Wednesday, May 08, 2013

May 9, 1970: Living in the Moment

Note from Rebus: On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon went on television to announce that he had authorized the invasion of Cambodia. During the Saturday morning nine days later Rea drove his baby blue 1956 Cadillac to the demonstration in Washington D.C. he describes in this story. To document what would play out that day Rea took his new Ricoh 35mm single lens reflex.

Without much in the way of a plan two friends rode the 100 miles with Rea. Thousands of their fellow baby boomers did much the same. For the moment, it was the only place to be. The outpouring came in response to attacks by authorities on anti-war protests that had followed Nixon's announcement. Four students had been shot to death on the Kent State campus; two more students were killed at Jackson State. On Saturday, May 9, the demonstrators' collective sense of outrage was focused on Nixon.


The blistering heat added to the growing sense in the air that anything could happen. Before the program of speakers and singers began, as the burgeoning crowd was being funneled into the grassy ellipse south of the White House — the designated demonstration area — the morning’s temperature had already reached the upper 90s.

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. In those days crowd-estimators frequently let their politics color their numbers, so there may have been 200,000 there. 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 weeks in advance, if not months, this time it all fell together spontaneously. Many of them had never before marched in protest or support of war, or anything else, had felt moved to drop whatever they were doing, to set out for Washington, D.C. — to live in the moment.

As a convoy of olive drab 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 as thousands of citizens spilled out of the park area, to stretch a line of humanity all the way around the wall of buses. The idea in the air was that whether he liked it or not President Richard Nixon, who stayed hidden from view inside the White House, would at least 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. 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. If they weren't afraid that could happen, who knows what they were thinking?

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, briefly ... only to fade into the larger commotion.  

Soon the scent of tear gas spiced the air...

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 and Planned Parenthood.

Although it was not exactly a political rally the crowd assembled in Monroe Park, while much smaller, was rather similar in its overall 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, Wilmer Curtis Donivan Jr. -- a 17-year-old boy -- 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 may not have felt quite so moved to demonstrate his conquest of that old fountain. Witnesses said he was rocking it back and forth, just before it crumbled.

The way that Sunday afternoon’s be-in ended with tragedy was burned into the memory of hundreds of young Americans who had gathered outdoors, to celebrate being alive and free to pursue their happiness peacefully.

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.

All rights reserved by F.T. Rea. 
This story is part of a series of stories at Biograph Times. 
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