Friday morning, I followed my usual routine, walking south along Park Row from the Chambers Street subway station. As I passed City Hall, I sensed an ominous difference. Construction workers had gathered at City Hall Park. They loitered there talking, smoking and drinking coffee. “Funny,” I thought. “Shouldn’t they be at work?”
When I reached the office, I mentioned this to my boss, Don Lamont.
He replied, “You know John, I came from the PATH Station and I saw the same thing by the construction site for the World Trade Center. I didn’t see anyone working. Instead the men were milling around at ground level.”
“Don, do you mind if I don’t go on any surveys today? I have a funny feeling this is related to the scheduled protests and I want to go out on the street to see what happens.”
“Okay, but for God’s sake, don’t get hurt.”
I promised him I would be careful as I left the office. I crossed Park Row and joined the construction workers gathered in City Hall Park. It was about 10:30 AM. Many had abandoned coffee for beer. Since I was dressed in a jacket and tie, I did not try to mingle with them, instead I listened in to snatches of conversation as I walked toward Broadway.
That damn Lindsay has the flag at half-mast.”… “The union wants us to show Lindsay what they think of him.”… “Too bad the Guardsmen didn’t kill a few more of those punks.”… “We are supposed to go to Battery Park at 11:00 AM.
They were angry, very, angry. These snatches of conversation with their expletives deleted barely reflect the extent of their anger.
The Times reported that the mayor’s office and the police had received warnings Thursday evening that a massive counter-demonstration by construction workers had been planned for Friday involving carpenters, iron workers, electricians, tin knockers, plumbers and masons. I don’t have a clue how it started.
I do know these men considered themselves fiercely patriotic, hard-working Americans. It was their brothers, cousins, sons or friends who were slugging it out in Viet Nam while these “children of privilege” and their “Negro friends” demonstrated, protested and rioted. They boiled every time the evening news showed students denouncing their own as “baby killers” while trashing the beautiful campuses these working men would never experience. They boiled watchingtheir flag, their country, their values being trashed by malcontents that they could not understand.
The shootings at Kent State were not a tragedy to them, no siree, “It was payback time, baby.” They didn’t care how the media reacted because they didn’t trust the media. But when these kids started taking to the streets, their streets, it was time for them to take back their streets.
I made my way south on Broadway toward Battery Park, but I stopped when I reached Wall Street where a group of student protesters was gathering. They were already blocking Wall Street from Exchange Place to Broad Street. I walked over to watch, most sat on the pavement, peaceful and quiet. One of their leaders distributed instructions explaining how to act when the television crews arrived. Others gave out written instructions on what to do when arrested including phone numbers for the ACLU and other like-minded organizations. I was handed a copy and I recall thinking how professional it seemed to be. The police were there in moderate numbers. They stood in groups, talking with each other in that bored cop fashion. None wore helmets and I did not see riot control gear although it could have been concealed near-by.
A buzz began to make its way through the demonstrators. Construction workers were massing at Battery Park and were going to break-up this protest. A sense of determination followed. The crowd drew closer together taking strength from each other. Feeling the tension, I decided I did not like where I was standing. The streets were too crowded as office workers on lunch breaks had filled the intersection to observe the demonstrators. If there was panic, I would be trapped. My escape instinct led me to walk over to a nearby subway entrance that led to the mezzanine level. I popped down to confirm it was deserted and provided a passageway that headed north under Nassau Street. Here was an escape route.
With this knowledge, I re-emerged from a different staircase, this one next to the J.P. Morgan Bank directly across from the Subtreasury Building. I stood on the top step and leaned on the Morgan Bank wall.
It was shortly after noon when the construction mob boisterously made its way up Broad Street. They wore hard hats and carried sticks, bats and tools. Onlookers and office workers parted as the mob approached Wall Street. They reached the intersection, hesitated and stopped. They chanted “USA, USA, USA”, but a thin line of police stood between the hard hats and the protestors. Behind the police, a mixed crowd occupied the steps of the Subtreasury Building.
The steps were crowded with onlookers surrounding the bronze statue of George Washington. I watched as a solitary figure stepped out from behind the statue. He was nondescript, short, slight, wearing glasses, a sports jacket and a tie. He looked like a college professor. Standing in front of the statue, he drew an American flag from inside his jacket and unfurled it. The beginnings of a cheer started from the construction workers and onlookers, but then the man extracted a knife from his pocket. He held the knife over his head then, he hacked at the flag ripping and tearing it.
“Jesus,” I said out loud, “are you nuts?”
The workers closest to the steps broke through the police, grabbed this guy and dragged him down from the steps beating and clubbing him as they threw him to the ground. The police picked him up rushing him to a waiting patrol car. He was a mess, bruised and bleeding, his clothes were torn and stained with his blood.
That was all that the construction workers needed. In a rage, they charged into the protestors, cursing and kicking while swinging clubs and bats. The students were standing by then and scattered in front of this onslaught. The lucky ones ran north on Nassau Street. Most tried to retreat west on Wall Street to Broadway. Waiting for them was another worker contingent who had marched up Broadway.
These patriots did their best to beat as many of the radicals as they could reach
The crowd was out of control. Cops could not contain the melee. So, instead, they formed a line diagonally across the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets forcing the crowd to separate and move in different directions. I decided it was time to leave and I re-entered the subway making my way north along the still deserted passageway under Nassau Street away from the fighting.
My intention was to tell Don what I had experienced, but when I turned onto Park Row, I saw the mob rushing Pace University’s main building adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge. A peace banner hung from the roof and students stood in front of the building. The mob assaulted milling students, scattering them. The doors were locked, so they smashed the ground floor windows to enter the lobby. Several men made their way to the roof and cut the banner loose, sending it to the ground where it was torn apart and burned. Injured students dazed and bleeding made their way south on Park Row.
A young woman cried out to me as I passed her, “Why is this happening?”
The mob turned its attention across Park Row to City Hall and its flag hanging at half-mast. Hundreds of construction workers reached a line of wooden sawhorses the police had hastily erected. Maybe two dozen cops stood between the workers and City Hall. The workers chanted, “Raise the flag, raise the flag, raise the flag.”
To their delight, a custodian emerged onto the roof and raised the flag. Cheers erupted until an aide to Mayor Lindsay, Sidney Davidoff, crossed the roof and re-lowered the flag to its previous position.
Davidoff’s action produced an instant of silence. Then an animal sound erupted as the men broke through the wooden horses and assaulted the steps. The police could not hold and were pressed against the doors. Desperately, their commander begged the mayor to raise the flag.
Unfortunately, this moment of crisis found Lindsay not at City Hall, but miles uptown at Gracie Mansion. Deputy mayor, Richard Aurelio, chose to heed the police. Another custodian accompanied by two plain-clothes policemen raised the flag and the cops remained on the roof to assure that it remained at full staff. The mob stopped and cheered. They stood hats in hand to sing our National Anthem as alcohol fueled tears coated many cheeks. Contented with their victory, they broke into chants like, “ USA, USA, USA” and “Lindsay’s a Red” before dispersing to local bars.
The city was in shock. The scenes at Wall Street, Pace University and City Hall were replayed repeatedly on both local and national news. Relations between the Mayor and the police department were already strained. Now, Lindsay assailed the police performance. In return, the PBA blasted Lindsay. Essentially a no-win situation.
The reports on television were broadcast with the same tone of disbelief that followed the shootings.
But something had happened that day, something hidden in our psyche something we wanted to be alien to the American experience; “class warfare.”
The news had a strange effect on most Americans. They did not view the construction workers as thugs, nor the student protestors as innocents. They too had become fed up with all the attention college protestors were receiving. A groundswell of support for Nixon grew as millions of Americans watched the news from New York City.
Somebody in the Nixon camp gave it a label. A label to describe this growing force that up until now believed it was ignored by the media, ignored by the courts and by their own elected officials. A force here-to-fore without clout. A force that was considered old fashioned and out of touch. A force that on Friday had revealed itself in all its tainted glory. The label was “The silent majority.”
Part Four, After
The silent majority began to flourish that weekend.
Lower Manhattan was deserted over the weekend. On Monday, the construction workers roamed the financial district looking for non-existent radicals. This time they were joined by longshoremen whose union leaders ordered them off the piers and onto the streets. Lindsay had enough. By Tuesday, lower Manhattan was a police state. Helmeted tactical police force units lined the sidewalk temporarily preventing New Yorkers from engaging in their favorite pastime, jaywalking.
The following week, the trade unions were rewarded with a noisy parade down Broadway. Newly painted, freshly washed dump trucks, low boys, cement mixers, garbage trucks and other heavy-duty machines paraded down the “Great White Way.” Flags and patriotic slogans adorned the vehicles while “heroic” workers waved to the cheering crowd.
Nixon found his silent majority and an election landslide in the making. Lindsay slipped another notch in the eyes of most residents and four families remained on the sideline in mourning having buried their lost children shot dead at Kent State.
Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.
George Santana 1869-1952