It was the first time anybody could remember that the government had bankrolled a champagne party for the political left.
The host, Richard Pollock, 29, called it a celebration of a "collective victory." Ten years after police swept in and arrested more than 1,000 Mayday antiwar demonstrators on the east steps of the Capitol, and six years after a federal jury said that action violated the Constitution's guarantee of free speech and assembly, the government had finally delivered the money that the courts said was owed for the wrongs done on May 5, 1971.
Pollock, then a college student and now director of a public interest group that monitors health charities, got a check for $3,245.09. Friday night at a restaurant near Dupont Circle, he spent $350 of it for champagne and memories of those turbulent days when Washington pulsated with anger and protest.
One guest, Tom Wright, now 30, was a political science and history student at Prince George's Community College in 1971 and had gone downtown that day to have his say against "general run-of-the-mill imperialism and all such nonsense." Some demonstrators who "wanted to get arrested" took off in one direction, but Wright remembered he and others "thought we would do the respectable-type thing." So they went to the Capitol to see their congressional representatives. "I thought I could always get arrested later if I insisted," Wright said.
As he walked from the Mall, where squadrons of Capitol and District police were already assembled, Wright heard the protesters taunting chant: "The policeman is our friend. He helps us cross the street." On the east steps of the Capitol, lines of police officers slowly closed in on the crowd like human pincers, Wright remembered. They warned the protesters about "trespassing on the Capitol" and ordered them away.
"I knew very well that the Constitution says you can petition for redress of grievances," said Wright, currently a student at the University of Maryland. "I said, this is absurd....I refused to leave," he said. He was sure the jails were already too crowded from earlier mass arrests that week for the police to arrest another 1,000 people on a charge that would never stand up in court.
But Wright spent more than 24 hours in jail. He got a check last week from the government for $2,084.74. Wright, who says he's "still hard up for money," put the cash in his credit union for school and possibly a car and will donate some to the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers initiated the Mayday false-arrest suits.
Wright's tax-free money, like all the checks sent to the protesters, includes $750 for the denial of his First Amendment right to free speech, with the rest calculated on the amount of time he spent in jail under false arrest -- plus 10 years' interest at 6 percent. Congress had appropriated $2.2 million to the District government to pay for its Mayday mistakes.
Police officials said they had ordered the 1,200 protesters arrested for disrupting congressional proceedings inside the Capitol. The protesters contended they were peaceful and also had not been properly warned they were subject to arrest.
Another Mayday protester, Becky Williams, now 56, was standing on the Capitol steps when she was arrested. She had just finished listening to Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), give a speech and was holding hands and singing "America the Beautiful" when the police started taking people away.
"A policeman called me a slut and a disgrace to womanhood," recalled Williams, who was and is a psychological test administrator for a counseling center at the University of Maryland. Someone caught her as she was shoved to the back of a police bus, she said. She took a seat and began to cry.
In the Washington Coliseum at Third and M streets NE, where the arrested demonstrators were brought for processing, Williams wandered around for 18 hours, refusing to give her name, insisting "to the bitter end" that her arrest was illegal. Across a barrier of D.C. National Guardsmen, Williams saw Wright, whose mother also worked at Maryland. "Then Tom and I began to look for other people we knew," said Williams, a board member of the Washington Peace Center who has lost track of the number of protests she joined in the late 1960s.
Dirty and hungry, Williams said she was released by a judge after about 36 hours. "I felt grieved. Deeply grieved. I had been violated by my country," she said.
Williams also got a check for $2,084.74. She will save some for Christmas with her two children, give some to the ACLU, and "some of it I will spend willy-nilly because I don't get to do that very often." For Williams, however, the money seems a peculiar finale to a 10-year fight to vindicate the rights she always thought she had in the first place.
The check, she said, really topped off the "whole crazy thing, that I am called a criminal, that anybody gets arrested on the Capitol steps, saying they love their country...."