The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Student protesters, angry construction workers and a violent confrontation

On May 8, 1970, hundreds of construction workers in New York’s Financial District clashed with student protesters. (AP Photo/Ed Ford)

From his perch on the 42nd floor of the partially built South Tower of the World Trade Center, construction worker Joe Kelly approached his “boiling point” over student protests in the streets below. An Army veteran, Kelly lived on Staten Island with his wife and children. His neighbors included a bus driver, a police officer and a steamfitter. His yellow hard hat bore American flag decals and the words “For God and Country.” Chanting “Peace now!,” the students were protesting the killing by National Guardsmen of four fellow students at an anti-Vietnam-War demonstration at Kent State University days earlier.

It was May 8, 1970, and Kelly and many of his fellow workers descended from the South Tower to show their distaste for the protests and their support for America’s troops in Vietnam. In his engrossing, well-crafted “The Hardhat Riot,” David Paul Kuhn tells the story of how hundreds of workers charged and beat marching students in New York’s Financial District. Deeply researched and based mainly on voluminous police documents, the book re-creates the nightmarish scene vividly and places it in the context of a turbulent period. After the Kent State shootings and the riot, the New Yorker observed that the United States had endured its “most critical week . . . in more than a century. The war has made us warlike.”

Kuhn argues persuasively that the riot sparked a vast national political shift driven by a widening divide between the working class and the educated elite that has led to the era of the Trump presidency. In the years before the confrontations, there were increasingly tumultuous protests, including a violent student takeover at Columbia University and protests at the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where police beat demonstrators. Just days before Kent State, President Richard Nixon pledged that he would soon withdraw U.S. troops from Southeast Asia. Instead, he expanded the warfare to Cambodia. The peaceful protest at Kent State triggered 13 shocking seconds of live gunfire at unarmed students, further arousing the antiwar movement and radicalizing it “as never before,” Kuhn writes.

When demonstrators swarmed Wall Street, flag-waving hard hats saw an assault on America and chanted “Love it or leave it!” One shouted, “Kill those long-haired bastards!” It was time to “break some heads,” said another. One worker explained, “We’re just trying to be Americans.”

The riot injured more than 100 people, mostly students who suffered concussions, broken noses and broken teeth. “The most serious injuries were to the half-dozen young men beaten unconscious,” Kuhn writes. Joe Kelly took a swing at one kid who flailed at him. “I gave him a whack and back he went,” Kelly remembered. “He went down, I know that. And I just figured he wouldn’t be back for more.”

Police, generally sympathetic to workers, refused to make arrests, talking and laughing with one another. “We just stood there,” admitted one cop. “The construction workers had completely taken over.” Many police officers and hard hats lived in the same sections of Queens and the Bronx and went to the same neighborhood bars.

Adding to the chaos, Wall Street office workers cheered the hard hats and tossed ticker tape from windows. One businessman joined a worker in pummeling a student.

Kuhn corrects some misperceptions about both the workers and the protesters. “Just as some hardhats wrongly generalized antiwar activists as commies, hardhats were deemed fascists,” Kuhn writes. In fact, both groups believed they were acting out of patriotism.

Kuhn writes with empathy for both sides. He notes that class was a key factor behind the riot. While the protests were made up of students — many from affluent families — many of the American troops in Vietnam came from blue-collar backgrounds.

Kuhn’s accounts of the violence are vivid and raw. It was a brutal, ugly day, with instigators on both sides. For those of us who lived in New York at the time, the book rekindles painful memories. For me, then a young opponent of the Vietnam War, Kuhn’s narrative brought a new understanding of the spontaneous, “demonstrably sincere” actions of the hard hats.

The author concludes with a sharp analysis of how the revolt of the White working class almost immediately reshaped American politics, beginning with Nixon’s opportunistic claim of blue-collar Whites as “Silent Majority” supporters of his law-and-order presidency. Kuhn shows the reverberations over the decades, right up to the making of Donald Trump’s political base. One woman who spoke after the riot might very well be a voice from today. “Nobody has been speaking to the average worker,” she said. “Nobody cares what we want or how we feel.”

Kuhn argues that class divisions have driven people so far apart that it’s as if Americans now live in “entirely different places, even if they are still called by one name — America.”

The Hardhat Riot

Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution

By David Paul Kuhn

404 pp. $29.95