hard hat riots

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March 8th 1970: Hard Hat Riot

On this day in 1970 construction workers in New York City attacked a group of protestors. The latter group, made up of around 1,000 students and others, were anti-war protestors moved to action by the shootings at Kent State University four days before which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. Around two hundred of the so-called ‘hard hats’, who supported President Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, took to the streets in a counter-protest. They were particularly incensed by the mayor’s decision to keep the City Hall flags at half mast in honour of the Kent State victims, a move they considered unpatriotic. Around seventy people were injured in the riot, but only six were arrested in the aftermath. President Nixon didn’t directly endorse the actions of the hard hats, but later was presented with a hard hat by a delegation of union leaders at the White House. The often-forgotten event is frequently buried in the narrative of this period of American history as a time of liberal protests. However the Hard Hat Riot reminds us that there was considerable conservative  opposition to these developments from people like these blue-collar New York workers.

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On May 4th, 1970 a little bit past noon the Ohio National Guard opened live fire on unarmed students at Kent State University. 67 rounds were fired in 13 seconds and at the end of it 4 students lay dead while 9 more were wounded. John Filo who was a photojournalism student at Kent University wound up taking one of the most iconic photographs of a generation, that of 14 year old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the lifeless body of Jeffery Miller. Vecchio had earlier befriended Alan Canfora(wounded) and Sandra Scheuer(killed) who were also caught up in the gunfire, in Scheuer’s case she had not even been taking part in the protests against the Cambodian campaign.

Following the the fatal shootings hundreds of universities and high schools around the country shut down as hundreds of thousands of students and teachers walked out in protest. Most protests while usually tense did remain generally peaceful, however there were numerous ones that turned violent, in fact just over a week later on May 15th state troopers in Mississippi opened fire and killed two at Jackson State College. In New York City on May 8th in what became known as the Hard Hat Riot almost 200 construction workers mobilized by the AFL-CIO attacked a group of about 1,000 students who had gathered to protest the shootings resulting in over 70 injuries(politics makes strange bed fellows. In this case you have a labor union organizing a mob against anti-war leftists while bankers and lawyers on nearby Wall St actually tried to shelter some of the students from the mob as the police were doing nothing and in some instances wound up being attacked themselves). A few days after the shooting more than 100,000 in Washington D.C and 150,000 in San Fransisco gathered to protest against the Vietnam war.