The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering the protests of 1971, when questionable tactics kept D.C. open

Police in riot gear respond to antiwar protesters staging a sit-in during the May Day demonstrations on May 3, 1971, in the District. (Bob Daugherty/AP)
Police in riot gear respond to antiwar protesters staging a sit-in during the May Day demonstrations on May 3, 1971, in the District. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

Local leaders may have been apprehensive when thousands of young people took to the streets of Washington, aiming to shut it down. Still, given its long experience with political demonstrations, the District prided itself on its crowd control. But now the federal government was stepping in, guided by an attorney general who many felt was only too happy to do the president’s bidding.

It was May 3, 1971.

Back then, the issue was stopping the Vietnam War. For many who were in the District 49 years ago, the marches and demonstrations gripping Washington today in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers have provided a weird sense of deja vu.

“What is heartening is so many people have come out to say enough is enough,” said Ellen Faryna, 68, who was arrested twice in 1971 when she was a student at American University.

Now a psychologist in the Bay Area, Faryna was arrested in February 1971 and charged with “failure to move on” after she and a friend ignored a police officer’s demand to leave the sidewalk in front of the White House and move into Lafayette Square.

Three months later, Faryna was among 7,000 people arrested in Washington during the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.

The May Day protests were spread over several days in May 1971. The centerpiece was on May 3, when demonstrators planned to shut down federal offices by blocking the capital’s roads, bridges and traffic circles. To prevent that, the entire 5,100-person District police force was put on duty, supported by 1,400 members of the D.C. National Guard. They were augmented by 4,000 federal troops, with another 4,000 soldiers held in reserve nearby.

Wrote The Post’s Paul W. Valentine: “Troops with fixed bayonets occupied streets where demonstrators had been. Army trucks and jeeps rumbled through the city. Sirens wailed. Acrid tear gas floated through quiet residential streets in Georgetown and seeped into office buildings downtown.”

The New York Times noted: “The more important innovation was the use of mass arrests to clear the streets and detain demonstrators, even for hours after the city was calm. Many of yesterday’s record 7,000 arrests, it was clear this morning, were dragnet captures of people who had had nothing to do with the demonstrations.”

They included a Time magazine reporter named Robert S. Anson, who the previous year had been held for three weeks by Cambodian guerrillas.

Most of the detainees were sent to the Redskins’ practice field next to RFK Stadium. Food was delivered by members of such black empowerment groups as the Urban Law Institute and Pride Inc., as well as Julius Hobson’s Statehood Party.

“We were the wave of the ’60s,” Pride’s Mary Treadwell told a Post reporter, “and these kids seem to be the wave of the ’70s. We don’t want them to think that the wave of the ’60s had turned its back on them.”

The mass arrests were reportedly at the request of Richard Nixon’s Justice Department, which was, the Times wrote, “more directly involved in [police] activity this week than in past demonstrations.”

This occasionally put Justice at odds with the District. When the practice field at RFK filled up, the city was ready to release prisoners who had been processed and paid their $10 collateral. But the Justice Department urged that even those who had not been formally charged be held so they couldn’t return to demonstrations. Later, 2,500 were transferred to the Washington Coliseum.

While the main protest had been on May 3, civil disobedience continued over the next few days. On May 5, 1,200 demonstrators were arrested at the U.S. Capitol. As Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) tried to get through police lines and into the building, an officer clubbed him in the ribs.

Dellums told The Post: “They didn’t give a damn about the fact that I was a congressman; I’m a
n-----, and that’s exactly the way many of those people up there in that front line treated us.”

The New York Times editorialized that while the extreme law enforcement tactics had successfully maintained public order, the victory was “morally empty,” achieved, the paper wrote, “only by turning the center of the nation’s capital into an armed camp with thousands of troops lining the bridges and principal streets, helicopters whirring overhead and helmeted police charging crowds of civilians with nightsticks and tear gas.”

A remarkable training film produced by the D.C. police department captured the events of May 1971. (It was recently posted on YouTube by Periscope Film. To see it, search YouTube for “anti-Vietnam protest film whole world is watching Washington.”)

Just past the film’s 24-minute mark you can see what appears to be Attorney General John Mitchell himself leaning out a Justice Department window to look at protesters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, his trademark pipe clenched between his teeth.

Four years later, the disgraced and disbarred Mitchell would report to a federal prison to begin serving a 19-month sentence for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice related to the Watergate scandal.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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