|Rally during May Day demonstrations, Washington, D.C., 1971. Image from Waging Nonviolence.|
May Day memories, or
Consciousness-raising through vegetables
The cop riding shotgun stayed behind the wheel while his out-of-control buddy leapt out screaming. He was all blown up, beet-red in the face and (literally) spitting mad.
By Beverly Baker Moore | The Rag Blog | August 1, 2013
Not counting the people who’ve died too young since 1971, there should be at least one good story out there from each of the 7,000 or so people who went to Washington on May Day that year. This is one.
Our four-person Sattva staff cell was one part of the larger Austin Armadillo contingent that year. Turned out disrupting DC traffic was the main, but not the only, thing we did. There were a couple of Washington evenings spent in heart-to-hearts with plaintive bureaucrats. There was a wild incident with cops and irate neighbors. And on the way home we adopted a Japanese hitchhiker.
Ahem. Before I came to the movement I spent some time trying to change the system from within. I gave that up for good in 1970 after working as a field rep for the poverty program’s Austin office. There were some real good people there and they had me out in rural communities where I would sit down with local folks and hear about the projects they believed would help them. My job was to capture their visions on federal forms and submit them for approval. The bureaucracy was a drag but taking the money back to the people was great.
Alas, Nixon got elected in ‘68. He closed the Austin office and cut the national program way back. Some staffers relocated to Dallas to do what they could within the more restrictive guidelines. Some tried other government jobs in the better karma agencies like AID, VISTA, or the Peace Corps. Some, like me, stayed in Austin and got involved in other kinds of community effort.
The first people in Austin’s underground community I fell in with were staff writers and cartoonists for the the Texas Ranger humor magazine. Through them I met a larger local group of “creative anarchists” big into street theatre. One of the most creative of these particular anarchists was Curtis Carnes and he had a plan for a community restaurant. One night he told us all about his vision for Sattva and asked if we’d join him. A week later, Jay, Jane and I were sharing a house with him and spending our mornings chopping vegetables.
The Sattva concept was simple. Good tasting, healthy, affordable meals. Anything not sold was given away. We were given space first in the Jewish, then the Methodist, student centers. The food was vegetarian. Macrobiotic was always on the menu for those who believed in it but we believed in spices! We served soups, beans, rice, casseroles, salads, and desserts to 600 people a day. We used no processed foods…ever.
As commune members we were paid minimal amounts of money for subsistence and a share of the food. In return we chopped hundreds of pounds of vegetables and fruit five mornings a week but not by ourselves. Friends came by to help. When your recipe starts with “25 pounds of potatoes, 10 pounds of onions…” and has to be ready by noon more hands are a blessing.
In what became a distinctive morning routine, a loose affiliation of friends from the community wielded butcher knives and talked politics beside us. Together we diced and mixed and stirred and poured for hours so people could have a three- or four-course meal that day for about a dollar.
Anyone who had trouble with the dollar was welcome to show up at the end of the meal and help us clean up in return for eating as much as they could hold for free. Seriously unique and celebratory after-work kitchen events arose as those folks worked and played and cleaned. For these celebrations we got to be the audience.
In Spring 1971 Sattva was coming to the end of a successful first year. We talked it over and decided to celebrate by going to Washington with our friends.
Meanwhile, my former boss at the poverty program office had become national head of VISTA and lived in a fine Georgetown house provided by that agency. He and his wife invited us to stay with them on one condition: their friends and co-workers in Washington wanted to sit and talk with us. So we swapped conversation for lodging.
The discussions were deep and heartfelt but, in the end, positions remained unchanged. The bureaucrats were kindly souls who cared about the same things we did and really wished they could join us but, but, but…
Eventually they decided to show their solidarity by taking vacation days during the demonstration so as not to actually contribute to the government during the time we were there. After that, I suppose, they opted to return to work to wait for the country to evolve into a meritocracy. We, of course, opted to hit the streets.
After earning our lodging, we bedded down on sleeping bags amid the family washer, dryer, and ping pong table that night, then set out for our selected destination the next morning. During our walk we witnessed firsthand the steady progression from Georgetown’s brick streets and sculpted shrubbery to the more distressed real estate that makes up most of the neighborhoods in DC. We passed blocks and blocks where mostly African-American folks gathered on porches and street corners, calling out greetings and encouragement.
|New York Times coverage of 1971 May Day actions. Image from The Exiled.|
We felt good about the street action that first day. We had huge numbers and did what we came to do…the streets were a mess around the traffic circles. I remember some angry-faced motorists but just as many, it seemed, looked faintly pleased. By afternoon we had escaped the cops and were crossing back through the African-American neighborhood from that morning, when two cops ran their patrol car up onto the sidewalk, nearly taking out the fire hydrant right next to us.
The cop riding shotgun stayed behind the wheel while his out-of-control buddy leapt out screaming. He was all blown up, beet-red in the face and (literally) spitting mad. Apparently, he’d not had a good morning.
He screamed at us. Caught by surprise, we just stared at first. Then he lunged at me. He grabbed my coat collar and jerked me off my feet. Scared the crap out of me at first.
We were in front of the picture windows of a corner café as the cop threw open the back door of the patrol car and tossed me in. We were prepared to be arrested so we didn’t argue with him for long. Instead, a young pregnant Black woman pushing a baby stroller on the block inserted herself into the confrontation.
She stepped up to the cop told him we were doing nothing, just walking down the street. He responded by jabbing her in the stomach with his club. That’s when the young Black men started coming out of the café, hot at the cop for threatening the woman. People on doorsteps across the street got up and began yelling too.
Back in the patrol car, the cop in the driver’s seat gave up and got out, obviously pissed at his partner for getting him into all of that trouble. I was inside the patrol car watching the surreal scene. My friends had backed off and I could no longer see the cops for all the angry neighbors.
That’s when I found the patrol car doors were not locked. It occurred to me that staying in an unlocked police car waiting to be taken away by two cops who didn’t look like they would live through the day was idiocy. I mean, they hadn’t even checked my ID. I flung open the car door on the street side, leapt out, and ran to the folks beckoning me from their stoops on the far side.
I made it across the street unnoticed by anyone else (even my friends, as it turned out). A beautiful white-haired Black man motioned me onto his porch and through his front door. Inside a grinning old woman waved me through their house and out their back door. I sprinted across two small yards and into another shotgun house as more people showed me the way through. I cleared several blocks this way and have this tale to tell about it all.
Back in the Georgetown living room that night the TV news showed the arrival of a couple of our leaders. We heard them say that on day two the demonstrations would be concentrated on fewer areas, then they announced which ones.
We disagreed with the strategy and the Sattva staff decided to spend the next day helping first aid workers and rescuing arrested people (some 1,400 of them) from RFK stadium. (Helpful hint for next time: LOTS of people will say their name is Karl Marx — some 144 on that first day alone.)
The wild-eyed cop who attacked me was a preview of what people encountered that second day. It was so bad the national news media blazed headlines calling it a “Police Riot.” If we stirred up that much trouble we must have done something right.
A couple of days later we were on IH-35 in downtown Waco, almost home. Stranded on the median was a young Japanese hitchhiker. He was so thrilled we stopped to pick him up he wouldn’t quit bowing and we all nearly got blown away by semis before we got him into the car.
Back on the road he told us he was a Japanese graduate student on the last leg of an around the world adventure. He’d saved America for last, he said, before he returned to Tokyo to finish his degree and go into the family business.
He had been involved in Japanese student movements and was excited to hook up with us. He about cried when we served him the home-made Miso soup. He left us a couple of weeks later in the middle of another anti-war demonstration, freaked out about the Texas Rangers who showed up and ringed the park where we’d gathered for that one.
Before he left he explained that Japanese police did not carry weapons so he had no trouble joining street events there. He was scared to death by the well-armed Rangers, though. He said we were very, very brave and that he worried about us because we were protesting in the face of such violent authorities in such a violent country. He wished us good luck in Japanese.
[Beverly Baker Moore is an Austin-based writer, teacher, and activist.]