This Best of Answer Man column is from April 25, 2005:
Do you remember Human Kindness Day? I remember very clearly my father driving us in the car through D.C. when a cop came up to our car and said, “Roll up your windows and lock your doors. It’s Human Kindness Day.” Whenever I bring it up to others who lived here in the ’70s, I get blank looks.
The milk of human kindness: Cool and sweet it may be, but left out in the hot sun it soon turns sour. And so too with Human Kindness Day.
The first HKD was April 22, 1972, and was officially known as Roberta Flack Human Kindness Day. The event was designed to honor the singer, who had attended Howard University and been a fixture at Mr. Henry’s nightclub.
It was organized by a nonprofit arts education group called Compared to What, with the support of the D.C. government and the National Park Service.
The inaugural event went off without a hitch, with about 25,000 people gathering on the Washington Monument grounds to hear Flack sing. The next year, comedian and social activist Dick Gregory was the honoree, and more than 35,000 people gathered for a five-hour concert at the Sylvan Theater.
By 1974, Human Kindness Day had gotten even bigger. There were problems from the start. Organizers had trouble getting the sound system to work because spectators were sitting on the equipment. The Pointer Sisters started performing about 5 p.m. but walked off during their second number because fans had swarmed onto the stage, threatening it with collapse.
The Washington Post reported that about 55,000 people attended Human Kindness Day III and that 24 people were arrested on assault and robbery charges — which might have suggested that the bloom was off the rose.
But plans were made for Human Kindness Day IV, May 10, 1975. Stevie Wonder was the main attraction, scheduled to close a show that included performances by Graham Central Station and other bands.
The crowd was huge, an estimated 125,000 people stretching from the Washington Monument west to 17th Street NW. There were sporadic assaults early in the day, but the real violence didn’t start until after Stevie Wonder’s performance.
A 22-year-old man from Vienna was standing near the base of the monument when a group of men grabbed his wallet. He gave chase and was struck in the mouth with a club. An 18-year-old from Annapolis was jumped by a group of 20 teenagers who beat him and threw bottles at him until he was able to run to an ambulance. The worst injury was to Steven Laine, who was stabbed in his right eye while cutting across the Mall on his way home from work at the Agriculture Department.
“I said, ‘Help me,’ and there was no response,” Laine told a Post reporter from his hospital bed.
By the time it was over, there had been about 500 robberies and 600 injuries, and 150 people were treated at hospitals.
Kenneth Donovan was a 26-year-old U.S. Park Police officer who had recently joined the department’s mounted unit. Seated atop a black thoroughbred horse called War Courier, he had a good view of Human Kindness Day’s descent into chaos.
“People were blindly grabbing handbags,” he remembered in an interview. “It got to be a thing to grab open a woman’s blouse and rip it and run.”
Park Police considered laying down a tear gas barrage to clear the Washington Monument grounds but decided against it, fearing the rioters would spill into downtown.
Donovan said law enforcement officers spent so much time watching the mayhem as opposed to stopping it because of a deal that had been struck with the event’s organizers: Security was to be provided by 800 armband-wearing volunteer marshals. The police had agreed not to interfere.
A later investigation revealed not only that 800 volunteer marshals would not have been enough but also that a mere 262 had showed up.
“You can’t really take a large crowd that size and more or less advertise that there is just no police protection,” Donovan said.
If only it hadn’t been called Human Kindness Day. As a reader wrote in to Post columnist Bill Gold: “So much for kindness. I don’t want to be around on Human Cruelty Day.”