The 'Hard Hat Riot' is now largely forgotten, but it's hard not to see the parallels with today. A reactionary white working class had come onto the streets to violently oppose an unpatriotic 'liberal elite', and to lend their support to a corrupt, and soon to be impeached, right wing president.
So what was it all about?
Fire and Fury
On 30 April 1970 President Nixon had sent the South Vietnamese Army, backed by US air power, over the Vietnamese border into Cambodia.
The Vietnam War was already unpopular, and had already split America, but this escalation in the fighting galvanised the anti-war movement and sparked a new wave of protests. Amongst the campuses where activists mobilised was Kent State University in Ohio.
But Kent State wasn't Berkeley. It was a quiet sort of place and protests here had been peaceful affairs. However after rioting in downtown Kent following a demostration further protests were banned. The National Guard was called in, and 1000 soldiers put the university under military occupation. On 4 May students, joined by anti-war protesters from elsewhere, defied the ban. When the National Guard failed to get them to disperse, 28 guardsmen opened fire, killing four, leaving another paralysed for life, and wounding eight others.
John Filo's photograph of Mary Vecchio's scream, as she knelt next to the body of Jeffrey Miller, became the defining image of the day, and one of the most iconic of the entire era.
Very Fine People On Both Sides
A huge anti-war rally was planned in New York for 9 May, and in the morning on the day before the about a thousand protesters gathered outside the stock exchange on Wall Street to mourn the dead students, and demand an end to the war.
Just before midday a couple of hundred construction workers carrying American flags turned up to heckle, soon joined by others. Many had armed themselves, and they soon broke through the half hearted police line and attacked the protesters. With the police doing nothing it was, rather bizarrely, stock exchange workers from Wall Street that tried to protect the students.
Susan Harman, then 29, tried save a student being attacked by three men, one armed with a pair of iron clippers, beating up one student. "Don't", she said. "Let go of my jacket, bitch" was the reply, followed by “If you want to be treated like an equal, we’ll treat you like one" and the three men beat her to the ground.
Soon the peaceful demo was scattered and the students were pursued down Wall Street by the hard hats. Anyone who looked like a hippy was attacked.
The mob then descended on City Hall, where the flag was flying at half mast in response to the
massacre. Construction workers broke in and raised it at its full height.
They spent the rest of the day causing mayhem in the local area. Trinity Church, which had become a makeshift field hospital, was attacked and a Red Cross flag torn down, possibly because someone thought it looked communist. Windows where smashed at Pace University. The final casualty toll was 70 injured, most of whom required hospital treatment.
The story was that working class patriots, outraged by the desecration of the flag and the lack of loyalty from middle class students, had decided to take matters into their own hands. The 'silent majority' had spoken out. Republican politicians, who had spent most of the last decade condemning student activism of any kind, spoke out to congratulate the hard hats.Vice-President Spiro Agnew sent a message to union leader Peter Brennan congratulating him on "the impressive display in patriotism–and a spirit of pride in country that seems to have become unfashionable in recent years."
Well, for a start the protest was certainly not spontaneous. The hard hats weren't AWOL from work for a start. They were encouraged to leave their sites by their shop stewards, and promised they would still be paid. Some were reportedly offered a bonus. One witness inside Wall Street claimed to have seen two men in suits organising the attacks.
However the workers don't appear to have needed asking twice, and enthusiastically got stuck into bashing the hippies. But did that mean the working class supported the war?
Well, some clearly did, but polls throughout the period consistently show support for the US intervention was highest amongst the top wage earners, the parents of the protesting students, and lowest amongst those who actually went to fight and die in Vietnam, the working class, including the white working class.
The anti-war movement was certainly started by middle class students, but by 1970 it was far broader than that. Students for a Democratic Society, the group behind the big rallies in Berkeley and elsewhere, had fallen apart in 1969. The face of protest in the seventies was as likely to be a veteran from the Bronx throwing his medals away as a hippy from Haight-Ashbury making the peace sign.
Make America Great Again
The construction industry, heavily unionised and with relatively good pay and conditions, had traditionally been a whites-only job. However, in the 1960s this had changed. The parity index is a way of expressing the number of workers from a minority in a particular field with 100% meaning that the proportion was exactly the same as the general population. After a decade of affirmative action programs the parity index for construction work in New York in 1970 was 95%, meaning a very high level of integration.
However this had not gone down well with the unions. In March 1970 a proposal was put forward by Peter Brennan, President of the Construction Trades Council, that a separate apprenticeship centre be created for black workers, with the catch that neither Trade Union membership, nor a job, was on offer at the end of it. As a result of such intransigence, ten years after the Hard Hat Riot the parity index in the New York construction industry had fallen to 72%.
It is impossible to know how much, either consciously or unconsciously, race contributed to the events of 4 May 1970. But it looks likely that the riot was as much about defending white privilege at home as US imperialism abroad.
Violence On Many Sides
Before that happened Richard Nixon would be returned to the White House by a landslide. Nixon never had majority working class support. No modern Republican ever has, but with Republican voters remaining loyal even as crisis and scandal started to envelop him, even a small loss of traditional Democrat voters gave him the victory.
In the aftermath of the Hard Hat Riot, construction union leaders went to the White House and were warmly received. Peter Brennan became Nixon's Labor Secretary.
smug middle class who weren't, has certainly stuck. Just think of how Vietnam is portrayed in popular culture: Rambo is working class, 'Hawkeye' Pierce (literally in Korea, but metaphorically in Vietnam) is middle class.
But in real life it was the Donald Trumps of the world who supported Vietnam, whilst dodging the draft themselves on spurious grounds, and the likes of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July) who opposed it. The student protesters, like the hard hatted rioters, were remarkable in that they acted out of character.
In the end though normal services were resumed. Brennan had to leave government after Watergate. He returned to his roll with the union, but the next Republican elected to President was not as kind to him as Nixon. Reagan's war on organised labour saw 100,000 non-unionised contractors enter the construction market.
Despite the many similarities, one thing that distinguishes Trump, and Nixon, from Hitler is they did not have an army of street thugs at their disposal.
However the Hard Hat Riot showed that such a force was there if Nixon had wanted to use it. Events in Charlottesberg show that Trump has such an army too. His refusal to condemn the murder of Heather Hayer shows he does not necesarily rule this out. If so, let's be quite clear what this would be: American fascism born, not on the 4th of July, but on 8th May 1970.
Construction Workers U.S.A. by Herbert A. Applebaum
The Seventies Unplugged by Gerrad DeGroot