brought it to my attention and asked me to respond. Unlike the guy taking an easy shot, my friend has a much more comprehensive understanding of politics and the 60's in general. I may get to it shortly.

One thing I'd like to have seen in Judy's article is a bit more on the organized sabotage of the May Day demonstration by the government forces. Leslie was targeted and used not simply because she was young and vulnerable, but as part of a complex and fairly successful effort to minimize the size, effectiveness and even expansion into the young African-American community that could have resulted.

Has anyone written this up? I recall that an attorney in DC, who was both close to the cops and posed as a friend of the anti-war folks, told Leslie that she should go along with the subpoena and testify because she had nothing to hide. I also recall seeing the transcript where Leslie was essentially asked leading questions designed to link and use her to the Capitol bombing, and thus enable a campaign (not sure which government agents had the budget) to publicize the link between "Capitol Bomber Leslie Bacon" and May Day. They played up her role as an organizer or contact with the many bands that were going to play and while I don't have the details, I recall that many of the DJ's that had been supporting or not dissing the demo, now were reporting that the bands were canceling because of this link and likely violence. Still, it was huge and so step two was after allowing the first nights rock performances, an early A.M. eviction of the camp grounds. I also recall seeing long strings of young people hitchhiking out of the city that day.  Later, Leslie visited me in our NYC loft and showed me the "plans for the May Day demo" that the grand jury had accused her of having. They were several rolls of parchment like art paper with colored pencil drawings of the potential layout for tents on a rich guys land in Virginia. Colorful, but hardly secret or violent.

Walter Teague

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Updated: 02/19/2005