THE HARD HAT RIOT: NIXON, NEW YORK CITY, AND THE DAWN OF THE WHITE WORKING CLASS REVOLUTION by David Paul Kuhn

Construction workers and antiwar protesters scuffled near Broad and Wall Sts. in May, 1970. (John Rooney/AP)
Construction workers and antiwar protesters scuffled near Broad and Wall Sts. in May, 1970. (John Rooney/AP)

For me, the first week of May 1970 was one of extreme personal conflict.  On May 4th, the nation witnessed the death of four Kent State student at the hands of the Ohio National Guard.  On May 8th New York City Mayor, John V. Lindsay ordered the lowering of the American flag to half staff at City Hall which provoked construction workers working on the World Trade Center and other sites in lower Manhattan to continue rioting that began on Wall and Broad Streets by attacking students, “hippies,” or anyone who looked like they disagreed with them.  Pace College, at which I was a student became a target that continued the violence that construction workers had been perpetuating for what seemed like for hours.  At Pace students were beaten, many to unconsciousness, chased into dorms, student centers and even the subways menaced by pipes, wrenches, and fists as the NYPD looked on in quiet amusement.  Later that night I learned that my United States Army Reserve unit stationed at St. John’s University in Queens, NY had been activated to deal with anti-war demonstrators.  The next day I found myself in riot gear, no longer a demonstrator, but a soldier ordered to defend our armory against students.  These events have receded from my generation’s memory but have been rekindled by David Paul Kuhn’s superb new study, THE HARD HAT RIOT: NIXON, NEW YORK CITY, AND THE DAWN OF THE WHITE WORKING CLASS REVOLUTION.

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(Pace University today, known as Pace College in May, 1970 when hard hats broke through these doors…..)

At a time when we have a president who raps himself in law and order as Richard Nixon did in the late 1960s and early 1970s basing his support on the white working class it is useful to turn the page and explore when this group which had been part of the Democratic Party coalition since the New Deal switched to the GOP.  Nixon was able to move the Republican Party from the “blue bloods” to the “blue collar” manipulating opposition to the war in Vietnam creating a new play book that is still be employed today – a focus on race, class, and ethnic hatred.  Kuhn correctly points out that 1968 was the “biggest year for students since 1848 – the year of student led revolutions in Europe.”  Kuhn builds upon the occupation of Columbia University led by SDS militants to explain the radicalization of college students across America, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as well as the Moratorium movement against the war.

Kuhn effectively explains the rise of a counter movement to those who opposed the war and the corporations and politicians who supported it.  He explores how blue-collar workers, many of whom fought in World War II and Korea, came to see college students as children of privilege, who had the socio-economic advantages that they did not have.  The war itself was being fought in the majority by children of blue-collar workers who were patriotic and believed in fighting against the communist threat.  Construction workers were the epitome of the blue-collar class as events unfolded in early May and they “saw privileged kids venting rage on working class guys trying to maintain order.”  For Kuhn what transpired was a developing class war which he carefully argues.

(Richard Nixon with his hard hat!)

Kuhn does a good job explaining historical events including the various movements that were against the war.  His analysis is important because it places the shootings at Kent State and events that followed in their historical context.  One of the most important issues was the decline of manufacturing in northern cities like New York which under Mayor Lindsay, the darling of progressives accelerated with increased immigration from Puerto Rico, and migration of southern blacks.  New York, like other cities would suffer from “white flight,” as education declined, crime and air pollution increased.  The plight of urban areas became part of the deindustrialization of America.  At this time, I was a high school student and experienced a subway strike, a garbage strike, and a teacher’s strike all within a 12-24 month period.  I witnessed muggings, racial unrest, and increased crime in my Brooklyn neighborhood, all fodder for Nixon’s “law and order campaigns” in 1968 and 1972.

The decline of New York City is carefully explained, and Kuhn disagrees with the argument that it was due to “white flight” as he points out  that blacks were trying to migrate to the suburbs in as much as whites.  As a result, the city became a haven for white collar jobs, but its labor force was blue collar.  Many historians argue that Nixon developed a “southern strategy,” but Kuhn argues that it was more of a “Middle America” strategy focusing on events and policies that hurt “the Silent Majority” in the middle of the country.  The anti-war movement, poverty, urban unrest, all led to class conflict which Nixon was able to exploit.  People saw upper class rich kids demonstrating while they suffered economically.  The result Middle America represented by blue-collar workers found their voice in Richard Nixon as opposed to John Lindsay, who represented the elitist liberal establishment.

(New York Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1965)

In all, most soldiers who fought in Vietnam were whites with blue-collar or poorer backgrounds.  This led to more affluent whites being less likely to serve and die in Vietnam.  The military had traditionally offered a pathway to societal respect, Vietnam killed that.  In examining the rise of John Lindsay in New York it is clear his appeal was based on social class in terms of poverty, racism, and the anti-war movement making him the darling of the New Left.  The problem was that “high minded sympathy did not extend to the city’s [white] blue collar workers.”  The result was the creation of a disaffected blue collar working class that would explode in early May.

Kuhn exhibits a firm grasp of labor and immigration history and how they affected the development of New York from the 1840s onward. In his discussion, Kuhn emphasizes socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, and religion.  As the decades passed especially after World War II, blue collar workers categorized elites as looking down on them and  “saw hypocrites telling them to bear burdens that others benefited from more and had not yet answered for, or would not, or could not afford to ever face, and yet still stood on soapboxes and morally judged them.”

Lindsay just exacerbated blue collar anger with his support for the anti-war movement and praising demonstrators in his speeches.  Lindsay’s New York was part of the tense emotions that Kuhn captures that existed across America.  With fire bombings on campuses, demonstrations, and riots in reaction to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia producing incendiary rhetoric on the part of the President in a  country that was a tinderbox.

When May 7, 1970 arrived with the funeral of Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed at Kent State  it was clear trouble was afoot as protestors and construction workers skirmished on Wall Street and rumors persisted that these workers were planning to teach these “kids” a lesson.  This would come to fruition the next day and forms the core of Kuhn’s narrative.

Kuhn relies on NYPD archives which include 324 interviews that were conducted after the events of May 8th.  What was clear is that the police tended to ignore the rioting and violence perpetuated by construction workers against students and anyone who appeared as if they supported them.  He is able to piece together a coherent narrative of the mayhem that  transpired on Wall Street, Broadway, culminating at City Hall Park and Pace College.  The demonstrators believed in the false assumption that police were there to protect them.  I myself witnessed repeated beatings while police turned away.  If I were to compare my memory of events at City Hall and Pace, they dove tail completely with Kuhn’s description.  Kuhn is to be commended for delving into the archives and recreating what can only be described as construction workers run amuck, beating people, many indiscriminately for hours while New York’s finest, even when people pleaded with them to intervene, did extraordinarily little.

An area of interest for me is the investigation that took place after the rioting and what emerged.  It is clear from Kuhn’s presentation that the NYPD’s probe of its own department buried evidence of police malfeasance and minimized witness consensus.  It contained numerous rationalizations for their lack of law enforcement.  It blamed what transpired on “understaffing, the instigating students, the limited range of handheld radios, the unprecedented nature of the confrontation.”  Further, the NYPD found no evidence that labor leaders planned the riot, and that it caught fire based on hard hats being antagonized by “hippies.”  Kuhn concludes that the hard hat “tantrum” was essentially spontaneous and not, as some believed, part of some grand conspiracy.

The biggest winner from the events of May 8 – 20 was Richard M. Nixon.  The hard hats would become part of his base, poached away from the Democrats.  The GOP, the party of big business was now making inroads with labor.  One of Kuhn’s most important themes deals with blue collar activism which buoyed Nixon by the end of the summer, 1970.  Patrick Buchanan, then one of his advisors argued that Democratic swing voters were law and order believers, conservative on social issues like busing, crime, affirmative action, but progressive on domestic issues, i.e., Medicare, social security.  Buchanan successfully argued that if the Republicans held the political center, they would win big in 1972, which turned out to be the case.  Union heads like George Meany and Peter Brennan swung their support to Nixon as the hard hat riot created the initial bond between a Republican president and Democratic union members that continued under Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and formed the base of support for Donald Trump.

Kuhn has written a masterful and riveting study.  At times repetitive, particularly when describing the hard hat riot, but this should be overlooked when evaluating the overall depth and quality of Kuhn’s narrative.  Kuhn has written the seminal work on the topic which should stand the test of time.  If you are seeking an explanation for class conflict that evolved decades later into an issue exploited by Donald Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to win the White House, Kuhn’s research and ultimate outcome should open your eyes.

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