John Wilcock: Arch Rivals — Protesters and Cops


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July 1, 1965, Vol. X, No. 37

Dawn’s Early Light Saw Anti-War Banner on Arch

By John Wilcock

For about one hour early one morning last week a 30-foot banner fluttered from the top of Washington Square arch. Bearing the message END THE WAR IN VIETNAM in black letters on a white background it could be clearly read from several blocks up Fifth Avenue. Shortly after daybreak the banner was spotted by policemen in a patrol car from the Sixth Precinct who entered through a steel door at the foot of the arch, climbed the stairs to the roof and took it down.

Apparently the demonstrators broke the heavy padlock on the door and replaced it with a new one. This, in turn, was broken open by the policemen.

The assault on the arch took place at a time when the square is at its quietest — the hour before dawn — and was apparently unnoticed by the few idlers who were still in the area. Half a dozen burned-out candles were found at intervals on the dusty, narrow stairs which wind around the western leg of the arch and which culminate in a spacious room just below the roof. The arch is 88 feet high, its roof topped by a waist-high parapet from which the banner was suspended.

A spokesman for the demonstrators said: “We also had a pair of walkie-talkies with which we were going to equip our lookouts but at the last moment we just rushed in without bothering to watch. We were in the arch for about 20 minutes and thought that by relocking it up when we left that we’d delay removal of the banner for at least an hour or two. We called all the newspapers and news services to tell them about it but nobody came down and, so far as we know, nobody managed to get a picture before the banner was removed.”

Radio stations WMCA, WINS, and WNEW carried brief reports of the incident on early morning bulletins last Thursday.

Asked whether the action justified breaking into city property, the spokesman replied: “Of course! Immoral acts such as the burning, bombing and gassing innocent people under the guise of a holy war — against so-called Communism — must be protested in every possible manner by every human being who professes to believe in morality. The breaking of a padlock is a very minor act of civil disobedience compared with the napalm burning of a village.”

The speaker stressed that the demonstration at the arch was the act of “several concerned individuals” rather than that of an organized group.

Washington Square arch, designed by Stanford White, was built in 1890-1892 to replace an earlier one made of wood, also designed by the famous architect. Modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it cost $128,000 which was raised by public subscription to which the concert pianist Paderewski donated the proceeds of a tour he made.

A picture taken at the opening ceremony on April 5, 1892, shows White, together with other silk-hatted dignitaries (including William Rhinelander Stewart, chairman of the fund-raising committee, and its secretary, Richard Watson Gilder, poet-editor of County Magazine) atop the arch.

The Bible used in that ceremony was the one with which George Washington took his oath as president. The arch is fronted by two statues of Washington and bears his words: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God.”

One other notable gathering at the top of the arch was a legendary party in the ’20s attended by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter John Sloan.

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