It was past 3 a.m. and I was falling asleep. I was also blasting across Indiana on I-80 driving a beast of an Olds 442 and doing 110 mph – with.one.eye.open.
I was heading to D.C. to attend a national student journalism conference which happened to coincide with what turned out to be the largest anti-war protest of the Vietnam era.
I was the news editor of my college newspaper. I was driving the car of the editor-in-chief who was asleep in the passenger bucket seat, and a journalism professor was asleep in the back seat. It was a good thing they were asleep because the way I was driving would have had them shitting their pants.
We left Minnesota that afternoon and I took over driving the ‘graveyard’ shift about the Iowa/Illinois border. By the time I got to Indiana I was so tired I figured the only way I was going to stay awake was if I drove very, very fast – the stupid logic of a 20 year old. Then I got so tired, I’d drive with one eye open and after that eye got tired, I’d switch eyes and drive with the other eye open. Swear I hadn’t discovered drugs yet, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t yet know who Hunter S. Thompson was, so I was not trying to imitate the driver depicted on the cover of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. This was an early ‘Darwin Award’ audition that I failed.
A dark, cool spring night – April 1971 – seemed like Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’ was every fourth song played on a.m. radio that night. I remember John Denver’s first hit, ‘Country Roads’ was just beginning to get some airplay.
I stopped driving somewhere in Ohio. The next thing I remember was waking up in the car with it up on a hoist. The tires were getting replaced. ‘Shit! I burnt the rubber off of them,’ I thought. I didn’t fess up as to how fast I was driving.
We made it to D.C. and after a night of R&R we hit the student conference. A big highlight of the first day of the journalism conference was finding out we were going to have a press conference with Attorney General John Mitchell. We also had a great time mingling with ‘student leaders’ from around the nation.
I started thinking about what to ask Mitchell. This was before The Pentagon Papers , before Watergate, though history would later reveal that the month before my visit to D.C. Attorney General Mitchell as head of CREEP – the Committee to Re-Elect the President - had authorized G. Gordon Liddy to spend $250,000 to ‘collect intelligence’ on the Democrats.
How about that kind hypocritical, criminal behavior coming from a law and order Attorney General? A Law and Order dick was how I viewed Mitchell. What was known to me was he was the top cop asshole of the ultimate law and order administration committed to battling the ‘nattering, nabobs of negativism’ and suppressing the civil liberties of those nabobs. It was also well know by then that the Nixon Administration hated the press.
What to ask Mitchell? I was kicking that question around in my mind when on the CBS Evening News Eric Sevareid delivered a commentary advancing the proposition that John Mitchell didn’t run the Justice Department, but rather J. Edgar Hoover did. Sevareid made several points as to why this was the case, and I thought that was a question to ask Mitchell. Cite the Sevareid commentary, and then slap Mitchell in the face with the insult that Hoover was actually in charge.
That night my group went to visit the monuments. There were hundreds, thousands of mostly students peacefully walking around the grounds. The vibe was like what Dylan wrote about a few years later in Tangled Up in Blue when he penned there was sense of ‘revolution in the air’. That was how Washington felt that spring.
A Thomas Jefferson comment chiseled into his memorial resonated with me that night:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
In April of 1971 I thought we needed that to happen, and hundreds of thousands were coming to Washington that week to try and get American political institutions to advance.
That Jefferson thought still resonates with me today, but now I despair that far too many Americans are not becoming ‘more enlightened’. We seem to be suffering from a modern scourge of know nothingism.
The next day the student journalists got on a bus to go to the Department of Justice to meet the Attorney General. I started talking to one of the other students and he was saying there was a very widespread belief in the anti-war community that the Justice Department, the National Guard, and other elements of government were going to engage in mass arrest of anti-war protestors and that very large detention centers had been set up to hold the thousands or tens of thousands that were going to be arrested.
Yes, ‘paranoia it strikes deep’. That mass arrest rumor seemed like a good question to ask the AG.
We got to the Justice Department and as I recall entered a large oval shaped courtyard inside the building where we were going to meet Mitchell. There were several balcony levels above us, and as I was cranking my head up to look around I was seeing what looked to be several guys up there who had film cameras. ‘Shit! They’re going to film us,’ I thought to myself.
I guess there were maybe 40-50 student journalists there. You know - the responsible student leader types. Pretty clean cut for the early 70s. I had had a summer job the previous year that forced me to have short hair, so my hair length was only 8” long and that was a respectable length. There was nothing threatening looking about this group of kids.
Some DOJ flack spoke first and thanked us for coming. He gave us a little bit of a run down on the Department, and then he introduced the Attorney General of the United States.
The Attorney General was scared shitless – Of us!
Up to the podium stepped one of the most powerful men in the world. And like wow man – the Attorney General was shaking uncontrollably. He was trembling all over his body. There were moments when there was a quiver in his voice as well as his body.
The Attorney General was scared shitless – Of us!
I was blow away. How could this man be afraid of us? It’s not like Woodward and Bernstein were in the crowd. Mitchell’s worst possible nightmare pair of reporters would not have been known to him for another 14 months or so.
Mitchell kept on trembling during his remarks. I vividly remember thinking how vast the gulf must really be between Mitchell, Nixon, Agnew and the rest of the paranoid Nixon administration and us – the not so silent majority. The AG’s uncontrollable shaking seemed to me to represent how they feared us for no good reason at all. We were there exercising our First Amendment rights – press, speech, assembly, petition – and the Attorney General of the United States seemed to fear the exercise of those rights.
I’ve since thought this kind of uncontrollable and irrational fear Mitchell demonstrated before a couple of dozen well meaning and earnest students was an insight into what drove the Nixon Administration into committing outrageous criminal acts. If they feared this little band of students that much, shit they must have really been hyper-paranoid of the larger anti-war movement and Democratic anti-war presidential candidates. Lions, and tigers, and Black Panthers OH MY!
Then again maybe J. Edgar Hoover gave Mitchell my FBI dossier and that scared the shit out of him – snark, snark! The truth was I was pretty green at that point in time, so he had nothing to fear from me, but who knows what crazy, trumped up allegations Hoover might have had on other student activists in the crowd.
I don’t really remember what Mitchell said, I was just mesmerized by how terrified this ‘great man’ seemed to be. It was one incredible ‘ah-ha moment’ for me that demonstrated how this man’s fear might be an important indicator of how the Nixon Administration acted.
Perhaps Mitchell had a Medical condition that caused him to tremble, or maybe he did this in all public appearances, but I don’t think so because:
Then Mitchell got calm and stopped shaking.
He said he was going to answer our questions, but he wanted us to give our names and the schools we attended before asking our questions. He was calm because he was in control.
I slumped in my chair. I knew EXACTLY what that meant. I didn’t have time to hesitate because he spoke for a few more sentences and was ready to take questions.
In the pre-Reagan days, the way you got called on at a press conference was to jump the highest and yell the loudest. So when I got the hint he was going to start with the questions I jumped out of my chair like a Minuteman Missile exploding out of its silo, waved my arms and yelled, MR. ATTORNEY GENERAL!!!
It worked! Mitchell acknowledged me, and I went to the microphone. I asked my question about the concerns of mass arrests and detention centers.
I did not give my name.
I did not give the FBI the name of the school I attended.
This turned out to be a softball question for him. He puffed a harrumph sound out of his mouth and a smirk came across his totally calm porcine face. He blew the question off with pat answers that no one had anything to fear about mass arrests.
I realized I was going to have to work on my questioning techniques.
Many of the other students asked questions. All of the students were thoughtful and respectful. Everyone else gave their name and the school they attended. I’m sure the FBI wasted no time in finding out who was the ‘commie’ that asked the obnoxious question about mass arrests and didn’t give his name.
Saturday was the largest anti-war protest of the Vietnam era. There were some reports that the crowds were as high as 750,000 people. I remember seeing the capitol surrounded by buses. They formed a barrier so no protestors could get to the capitol. I also remember the army had machine gun positions on the verandas of the capitol. Kent State had happened less than a year earlier, so seeing a heavily armed military presence at the ramparts of the capitol was a chilling sight to me.
I was also reporting the event, and I asked a couple of guys playing chess at the demonstration what they thought of the event. They spoke in German to each other, and then one answered my question. He said they spoke in German first because they had some concerns that I might be an FBI Agent. More of that paranoia going around.
Oh, and about those rumors of mass arrests? They happened about 10 days later when the government came down hard on the Yippies’ Days of Rage protest in Washington.
Monday May 3 - While protesters listened to music, planned their actions or slept, 10,000 Federal troops were quickly moved to various locations in the Washington, D.C. area. At one point, so many soldiers and marines were being moved into the area from bases along the East Coast that troop transports were landing at the rate of one every three minutes at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, about 15 miles from the White House. Among these troops were 4,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, up the 5,100 D.C. Metropolitan Police, and 2,000 D.C. National Guard. Every monument, park and traffic circle in the nations capital had troops protecting its perimeters. Paratroopers and marines deployed via helicopter to the grounds of the Washington Monument.
While the troops secured the major intersections and bridges, the police roamed through the city making massive arrest sweeps and used tear gas. They arrested anyone who looked like a demonstrator, including construction workers who had come out to support the government. By 8 am 7,000 protesters had been arrested. The city's prisons did not have the capacity to handle that many people thus an emergency detention center surrounded by an 8-foot-high (2.4 m) fence was set up next to RFK Stadium. No food, water, or sanitary facilities were made available by authorities but sympathetic local residents brought supplies. Skirmishes between protesters and police occurred up until about mid-day. By afternoon the show of force had mostly suppressed the unrest and Federal workers, at least those who not arrested in the arrest sweeps, although delayed somewhat had arrived at their jobs.
And from another site:
Early on Monday morning, the 25,000 or so remaining members of the Mayday Tribe began moving into Washington to block their designated targets. The government was ready, having mobilized a combined force of 10,000 police, National Guard, and federal troops, with at least 4,000 more troops available on reserve. Their orders were to arrest every demonstrator on sight. (Attorney General John Mitchell explained to Nixon, during a White House meeting to plan the government's response to the protests, "I know they want to be arrested but, Mr. President, I don't think that's any reason for not arresting them.")
"Small battles raged all over the city as demonstrators would build crude barricades, disperse when the police came and then regroup to rebuild the dismantled obstructions," one underground paper reported. The protesters' nonviolence pledge did not preclude building barricades; nobody felt "that because we will be nonviolent that we could not also be militant and creative." The barricades were indeed inventive: "We threw everything available into the streets," one participant wrote afterwards in the Berkeley Tribe, "garbage cans, parked cars, broken glass, nails, large rocks, and ourselves. To add to the confusion we lifted hoods of cars stopped for lights and let air out of tires." Some of these obstacles-like the one in Georgetown that was constructed by overturning a tractor trailer-were even effective in temporarily stopping traffic.
But ultimately, the government had the upper hand on the streets, thanks to a military operation that, in Newsweek's words, "seemed more appropriate to Saigon in wartime than Washington in the spring." Waves of helicopters landed alongside the Washington Monument, ferrying Marines into the city. Federal troops lined the Key Bridge, and a Marine battalion was stationed at Dupont Circle, "with tanks around the rim pointing out toward the street with their big guns." The city was effectively under military occupation. "The scene was midway between that of a sham battle and a war of death," one protester wrote afterwards. "Police vans careened around corners, frantic to discharge their human load and return for another. Helicopters chopping overhead made us aware that the ground troops had surveillance of all of our movements."
But all the planning and organization counted for little in the face of the government's sweep arrests. More than 7,000 people were caught in the dragnet that first day. Never before or since have there been that many arrests in the United States on a single day. (Another 6,000 were arrested over three more days, most of them for blockading the Justice Department and the U.S. Capitol.) Many of the arrestees were ordinary people with no connection to the protest; they just happened to be where sweeps were taking place. Others were demonstrators who were arrested preemptively, without having committed any illegal acts. To transport the mass of prisoners, the police had to commandeer city buses; when even that wasn't enough, they hired Hertz and Avis rent-a-trucks.
The city jail quickly filled, even though the police crammed as many as twenty people into two-person cells. Another 1500 were packed into the jail's recreation yard. That still left thousands of prisoners, whom the police herded into an outdoor practice field next to RFK Stadium. Conditions were awful, with next to no sanitary facilities, blankets, or food. One anarchist wag made a sign proclaiming the football field, without much overstatement, "Smash the State Concentration Camp #1." The government had made a major misstep, which cost it public sympathy. People who had strongly disapproved of the Mayday Tribe's shutdown plan were appalled by the flagrant violation of civil liberties, and upset to see the nation's capital turned into an overt police state.
There was a class action lawsuit that came out of these illegal arrests, and I remember there was a fairly large financial award won on behalf of those arrested.
History showed Mitchell had his hands in those police state actions. His irrational fear of student journalists that I witnessed perhaps played out in those police state actions on May Day and in the great crimes of Watergate that were to come.
Forty years on from that time and if I last another forty years I’m certain I’ll never forget the day I saw the Attorney General of the United States tremble before a bunch of well meaning kids.