View From Lodi, CA: Remembering An Earlier War In America`s Streets
In the spring of 1970, I worked for Merrill Lynch on
Wall Street as an investment banker.
By 1970, the Vietnam War had split American into two
factions—the pro-war and the anti-war.
And few demonstrated tolerance towards anyone whose
view was different than theirs.
Most afternoons, my friends and I took our brown bag
lunches down to Battery Park to watch the Hawks and the
Doves argue over what course in
Southeast Asia the Nixon administration should take.
What we didn`t realize was that those super-heated,
in your face disputes would boil over into one of
America`s ugliest street brawls during an era when
violent demonstrations were commonplace.
Within the Hawks and the Doves were two sub-groups:
the Hard Hats, over-the-top patriotic construction
workers who supported escalating the war and the
Peaceniks, student groups who favored a complete and
immediate withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
Oddly, I couldn`t relate to either group. Although I
had only graduated from college a
few years earlier, I had nothing in common with the
longhaired, marijuana smoking protesters.
But neither could I sympathize with the Hard Hats.
The war was going badly. In late April, Nixon had
announced that troops would be sent to Cambodia. And on
May 4, the National Guard shot and killed four Kent
State students during a protest at the university.
Under the best of circumstances, the rhetoric between
the Hard Hats and the Peaceniks was always on the verge
punches. The Hard Hats called the college students
“faggots,” “Commies,” and urged them to “go back
But also among the Doves were hundreds of mainstream
people who were beginning to put the Vietnam picture
together…and didn`t like what they saw.
The first bloodshed came on May 6. Medical students
from the Whitehall Medical Center ripped down an
American flag on a Broad Street construction job.
Several of the students were beaten up.
But on May 8, everything exploded. A major peace
rally scheduled for noon on Wall Street drew a big
crowd. Everyone expected trouble but we had no idea just
how much raw violence we were about to witness.
Shortly after 12:00, the first wave of 200
construction workers arrived at the corner of Wall and
Broad. Waving American flags, they all shouted,
“America, love it or leave it” and “All the
My friends and I could sense what was coming. The
Hard Hats pushed their way past a police line that
offered no resistance, grabbed the demonstrators and
started to pound on them. They hit them with helmets,
pliers and wrenches.
An emergency first aid station was set up at the
historic Trinity Church on nearby Broadway. More than 50
badly beaten demonstrators were treated.
By this time, the Hard Hats were nearly 500-strong.
They stormed Trinity Church shaking and rattling the
iron gates that surrounded the landmark.
That Lindsey had ordered City Hall flags to be flown
at half-mast in honor of the four murdered Kent State
students further enraged the Hard Hats.
Upon their arrival at City Hall, one of the Hard Hats
went to the roof and, to massive cheering, raised the
flag to full staff. Sidney Davidoff, acting in place of
the absent Lindsey, bravely walked onto the roof and
lowered the flag.
Incensed, the construction workers charged City Hall
waving their fists and cursing.
Finally, acting out of sheer terror, Deputy Mayor
Richard Aurelio ordered the flag back up again. The Hard
Hats immediately broke out into song with their version
of the Star-Spangled Banner.[
War Foes Here Attacked By Construction Workers,
New York Times, May 9, 1970]
When he returned, Lindsey was furious at the failure
of the New York police to provide protection for the
demonstrators or to quell the Hard Hat uprising. Many
police officers on horseback tacitly supported the Hard
Hats and refused to take preventative action.
On May 21st, when nightstick-wielding
police attacked 1,000 peaceful protesters at Bryant Park
and 39th St., sixteen charges of police brutality were
filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The two bloody weeks in New York from May 6th
to May 21st is only one tiny chapter in the
Vietnam saga. People who weren`t there to see the
brutality unfold cannot fathom what it was like.
Looking back, several footnotes make the story even
more incredible. Vice President Spiro Agnew sent a
Peter J. Brennan, president of the Greater New York
Buildings and Construction Trades Council commending his
members for “the impressive display in patriotism—and
a spirit in pride of country that seems to have become
unfashionable in recent years.”
And President Nixon was duly impressed with the
patriotic Hard Hats, too. Nixon invited Brennan to the
White House on May 26th. There Brennan,
twenty-two other union leaders and Nixon discussed world
affairs for nearly an hour.
On the way out of the Oval Office, Brennan presented
Nixon with a hard hat.
Although there were no official photographs to record
the moment, I struggled with the image of Nixon in his
blue suit, striped tie, starched white shirt and a
construction worker`s hard-hat.
Thirty-four years later, the US is embroiled in a war
in Iraq that, like
Vietnam, offers no easy way out. As more young
soldiers die, frustration will rise.
Whether we will see the likes of those three bloody
weeks in May 1970
remains to be seen. But unless things improve in
Iraq, we might.