It was Saturday, May 9, 1970.
Five days earlier four students had been shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus during a Vietnam War protest rally; three days later two more students were killed at Jackson State.
The White House grounds and Lafayette Park were surrounded by DC transit system buses, parked snugly end-to-end. Cops in riot gear were stationed inside the bus-wall perimeter every few yards.
Estimates ranged widely but most reports characterized the size of the crowd at well over 100,000. Home-made signs were everywhere, including a sprinkling of placards that denounced the mostly young war protesters. The smell of burning pot gave the gathering a Rock ‘n’ Roll festival feel, too.
Unlike the other large anti-war demonstrations of that era, which were planned for months, this time it all fell together spontaneously. People who had never marched in protest or support of anything before had been moved to drop what they were doing, to set out for Washington, D.C. — to live in the moment.
As a convoy of military vehicles drove into the park area many in the crowd booed. When it turned out the uniformed troops were bringing in bottled water for the thirsty, the booing stopped. Dehydration was a problem that cloudless day.
After the last speaker’s presentation the ever-present police stood by watching thousands of citizens spill out of the park area, to stretch a line of humanity all the way around the wall of buses. The idea was that whether he liked it or not President Richard Nixon, who stayed inside the White House, would hear the crowd’s anti-war chants.
The demonstration flowed north, then west, from one block to the next. Long lenses peered down from the roofs of those distinctively squat DeeCee buildings. An untold number of fully-equipped soldiers were crammed into basements, visible in the doorways, awaiting further orders. Many of them must have been scared they might be ordered to fire upon their fellow Americans.
Hippies who had been wading in a fountain to cool off scaled a statue to get a better look. A few minutes later a cheer went up because a determined kid had managed to get on top of a bus to wave a Viet Cong flag. When the cops hauled the flag-waving disposable hero off, a commotion ensued.
Soon the scent of tear gas spiced the air. This story’s teller was making a record of what he saw with his new 35mm single lens reflex.
The next day I was back in Richmond for yet another gathering of my generation. Staged in Monroe Park, Cool-Aid Sunday featured plenty of live music. Information booths and displays were set up by the Fan Free Clinic, Jewish Family Services, Rubicon (a dry-out clinic for drug-users), the local Voter Registrar’s office, Planned Parenthood, Crossroads Coffeehouse, etc.
Although it was not a political rally the crowd assembled in Monroe Park, while much smaller, was similar in its look to the one the day before in Washington.
As I remember it, there were no reports about anyone being seriously injured at Saturday’s tense anti-war demonstration. Then, ironically, a 17-year-old boy — Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. — was killed on Sunday in the park in Richmond, when a four-tier cast iron fountain he had scaled suddenly toppled.
The photograph of Donivan falling to his death that ran on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the next day, May 11, 1970, is one I’ll never forget.
No doubt, the convergence of strong feelings from the extraordinary week that had preceded Cool-Aid Sunday had set the scene. Shortly before Donivan fell, I remember seeing him on the fountain, seemingly caught up in much the same spirit as the hippies climbing on statues the day before.
Without that week’s unique momentum Donivan probably wouldn’t have felt quite so moved to demonstrate his conquest of that fountain. Witnesses said he was rocking it back and forth, just before it crumbled.
The way that Sunday afternoon’s be-in ended was burned into the memory of hundreds of Richmonders who were gathered in Monroe Park to peacefully celebrate being young and alive.
In those days the USA was becoming ever more bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. Every night on the televised news the death counts were announced -- numbers appeared next to little flags on the screen that represented the armed forces at war. It was a time in which living in the moment was killing off the young and unlucky … wherever they were.