Almost 50 years ago, in May 1971, Vietnam War protest leaders called for “May Day” protests in Washington, D.C. If the federal government would not stop the war, then the nation’s capital would be brought to a standstill — by non-violently clogging its major intersections with thousands of sitting protesters. That seemed like a grand idea to some college buddies and me. We didn’t think twice about driving to the district to join in.
It didn’t seem like a good idea, however, to the federal government under President Richard Nixon. At least 10,000 military troops (including 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division) and an almost like number of federal agents and police from the district and surrounding jurisdictions were waiting for us and the estimated 40,000 other protesters that initially amassed.
I saw no unruly acts by protesters, but on the first big day of protests — Monday, May 3 — tear gas was widely deployed and security forces drove motorcycles at those of us sitting in the streets, forcing many of us to jump to our feet. Many were chased and detained while just walking on the district’s sidewalks.
We then were quickly herded into smaller groups to board dozens of yellow school buses waiting nearby, to be driven to and corralled in the Washington Coliseum and a large, fenced football field next to RFK Stadium. In all, more than 12,600 people were arrested that day and over the next two days — distressingly swiftly and efficiently, albeit illegally in most cases. I and many others were charged with disorderly conduct, charges that largely were dismissed.
My point is this: When it comes to dealing with even just potentially unruly protesters in the district — let alone insurrectionists, such as we saw Jan. 6 at the Capitol — federal authorities have firmly had a playbook for a half-century or more. (Their actions in 1971 were outlined in a federal plan, dubbed “Operation Garden Plot,” developed in the 1960s to combat potential civil disorders.)
There now are widespread calls for a much-needed investigation into how the domestic terrorists could so easily have entered the Capitol to cause mayhem. And there are repeated comparisons to the overwhelming responses of authorities to much more recent and peaceful protests than the “May Day” actions, such as those by Black Lives Matter and climate activists.
We need an investigation, of course, but there’s likely little mystery here. The head of the Capitol Police and the sergeants of arms of both the Senate and the House have resigned. Indeed, these men appear to have failed in their duties, but the failure to secure the Capitol likely rests at the doorstep of the Defense Department — led by a recently appointed, unqualified toady of President Donald Trump, Christopher Miller — if not the White House.
Not only did the Pentagon not have troops or National Guard units on standby, evidence has emerged that the DOD stalled in responding to urgent requests to send in forces. President Trump claimed Thursday that he called in the National Guard, but reports indicate he didn’t lift a finger in that direction — Vice President Mike Pence eventually had to do it.
And in a news conference Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recounted how he tried in vain to get the top level of the DOD to authorize sending in the Maryland National Guard to counter the insurrection, but they did not even answer his phone calls. Finally, after a long wait, the secretary of the army gave him authorization, Hogan said.
The lack of preparation and the delayed response were not mere bureaucratic miscues. They were intentional. The Washington Post reported Jan. 7 that the “Pentagon placed tight limits on the D.C. National Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests this week, trying to ensure the use of military force remained constrained,” citing DOD memos issued Monday and Tuesday in advance of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol.
These memos, responding to requests for help from the D.C. mayor, “prohibited the district’s guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear” and taking other specific actions that would have helped them protect the Capitol. The Post also reported that, as the insurrectionists were gathering early Wednesday, the army denied a request by the chief of the Capitol Police for backup from 200 troops.
There remain many unanswered questions about the events leading up to and during the many acts of treason on Jan. 6. Already, however, it seems absolutely clear that the unprotected Capitol was an inside job — at the highest levels of our government.
Robert Benjamin is a former Baltimore Sun reporter and editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.