Saturday in New York: Merging of Messages, Proliferation of Protest
May 2, 1968
I remember a year ago, when the march began in the Sheep Meadow, and the people walked through the midtown streets until they came to the plaza of the United Nations to hear the man they now mourn repeat as a litany, “Stop the Bombing!” Last Saturday, half a world away, the bombs still fell on the rutted earth of Vietnam, and the people came back to the Sheep Meadow, now to hear the widow of Martin Luther King speak of the road ahead.
“My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin,” she said. “The inter-relatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all the devastating potential.”
The mood of the demonstration this April was confident yet cautious. There was not the same exhilaration in finding many thousands of people of like minds together, for it was no surprise. In 12 months peace had become popular. Lyndon Johnson had announced his retirement, and powerful candidates were campaigning for peace. Now the Mayor greeted the march, and reiterated his call for an end to the war. Finally there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.
So encouraged, 90,000 people came to the Sheep Meadow last Saturday to press for final resolution.
“You who have worked with and loved my husband so much,” Mrs. King said to the people, “you who have kept alive the burning issue of war in the American conscience, you who will not be deluded by talk of peace, but who will press on in the knowledge that the work of peacemaking must continue until the last gun is silent… I come to you in my grief only because you keep alive the work and dreams for which my husband gave his life.”
Helicopters circled noisily overhead as the two massive feeder marches poured into Central Park and filled the 12-acre Sheep Meadow as a diverted river might create a lake. More than 120 groups were represented at the march: veterans, draft resisters, religious groups, the black community, the Puerto Rican community, women’s groups, labor groups, professional groups, and a mammoth contingent of high school and college students, primed for the occasion by a national student strike against the war on Friday. The marchers remained in the Sheep Meadow for more than three hours, to hear more than 20 speakers and entertainers from the platform built on the hill on the south side of the Meadow.
Although a separate group, the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which split with the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee in protest over Mayor Lindsay’s appearance at the demonstration, encountered police violence at Washington Square, the Sheep Meadow rally was not marred by serious violence. There were, however, several incidents involving a group of pro-war youths who infiltrated the march.
Shortly before the main groups of peace marchers arrived, a group of 150 youths, many waving American flags, charged up a hill on the southwest corner of the meadow toward a large banner reading “Revolutionary Literature” which had been set up by the Socialist Workers Party. They crashed through the banner and scattered the literature.
Purely by coincidence, coming up the other side of the hill were the survivors of the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which had lost 80 members to the police at Washington Square. The Coalition, which includes Youth Against War and Fascism and the U.S. Committee to Aid the NLF, marched behind a banner which read “The Streets Belong to the People,” and carried several NLF flags and placards of Che Guevara. The attacking youths seemed astonished, but charged ahead, and the two groups clashed, fists swinging. It was a melee, as police rushed in to break up the fight. The pro-war youths pulled back to the top of the hill, where they burned an NLF flag, and the Coalition pushed across the now crowded meadow, their flags and placards bobbing above the heads of the demonstrators.
The Coalition rallied among the trees at the east side of the Sheep Meadow and told demonstrators about the police action at Washington Square. Meanwhile, the pro-war group circled around the south side of the meadow and a few minutes later attacked again. Several fistfights were broken up by police, and the attackers, some still carrying American flags, pulled back. While people from the main rally urged the Coalition to return to the Sheep Meadow, the two groups hurled sticks, cans, and handfuls of sod at each other. The Coalition chanted, “Remember Washington Square!” and “Up Against the Wall,” and the pro-war group yelled, “Why don’t you go to Vietnam?” and “Support Our Boys in Vietnam.” The police finally persuaded the pro-war group to leave the park.
Meanwhile, Mayor Lindsay had arrived at the rally, where he was greeted by loud applause and scattered booing. He spoke briefly, reaffirming his opposition to the war and his support for the men who are fighting in Vietnam.
Other speakers included the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Franz Schurmann, Professor of East Asian Studies at Berkeley, who described his recent trip to Hanoi, actress Viveca Lindfors, who spoke of a recent meeting with North Vietnamese and NLF women in Paris, Linda Morse of the Student Mobilization Committee, and Michael Ferber of the Resistance.
Near the end of the rally, a group of students from Columbia urged demonstrators to join them in a march to the site of the controversial gym construction in Morningside Park. They led a group of about 1500 demonstrators out of the west side of the meadow, and began to march up the West Drive of Central Park. Soon several mounted policemen began to follow the group. A student with a bullhorn said that they would follow the West Drive up to 108th Street, unless the were stopped by police, in which case the demonstrators should disperse and reassemble outside Columbia. Several blocks later, they were stopped by police who ordered them to disperse, and the demonstrators left the West Drive and walked over the grass to the west wall of the park which they helped each other climb. The student with the bullhorn gave subway instructions, and the group slowly began to disperse, most of them walking slowly up the sidewalk on Central Park West.
But the police began to arrive in force, in many patrol cars and with several paddy wagons. Police were pushing the marchers on from behind, and at 84th Street their path was blocked by more police. A paddy wagon pulled up and plainclothesmen began to arrest the marchers. I counted 20 who were led or shoved into the wagon. The remaining marchers rushed over the park wall and climbed up a steep rocky hill on the edge of the park, and dispersed among the trees on the top of the hill, they chanted “Sieg Heil!” at the plainclothes police, who were still catching marchers. Suddenly, the police leaped over the wall and began to scramble up the steep hill in pursuit of the marchers, who fled into the woods. The plainclothesmen caught a few and dragged them, half sliding themselves, down the hill to the waiting wagons.
An hour later, about 500 of the marchers assembled on 116th Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Avenues. The demonstration at the gym site — a handbill, printed by the United Black Front, said they were going to fill in the hole — had been called off because of the number of police in the area, and students from the “liberated areas” on campus came out to address the marchers from a mall on the third story of the building overlooking 116th Street.
A student spoke to the marchers through a bullhorn and said that the Strike Committee asked that they not attempt to enter the campus. The marchers applauded. Then he introduced former SDS National Chairman Tom Hayden who, the student said, was also chairman of Mathematics Liberated Area.
“The morale inside the five liberated areas is fine,” Hayden told the marchers. “There is plenty of food. The barricades are built firmly and strongly. We are prepared to resist until the end.”
Hayden said that the back windows of the Math Area were open overlooking Broadway, and there was a dialogue going on with people in the street. “You can go over to Broadway if you want to talk to people inside the building,” he said. “The discussions are good. That’s the way to get in.
“There has been no political break in the situation, so the students have no alternative but to hold on. Their existence and resistance is on the line.
“This situation is one in which Vietnam is coming home to America. This situation is one in which those people who claim to be the administrators in this society call in the police to protect them from their own people.
“This should be an example to you. The best way you can express your solidarity is to spread this through the city and country, to spread this so there won’t be enough police to deal with the situation.
“If we go down,” Hayden concluded, “we want the rest of the city to go down with us.” It was a weekend in which the issues seemed to merge. The rally in Sheep Meadow was a demonstration against the war, but at the same time it was used to enlist support for projects ranging from the Poor People’s Campaign to nuclear disarmament to the student occupation of Columbia. Mrs. King not only called for an end to the war, but called upon Congress to restore the recent cuts in the welfare section to the Social Security amendments, and asked that Congress establish a guaranteed annual income.
“Never in the history of this nation,” she said, “have the people been so forceful in reversing the policy of our government in regard to war. We are indeed on the threshold of a new day for the peacemakers.
“But just as conscientious action has reversed the tide of public opinion and government policy, we must now turn our attention and the soul force of this movement of people of good will to the problems of the poor here at home.…
“With this determination,” she concluded, “with this faith, we will be able to create new homes, new communities, new cities, a new nation — yes, a new world which we desperately need.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 2020