The Hard Hat Riots, 1970
The period of American culture bearing the convenient handle "The Sixties" is a tangle of images and ideas which in retrospect seem easily identifiable from the preceding decade and the decade which followed. The tougher task is answering the more basic questions. What were the characteristics of The Sixties that made it so unique in American cultural history? When did The Sixties, the culture not the decade, begin? When and how did it end? As worthwhile as these questions are, I'm incapable of providing a complete answer to any of them, but today I'll try to provide a partial answer to the last.
Because on May 8th of 1970, the Hard Hat Riot occurred in Manhattan, throwing youths and adults, the educated and blue-collar workers, in to open battle, and ending forever the utopian dream of a student-led democratic reformation of American society.
In the American Left Movement, students had traditionally been relegated to the support role of organizing the industrial workers who would serve as the impetus of change. But several events of the 1960's - the Mississippi Summer Project, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Columia University Protests, among others - convinced student organizations they could help lead social change.
The relationship between American students and establishment groups was conflicted throughout the second half of The Sixties. But by 1969 a common ground was beginning to form in the growing impatience with the war in Vietnam.
On April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon, who had campigned on a promise to end the war, announced an escalation of hostilities which would target North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Campuses erupted in a nation-wide student strike. Nixon, caught on tape referring to the students as "bums", added more fuel to their anger.
Kent State University in northwest Ohio was home to one of the more aggressive branches of the SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society. In the days following Nixon's announcement, Kent State students attacked police, burned the campus' ROTC, and ignored the curfew established by the governor. On May 4th, while trying to disperse a protest on campus, the National Guard inexplicably fired into the students, killing 4 and wounding 70.
The student left and its supporters were enraged, sparking further protests across the country. But the Kent State Shootings had the opposite effect on the other Americans. Many believed the shootings were justified, seeing the students as unappreciative of their priviledge and violating acceptable standards for protest. In a Gallup Poll taken after the shooting, 58% of the respondents blamed the students for the deaths, while only 27% blamed the National Guard.
In the wake of the riot, New York Mayor John Lindsay ordered the American flags on city buildings to be flown at half-mast. On May 8th, and estimated 1000 students gathered in lower Manhattan for a memorial to those killed at Kent State and to continue their protest against the war.
At noon, approximately 200 construction workers appearred at the protest, many wearing hard hats and carrying American flags. Some also carried pipes and crowbars. The workers quickly swept past the police. Some forced their way into City Hall, climbing to the roof to fully raise the flag from half-mast. Many climbed over the police cars and attacked the students, punching them with their fists or beating them with their hardhats. Hundreds of bystandards shouted their encuragement to the workers. In total, about 60 people were injured, mostly students, along with a handful of police.
One week later 150,000 construction and other workers peacefully marched through New York as workers in the surrounding buildings showered the marchers with ticker tape.
Many student organizers were demoralized. Political activity on campuses lost energy. Those who maintained the fight became more radicalized, calling for the violent overthrow of the US government, and becoming even more isolated from mass politics. Nixon instinctively sensed the power of this new mainstream anger, and used it to justify increasingly aggressive tactics agains the Left.
Events of 1969 had begun to erode any hope of lasting cooperation between student and establishment groups. The random violence of the Days of Rage in Chicago. The seeming moral corruption of the counter-culture as symbolized by the Charles Manson murders, The killing of a young man by the Hell's Angels at the Altamount Music Festival. The early activities of the Weather Underground. But it was the tragedy at Kent State that proved to be the final fracturing of the generations.
For the New York Times coverage of the Hard Hat Riot, please click here.
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