IT WAS 10 years ago today that two burly D.C. riot troopers locked me in a full nelson and dragged me by the ponytail into Dupont Circle, serving that day as a temporary jail. On that sunny spring day of protest, I was roughed up and locked up with 8,000 others. But I'm one of the lucky ones. The lawyers say the government is prepared to pay me $1,100 to settle my suit for illegal arrest and detainment that day I saw Dupont Circle and Georgetown for the first time.
So I'm waiting for the check to arrive in the mailbox at my apartment just a block from that same circle. But after much thought, I'm growing more perplexed by the 10-year twist of fortune. When I was demonstrating in Washington, men my age were getting their legs blown off by land mines halfway around the world. While I wait for my tax-free settlement, Vietnam War veterans dream about dismembered bodies in the Mekong Delta.
The corner of Wisconsin and M Street was a battleground on May 3, 1971. I was in the midst of a ragged band of protesters approaching M Street. We were confronted by a phalanz of D.C.'s finest riot troops, clad in fresh blue uniforms and gleaming white crash helmets, marching lockstep down Wisconsin Avenue, billy clubs in hand. A thin, bearded guy, wearing student-issue denim, lay down in front of the blue formation. Nonviolence was in; he was dragged off by the hair. We stood our ground.
At 20 feet the police pulled down the plexiglass visors on their helmets, two men in the front row fired tear gas canisters, the column broke ranks and routed us into the narrow, quaint streets of Georgetown. I ducked into an alley, crouched in a garage and threw up. I learned never to eat before a demonstration, but I avoided the clubs.
I also was separated from my friends, lost and feeling all of a sudden like a college student 150 miles away from the class I was cutting in 18 the century U.S. history. I wandered alone in the high noon sun. People with bloody rags around their heads and eyes red from tear gas wandered aimlessly.
I tried to find Dupont Circle, one of the planned gathering points in what had been a well organized plan to disrupt traffic into the capital. The battle strategy for the student battalions was clear: We were to bivouac on the night of May 2 in Lafayette Park and other grassy places inside the District, wake up at dawn for a forced march to the main bridges into Washington, where we would block traffic, shut down the government and stop the war.
The plan had been circulating on campuses -- and in police headquarters -- for months. The capital's well prepared riot troopers simply cleared out the inner city parks and refused to allow people to camp on the night of May 2. At dawn, the demonstrators were the commuters and at noon I was wandering toward Dupont Circle.
A ring of olive-green jeeps guarded by MPs cordoned off the circle. There were about 500 demonstrators under arrest around the foutain at the center of the circle. I was minding my own business, taking it all in and looking for my friends. when two cops grabbed me from behind, wrestled me to the ground and hauled me away for my first close look at the marble fountain, where I found my friends. They cheered my awkward arrival.
For seven years after that day when I spent 20 hours in custody, I didn't know about the suit filed on my behalf against the District of Columbia and Richard Kleindienst, John Mitchell, et al., for illegal arrest. I just knew that the bust gave me hero status in the protest movement. I came back often to march against the war, which ended finally, not because students marched in Washington but because the North Vietnamese prevailed in gruesome, grisly combat 5,000 miles away.
Just after Richard Nixon ordered the "Christmas bombings" of Cambodia in 1972, I moved to Vermont. While reports from places with names like Da Nang brought news of body counts and B52 strikes, I told stories about my arrest on May Day, 1971.
I recalled how the police bused us to the D.C. Jail and transformed the exercise area into a mini-campus. They set up tents and fed us hot dogs and baked beans. I remembered grim black faces behind the jail bars peering out at middle-class college students milling around in the sun. But I forgot the ACLU lawyer who took my name at 4 a.m. the next morning in the D.C. Coliseum and asked me how, where and why I was arrested.
The war, the marches, the arrests and the anger faded in my new life of food co-ops and gardens in the Green Mountains. I worked in a truck scale factory for $2.50 an hour as a polisher-grinder, left the plant to build houses for $3 an hour, joined a poverty law firm as a paralegal and finally found work that suited me as a reporter for a small daily newspaper.
In those years, the ACLU sent occasional notices about my arrest record and affidavits I signed the night of the protest. stuffed them behind the woodpile. When I moved from Vermont to Washington in 1978, the legal memoranda followed. They were forwarded from my little red farmhouse to my new apartment on 19th Street NW. The lawyers at Covington & Burling began mentioning a cash settlement last year.
I never met these phantom lawyers who said the D.C. government was prepared to pay me and about 300 other plaintiffs in two companion suits (McCarthy c. Kleindienst and Abelman v. Kleindienst) $1,800 per person for the former case and $1,100 for the latter. If we took the money, we agreed to drop the illegal arrest actions and to relinquish all rights for further suits.
Covigton & Burling advised us to take the money, because winning a lawsuit was risky and could take years. They sent me an agreement and release form, which I signed. Now I'm just waiting for my $1,100. My lawyers tell me it might be coming soon.
I need the cash now. My 1972 Volvo needs a new clutch, the credit card companies are sending strident reminders and my reporting job for a small news service barely pays the rent. I thank that unknown ACLU attorney who made me part of the lawsuit. I thank Covington & Burling for finding me, pressing the suit and negotiating the settlement.
If I were an affluent activist, perhaps I'd donate the money to a worthy, progressive cause. And if I were a protester in El Salvador, chances are I'd be dead.