An Insightful Exchange with Lawrence Roberts, Author of Mayday 1971
Over the past few years I’ve attempted to write about some of the experiences of my youth in an effort to perhaps gain deeper insights into what I saw and felt and thought, and how it may have shaped me. One of these was my experience of hitchhiking to Washington DC to be part of a major antiwar rally. What prompted me to write my story was Ken Burns’ 10-part series on the Vietnam War. I believe it was part seven that covered the events of Mayday 1971. Watching this led me to write a blog post titled Mayday 1971: Correcting the Narrative in the spring of 2019.
As it turns out several people who had been there for the Mayday rally left comments, and this past fall one of them informed me that a book had been written about the events preceding and surrounding protest. The book is titled Mayday 1971.
After acquiring a copy for myself I reached out to see if I could interview the author, who has clearly taken great pains to assemble and organize all this information so we have a better understanding of what happened and why.
Lawrence Roberts has been an investigative editor with ProPublica, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and a leader on teams honored with three Pulitzer Prizes. Mayday 1971 is his first book.
EN: A very big thank you for the work you’ve done here, Larry, and your efforts to give us an understanding from all angles. Where were you during the Mayday 1971 protests?
Lawrence Roberts: I came to D.C. with a group of friends to participate in the demonstrations. We drove down in a VW microbus from northern New Hampshire, where I was a sophomore at an experimental school called Franconia College.
EN: Did you participate in the non-violent protest training on Sunday, May 2? What thoughts were you having then?
LR: I wasn’t there for the training because I didn’t camp at the West Potomac Park site. I was staying with friends at George Washington University.
My affinity group went to a traffic circle near Georgetown.
EN: Were you surprised by how quickly this event seemed forgotten in the shadow of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers?
LR: Yes, I was amazed that the biggest season of dissent in Washington history, followed by the biggest mass arrest in American history, all taking place under a president who would eventually resign in disgrace, had faded from collective memory. Like many people who had been there, I would get quizzical looks for years when I told people what happened. They’d never heard of the events and weren’t quite sure they believed me.
EN: What were the biggest insights you gained from researching and assembling this book?
LR: The Vietnam antiwar movement didn’t realize at the time what a profound effect it was having inside the White House. It’s an example of how sustained and organized nonviolent dissent can influence public policy. I also found it illuminating to retrace how people on all sides of the Mayday protests confronted that extraordinary historical moment. Some people stuck by their principles, while others, for all kinds of human reasons, were slippin’ into darkness, as a popular song of the time said.
Finding out who exactly ordered the mass arrests. Investigating who dynamited the U.S. Capitol in March 1971, and if the bombers had help.
EN: How did this experience color your understanding of the current protest movements on the right and the left?
LR: It’s striking to me that a half-century ago, thousands of people who came to D.C. to protest nonviolently against the policies of an authoritarian president were greeted by more than 15,000 police, National Guard, soldiers and marines, and mass detention camps, while this month, thousands of people who came to violently support an authoritarian president found only a handful of Capitol police in their way.
You might think that these events were like apples and oranges because they are separated by fifty years. But when you look at the Trump administration’s militarized overreaction to the 2020 protests by Black Lives Matter in D.C. and Portland, and elsewhere, you can see that the powers that be still tend to overestimate the threat of disorder from demonstrators on the Left, and underestimate the threat from the Right.
Although the Mayday Tribe’s motto was “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government,” the 12,000 protesters only ever wanted was to stop traffic in the capital. They had no intention of trying to overthrow Congress or override the Constitution, as the pro-Trump mob tried to do.
EN: Your book includes a lot of interviews with people who were involved in Mayday. Have you heard from others since it was published?
LR: Yes! I’ve been collecting some fascinating individual stories about those days from protesters, police, federal agents. They’re available at www.lawrenceproberts.com/were-you-there
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it echoes.” — Mark Twain