The DC police riot of May 1971

Sam Smith, 1971 – The nicer, smarter, more sensitive DC police department of Jerry Wilson concealed a dangerous fact: it posed a far more serious threat to the freedom of the city’s residents than had the force that preceded it, For as the department’s size, skill, and technology expanded, so did its potential for political control. Seeing Washington under its blanket of blue one could understand what University of Maryland political scientist Ralph Stavins meant when he said, “The country is turning into a schoolroom where everybody has to raise his hand for permission to do anything.” Whereas before it had been the fact of crime that put limits on behavior, increasingly it was the fear of crime, expressed through mechanisms for its control, that altered the lifestyle of the city. . .

Most distressing and frightening were the three days of May 1971 when the DC police department literally ran amuck. In a searing report on the police department’s reaction to the anti-war Mayday protest, the American Civil Liberties wrote:

Between May 3 and May 5, more than 13,OOO people were arrested in Washington, DC– the largest mass arrest in our country’s history. The action was the government’s response to anti-war demonstrations, an important component of which was the announced intention of the Mayday Coalition, organizer of the demonstrations, to block Washington rush-hour traffic. During this three-day period, normal police procedures were abandoned. Most of the 13,000 people arrested — including law-breakers caught while attempting to impede traffic, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, uninvolved passers-by and spectators — were illegally detained, illegally charged, and deprived of their constitutional rights of due process, fair trial and assistance of counsel. The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, was thrown into chaos.

During the Mayday police riot, people were beaten and arrested illegally, locked up by the thousands in makeshift holding pens with inadequate toilet facilities and food, or stuffed into drastically overcrowded cells. People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers were all caught up in the sweep arrests. Most of those stashed in the DC Jail exercise yard were without blankets throughout a night in which the temperatures fell below forty. And in the most symbolic display of contempt for the law, more than a thousand persons were arrested in front of the Capitol where they had assembled to hear speeches, including several from members of Congress. When Rep. Ronald Dellums tried to keep a policeman from arresting a member of his staff, saying, “Hey, that’s a member of my staff. Get your hands off of him. I’m a United States Congressman,” the policeman replied, “I don’t give a fuck who you are,” then hit Dellums in the side with his nightstick and pushed him down some stairs.

It was the grimmest display of mass police power — not just selective brutality against a few — this city had seen. And it was a clear warning of the fearful danger inherent in Washington’s acceptance of police power as a form of government. The fact that neither the black chief executive, Walter Washington, nor the white liberal newspaper, the Washington Post, could summon up either the wisdom or the courage to denounce what Wilson and his men, acting under orders of the Justice Department, had done made the affair all the more dismal. More and more the city was listening to sirens luring liberty onto the rocks of safety. 

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