Dec 12, 2023

The 1970 riot that anticipated today’s culture wars

A key moment leading to the culture wars now ripping through American politics came on May 8, 1970, in New York City. That day, a riot broke out. While it is little-remembered today, more than a half-century later, it was a precursor to the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In the eight days preceding the 1970 riot, President Richard M. Nixon had announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Young people opposed to the seemingly endless and ever-escalating war responded with protests on college campuses. When the Ohio National Guard was called in to disperse student activists at Kent State University on May 4, they opened fire, killing four students and wounding nine others.

Four days later, on a chilly, drizzly, spring morning in New York, about a thousand protesters, including two of my friends, gathered in Lower Manhattan to protest both the war and the Kent State killings. They were mostly students.

Around noon, near the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street, more than 400 construction workers — steamfitters, ironworkers, plumbers and other laborers from nearby construction sites like the emerging World Trade Center — attacked the student demonstrators.

The construction workers carried U.S. flags and chanted "USA, all the way," and "America, love it or leave it." They chased the students through the streets — attacking those who looked like hippies with their hard hats, tools from their workplaces and their steel-toe boots.

As David Paul Kuhn reports in "The Hardhat Riot," the police did little to stop the mayhem. Some even egged on the thuggery. When a group of construction workers moved menacingly toward the students, a patrolman reportedly shouted, "Give ’em hell, boys. Give ’em one for me!"

The construction workers who attacked the demonstrators and the police who encouraged them were more likely to have family and friends in Vietnam than the college students who demonstrated. Many police and construction workers were veterans of World War II and Korea, and many came from the same White working-class neighborhoods.

The construction workers then stormed a barely protected City Hall where the mayor's staff, to the rioters’ rage, had lowered the flag in honor of the Kent State dead. They pushed their way to the top of the steps and attempted to gain entrance, chanting "Hey, hey, whatcha say? We support the USA!"

Fearing the mob would break in, a person from the mayor's staff raised the flag.

The mob then ripped down the Red Cross flag that was hanging at nearby Trinity Church because they associated the flag with the antiwar protests. They stormed the newly built main Pace University building, smashing lobby windows and beating students and professors with their tools.

They despised the protesters as a bunch of pampered, longhaired, draft-dodging, flag-desecrating snots, and they resented the college kids with draft deferments. While not all of the them actively supported the war, they collectively saw themselves as patriots, and they saw antiwar demonstrators — who sometimes, if rarely, set fire to the American flag at their protests — as anti-American.

With the American flag raised at City Hall, and the Red Cross flag at Trinity torn down, the mollified mob eventually dispersed. More than 100 people were wounded. Most victims were White male college students in their early 20s, though a quarter were women. Seven police officers were also hurt. Most of the injured required hospital treatment. Six people were arrested, including five student protesters and one construction worker.

Mayor John Lindsay condemned the violence and criticized the police for failing to stop it. The NYPD responded by accusing Lindsay of undermining public confidence in the police.

Seeing the potential to win over what had been a crucial Democratic constituency, Nixon moved immediately to exploit the hard-hat riot. His Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote in his journal, "The college demonstrators have overplayed their hands, evidence is the blue-collar group rising up against them, and [the] president can mobilize them."

Winning the backing of construction workers was about far more than Nixon's efforts to gain support for an increasingly unpopular war. It was about fundamentally realigning the constituencies of the Republican and Democratic parties. Patrick Buchanan, then a Nixon aide, wrote a memo to his boss, saying "blue-collar Americans" were "our people now."

But rather than pushing pro-labor policies to court workers, which would go against the GOP's pro-business values, Nixon sought to use cultural issues like patriotism and support for the troops to drive a wedge between factions of the Democratic Party.

Within three weeks of the riot, Nixon hosted a delegation of 22 union leaders, representing more than 300,000 tradesmen, at the White House. They presented Nixon with several hard hats and a flag pin. While Nixon did not explicitly reference the riot, he praised the "labor leaders and people from Middle America who still have character and guts and a bit of patriotism," and made references to his own father's various blue-collar jobs.

Nixon's strategy to use the hard-hat riot to appeal to blue-collar voters paid off. In his 1972 reelection campaign against the antiwar Democrat George McGovern, Nixon secured an easy victory and gained the majority of votes from organized labor.

The hard-hat riot revealed a deep split in America's left — in the coalition of workers and liberals that Franklin D. Roosevelt had knitted together in the 1930s, and in the wished-for alliance of Black Americans, liberals and blue-collar Whites in the aftermath of Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide 1964 reelection.

Nixon's new "blue-collar strategy" overlapped with his "Southern strategy" to play upon racial division to court White Southerners who had previously voted Democratic, but opposed Democrats’ embrace of the civil rights movement. Nixon's use of this intersection of class- and race-based animus for political gain arguably marked the first volley in America's culture wars.

The journalist Pete Hamill observed at the time that White working-class people felt "trapped and, even worse, in a society that purports to be democratic, ignored," and that the riot was an expression of rage in the face of feeling ignored. Burdened by an economy no longer delivering the possibility of upward mobility, they resented governmental efforts to (rightfully) address racial inequality, which they feared would come at their expense.

The economic needs of working Americans don't differ dramatically across racial lines. Workers all seek living wages, safe working conditions and affordable health care. But Nixon's strategy singled out the White working class as a distinct political identity and inflamed White workers’ distrust of both workers of color and those with college degrees.

These tensions would worsen over the next half-century as White Americans without college degrees began falling further behind economically. I witnessed this when I was secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. I spent much of my time in the Midwest and other parts of the country where blue-collar workers felt abandoned in an economy dominated by Wall Street. I saw their anger and resentment. I heard their frustrations. The nation could have responded, but it did not.

Following in Nixon's path, today's Republican Party continues to frame itself as the party of the working class, even while opposing pro-worker policies like paid leave, raising the minimum wage and protecting the right to organize. The GOP is again using culture wars to excite this base, this time by rallying against the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBTQ+ community and whatever the right considers "woke." The strategy was successful in 1972, and has worked in various elections at various levels in the years since. The outcome of the 2024 elections probably will hinge on whether it will work again.