For some of us who came up in the '60s, one of the most amazing--and the most moving--moments in Zuccotti Park in 2011 came when union construction workers would fall by on break or after work and join in the protest.
I was there when the reactionary "white terror" kicked in.
After the Kent State shootings, a New York City-wide demonstration had been called for Wall Street on Friday—that was 43 years ago today, on Friday, May 8, 1970. I have no idea who called the demo, though it targeted the financial center of US capital and was around the three demands: US Out Of Southeast Asia, End Campus Complicity With The War Machine, and Free Bobby Seale And All Political Prisoners.
A small crew of us from NYU Uptown were there—I can’t swear to it, but I think it might have been Lon E. Bich and maybe Jim Bean. I remember the big banner for Bobby, and I remember how many high school kids seemed to be in the crowd of a couple thousand, crammed into the narrow streets of downtown Manhattan.
Suddenly, just before noon, as Wall Street types on lunch further crowded the area, there was a big stir about 20 feet from us. A tight column of dozens of guys wearing construction helmets with a couple American flags was wading through the crowd. Almost immediately it became clear that they were not just pushing protesters out of the way, but slugging them, beating them to the ground and kicking them. (Some Wall Streeters helped the injured. More joined the attacks.)
We tried to rally the other kids around us to counterattack, but were physically held back by a bunch of Gandhian types, babbling about how we shouldn’t meet violence with violence. We didn’t want to have to fight our own people to get to the thugs, who were cutting through the crowd pretty quickly, so we faded with the other protesters, who were dispersing damn fast.
These were construction workers, we figured out, from lower Manhattan projects like the World Trade Center. Their attack was clearly planned. The little column we saw was one of four to hit the demo simultaneously from all sides. They moved on to attack City Hall, where the flag had been lowered to half-mast for the Kent students on the orders of Mayor Lindsay. Some spotted an anti-war banner at nearby Pace College (never a hotbed of struggle), and a crew peeled off to tear it down—and to savage a couple of dozen clueless Pace students, male and female, on the street and inside the building. They were taken to join scores of injured demonstrators being treated at area hospitals.
First I want to dispose of the myth that this was spontaneous, or a peaceful counter-protest that "got out of hand." The construction workers were kept on the clock for the day of the attack by the firms they were working for, and they were organized and led by officials and goon squad members from the Building Trades unions (and, as we learned later, from some needle trade locals as well). Not only did they wear helmets, but many carried lengths of rebar or chain, or tools.
The cops stood by passively and did jackshit to stop the attacks at any point. I’ve never been convinced one way or the other about why this happened, whether it was because they sympathized individually or because the police bureaucracy, without consulting the elected leaders of the city, decided to not to step in. 240 Centre Street certainly should have known it was coming--they’d been warned early that morning in a phone call from a construction worker whose foreman had tried to recruit him to take part.
Whether or not it was coordinated from the White House, it certainly fit right in with the main line of the Nixon Administration’s attack on opponents of the war: we were a vocal and countercultural minority or, as Nixon has described us the day after he made his Cambodia speech, "these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses." There was in America, Nixon had proclaimed the previous November, a Silent Majority, who supported the war, the American way and, by implication, his administration.
Now here were actual workers, brawny men, many of them WW2 or Korea veterans, shortened into "Hard Hats" in big bold-type newspaper headlines, stepping up to bloody the bums and uphold the Vietnam War. There is no question that subsequent larger and less violent Hard Hat demonstrations were coordinated with the administration.
On Monday May 11, a couple thousand were mobilized and paid by the same contractor/building trade union forces and joined by longshore locals and other war supporters in rallying to denounce Republican mayor John Lindsay as “a commie bastard.” Another was held on May 15, intended to counter the continuing drumbeat of anti-war protest.
No matter how coordinated this may have been from above, we were under no misapprehensions about what it represented. A large chunk of the white section of the working class in the US was offended and threatened by the anti-war movement and more generally by the long-haired, sex-drugs-and-rock&roll youthquake that it grew out of. There were plenty who would attack us, and many, many more who would applaud anyone who did. And while we might be on the rise historically, and on the offensive at the moment, we were still a minority in the country.
A big question on our plates for the rest of the month of May was how this card would be played. Would Hard Hat Riots spread well beyond their New York birthplace? Would local governments embrace them? Would the construction unions, or some different organizational form, become semi-official stormtroops for the administration?