Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.
Metropolitan Police Lt. Robert Klotz found himself in a thin blue line of officers decked out in riot gear. In front of Klotz that November day in 1969 stood a barricade formed out of 57 city buses. Behind the buses came the constant thrum of thousands of unseen anti-war demonstrators. And behind Klotz was the White House. Richard Nixon was inside, watching the Ohio State-Purdue football game on television.
As the 30-year-old Klotz stood his ground, a sergeant to his left went down in a heap. A bottle clattered to the pavement nearby.
"When you get involved in a situation where they're throwing things, you don't look straight ahead," recalled Klotz, who retired from the D.C. force as deputy chief in 1980. "You look up."
It has been a long time since D.C. police have had to master the intricacies of rock-and-bottle trajectory. But things were different in the '60s, when Washington served as a fulcrum for the forces that swirled around the divisive war in Vietnam. Every year from 1967 to 1971, a major march occurred in the District, including four of the biggest anti-war demonstrations in American history.
As the nation endured perhaps its greatest turmoil since the Civil War, Washington stood at the center, headquarters of an unpopular war, symbol of boundless power, rallying point for those who would challenge that authority. From as far as Berkeley, Calif., and as near as George Washington University they came, mainly young and bluejeaned, ardent and at times insolent for their cause.
"It was a time in which there was a very great deal of turbulence on the one hand, but also a period in which citizenship took on the form of real action," recalled Marcus Raskin, 65, a participant in many of the marches and now a public policy professor at George Washington. "It was an absolute moral choice that people took."
The orderly demonstrations of the mid-1960s snowballed into a serious attempt to shut down the government in May 1971, an occasion that set a U.S. record for people arrested in a single day.
"A lot of them came down because they felt very strongly about what they were doing," said Klotz, now 60, who worked all of the demonstrations. "And a lot of them came for adventure. And adventure meant confrontation."
The first major anti-war rally in Washington featured little confrontation. Students for a Democratic Society staged it on April 17, 1965, just one month after the United States had sent its first Marines, its first combat troops, to Vietnam. But U.S. forces there still numbered fewer than 25,000 and had not yet fought a major battle.
In that first demonstration, about 16,000 people picketed the White House and marched on the Capitol. They sang and carried earnest signs -- "No More War," "We Want Peace Now." Some wore gas masks. Many wore suits and ties. Only four arrests were made.
But things were molting rapidly, as they tended to do in the '60s. The March on the Pentagon on Oct. 21, 1967, became a cultural touchstone of the decade, a defining moment of American history limned in the leonine prose of Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Armies of the Night." For the first time, the counterculture openly confronted the Establishment at the seat of American power.
By now, 13,000 Americans had died in Vietnam and "flower power" had been loosed throughout the land from the streets of San Francisco. The draft had become a bone of contention between the generations, turning war protest into a mass effort known simply as the Movement.
The Pentagon march was the culmination of five days of nationwide anti-draft protests organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam -- "the Mobe." But a singular spark was provided by the Youth International Party (Yippies), a fringe group whose leaders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, had announced that they planned an "exorcism" of the Pentagon. They would encircle the building, chant incantations, "levitate" the structure and drive out the evil war spirits.
The crowd drawn to Washington for the March on the Pentagon and a rally at the Lincoln Memorial numbered more than 100,000. For the first time, there were significant numbers of hippies, with long hair and fanciful garb. Hoffman donned beads and an Uncle Sam hat. Speakers included Mailer, poet Robert Lowell and pediatrician Benjamin Spock. Protest signs now brimmed with counterculture wit: "LBJ, Pull Out Now, Like Your Father Should Have Done."
Mailer and Hoffman were among the 681 arrested, most for disorderly conduct and breaking police lines. More than 2,500 Army troops protected the Pentagon, which did not levitate (although Hoffman claimed to have urinated on it). Hippies pressed forward to place flowers in the barrels of soldiers' bayoneted M-14 rifles.
"Will you take my flower?" a dancing girl asked the soldiers. "Please do take my flower. Are you afraid of flowers?"
The Pentagon's steps were spattered with blood. Tear gas was unleashed on the crowds. "People became frightened," recalled Raskin, one of the speakers that day. "They began running every which way. At that moment, it turned into something else. A sense of chaos takes over."
By 1969 the Movement -- now known as the "New Mobe" -- had grown large enough to stage the biggest anti-war demonstration in the nation's history, the Moratorium rally on Nov. 15. More than 250,000 protesters -- some estimates went as high as 500,000 -- poured down Pennsylvania Avenue and spilled out onto the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
But the rancor and energy of the 1967 march seemed lacking this time. LBJ was gone. Nixon was trying to Vietnamize the war. Big marches had lost some of their novelty.
And the government had figured out how to handle the huge crowds, monitoring the demonstration with 3,000 police officers, 9,000 Army troops (who were kept out of sight in reserve), 200 lawyers and 75 clergymen. The New Mobe had recruited thousands of its own armband-wearing "parade marshals" to help keep order.
The march was generally peaceful, except for a couple of clashes between police and demonstrators, including one led by the Yippies at the Justice Department. Police and protesters traded tear gas canisters for rocks and bottles. Windows were broken in about 50 buildings, and 135 arrests were announced.
By 1971, in the wake of Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University the year before, anger had returned to the Movement.
The intent now was to shut down the federal government by stopping the flow of traffic into the District on May Day. Klotz -- by then a captain -- recalled that police agents infiltrated the demonstrators, obtaining their "tactical manual" for the shutdown.
"They looked at all of the major access routes coming into the District from Maryland and Virginia, and they made assignments to demonstrators where they could go to block the streets," Klotz said. "They were going to come out in waves, so that when the first wave got arrested, the second wave would fill the streets and then a third wave and so on. They had done a pretty good job."
But Nixon had vowed to keep the city open.
"The Titanic was heading toward the iceberg," Klotz said.
The events began peacefully nearly two weeks before May Day, with more than 200,000 people attending rallies under the auspices of the National Peace Action Coalition. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War camped out on the Mall.
When the date for shutting down the government approached, the VVAW and most of the other protesters departed, leaving behind a hard core organized by the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice, and its more militant Mayday Tribe. The plan was to combine massive traffic disruptions with marches on the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Capitol over three days.
"The aim of Mayday actions is to raise the social cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America's rulers," the Mayday Tribe wrote in the tactical manual.
But after years of demonstrations, the police were ready for them.
First, they planned to make arrests on a scale never before seen. "We talked to courts to find out what was the minimum amount of information needed for an arrest," Klotz said. "How many people one person could legitimately arrest and still remember the details."
They created fill-in-the-blank field arrest forms to substitute for the standard, lengthy narratives. They equipped arrest vans with Polaroid cameras, so an officer could have his picture taken with his arrestee as a memory aid for a later court appearance. And they used a new kind of handcuffs -- plastic "flexi-cuffs" -- pre-numbered with badge numbers of the arresting officers.
Then they created "arrest teams" -- composed of arresting officers, handcuffing officers and transporting officers, who would bring the efficiency of a production line to the task.
Finally, they launched a preemptive strike.
Before dawn on May 2, D.C. police got on a public address system and commanded 30,000 sleeping protesters to vacate West Potomac Park, the intended rallying point. People were told to leave because they were in violation of their permit. The reason: "rampant" use of drugs.
The reason was a pretext, like Capt. Louis Renault being shocked, shocked about the gambling at Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca." The drug use had gone on uninterrupted for days -- two stations were set up to treat overdoses -- but police chose to discover it just as the protesters were set to muster.
The preemptive strike worked, driving off many of the protesters. Police estimated that only 12,000 stayed around. "They were obviously somewhat bewildered," Klotz said. "When they were dispersed from the park, a lot of them just went home. It just sort of screwed up what they were going to do."
The next day, police used tear gas and mass arrests to keep the streets open. By 8 a.m., they had arrested 2,000 people, thwarting an attempt to tie up key bridges into the city. There were so many arrests that police stopped using arrest forms and simply scooped people up in vans. Lacking jail space, police held the arrestees outdoors at the Washington Redskins football practice field near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. The day would end with more than 7,000 arrests, a record, but with surprisingly little violence -- 155 injuries were reported -- considering the stakes.
After rush hour on Monday, May 3, Attorney General John N. Mitchell declared: "The traffic is flowing. The government is functioning."
Mayday leader Rennie Davis held his own news conference in mid-afternoon. "We want to make clear that we failed this morning to stop the U.S. government," Davis said, but he described the day's events as "almost the most major nonviolent demonstration" in the nation's history. His inarticulateness captured the surreal tenor of the moment.
To Klotz, it was just a fine piece of police work. "It was a very smart tactical maneuver. And it was carried out very well."
A few smaller protests would follow in the District but the high-water mark had been reached. The war was winding down. U.S. combat troops pulled out in 1972. The next year, the United States signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam in Paris.
No march in Washington marked the occasion.
"I don't think most people, myself included, thought [the demonstrations were] more than an existential gesture at the time," said Raskin. "But after we read the Pentagon Papers, it turned out the marches were very, very important in changing the direction of the war."
Researcher Alice Crites and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.