The day hippies prevented violence at the Pentagon

by carl on November 29, 2012

by Carl Stieren

Button from 1967: a dove imprisoned in a Pentagon

On October 21, 1967, I stood outside the Pentagon in a nonviolent protest against the War in Vietnam. We had been told by the march organizers that if we didn’t want to be tear-gassed –  or arrested – we should stay away from the front of the building. I chose to protest at the side of the Pentagon.

At our side of the building, there was one line of men with rifles – we were told they were U.S. marshals and many were very young – our age, it seemed. They stood behind a snow fence that had been put up as a line that we should not cross.

At first, it seemed to me like classic nonviolent protest: the purpose seemed to be to create a line and then anyone of us crossing it would be committing a crime knowingly and would be arrested voluntarily and go to jail. But with those guarding the Pentagon in uniforms on their side of the fence and us in multicolored clothing with The Bread and Puppet Theater, marching bands and songs on the other, it seemed almost like street theater. Both groups –  those guarding the Pentagon and those protesting – seemed to be playing a game with certain rules. When someone broke those rules, no one knew what would happen.

Then the rules went out the window. Just before our group from Chicago arrived on the scene, some protesters had trampled down the snow fence and people were coming closer and closer to the marshals and their rifles.

Behind us were Puerto Rican nationalists, and they were angry. They were chanting independence slogans for Puerto Rico and taunting the troops. The rest of the group was peaceful, but did not know what to do.

What saved us from a violent confrontation with the troops by a few of the demonstrators was a line of hippies, holding hands and swaying at the front of the rest of the protesters. They were chanting “Peace” and swaying back and forth and smiling. They gently kept the angry protesters away from the U.S. marshal. And no, I did not see any of them put a flower in the barrel of any gun. I suspect this group would NOT have done that for fear of spooking an armed marshal pointing a rifle in the direction of the crowd.

What a federal marshal would have seen from behind a gun was this:

  1. A row of gentle, dancing hippies chanting “peace”
  2. Row upon row of peaceful demonstrators with signs saying “Children are not for burning,” “Withdraw U.S. Troops Now” and “Stop Bombing”
  3. A final row of angry Puerto Rican demonstrators shouting against U.S. imperialism or U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico.

It wasn’t perfect, but I am convinced it prevented a violent confrontation that could have gone viral at our part of the line around the Pentagon.

Later, in 1995, I read what Robert S. McNamara wrote in his memoirs about the 1967 March on the Pentagon:

“… I could not help but think that had the protesters been more disciplined – Gandhi-like – they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down. All they had to do was lie on the pavement around the building. We would have found it impossible to remove enough of them fast enough to keep the Pentagon open.”

In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, by Robert S. McNamara

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