In the center wearing a tie? Outside agitator? Edgar Boyles
On May 8, 1970, construction workers violently disrupted a peaceful demonstration on Wall Street before marching to City Hall and Pace College. The event became known as the “Hard Hat Riot.” Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
This was something genuinely new, and raw. Even jaded viewers tuning in to the network news on May 8, 1970, must have been shocked to see helmeted construction workers waving enormous American flags and chanting “All the way, U.S.A.” as they tore through an antiwar demonstration in Manhattan’s financial district — all of it just days after four students had been shot dead by National Guardsmen during a peaceful protest at Kent State University in Ohio.
As they jubilantly raised their flags over the crowd and burst into a chorus of “God Bless America,” the mass of workers seemed, from a distance, to have restaged the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima. “It damn near put a lump in your throat,” said Joe Kelly, an elevator builder who was working on the World Trade Center. Cliff Sloane, a student interviewed later that month by The New York Times, felt differently. “If this is what the class struggle is all about,” he said, “there’s something wrong somewhere.”
Today, the chaotic scene looks like a harbinger of current divisions, which have only become deeper with the recent public health crisis and economic tailspin.
Back then, it looked like proof of something John Lindsay, New York’s mayor, had said earlier that week: “The country is virtually on the edge of a spiritual — and perhaps even a physical — breakdown.”
Lindsay’s remark came two days after the Kent State shootings, six days after President Richard M. Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia and five years after the deployment of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, where some 50,000 Americans had already been killed, with no end in sight. At home, there were racial uprisings in cities like Newark and Detroit, students occupied universities, women protested the Miss America pageant, and gay people fought with police at the Stonewall Inn.
Amid the turmoil, the “non-shouters” of Nixon’s “silent majority” thundered to life. The “Hard Hat Riot,” as it came to be known, created new visibility and possibilities for a right-wing populism that shaped American politics for decades to come. As the ground of white working-class identity shifted from economics to culture, it appeared that the new class war would be waged not against the old corporate robber barons but the impudent snobs of the cultural elite.
“Family life, some form of religion and patriotism — that’s how you get a proper understanding and respect for these matters,” said the second-generation dockworker and military veteran John Cooke about the nation’s divisions. Working men like Cooke felt silenced in the noise of the ’60s. They resented the erosion of the patriarchy, the rise of moral permissiveness and affirmative action programs meant to integrate their historically white union shops. To them, the social contract lay in tatters, torn up by liberals, a meddlesome government, and demands from African-Americans and coddled college students.
The workers weren’t alone in their sentiments. A poll released weeks after the hard-hat incident showed that Americans thought “campus unrest” was a bigger problem than the Vietnam War.
As Cooke put it, “Protest is the only thing that works today.”