In the days after May 4, 1970, the date the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, anti-war activists were galvanized. In demonstrations held across the country, the protesters mourned the deaths of their compatriots but also felt emboldened to continue the fight to end a war that had no end in sight. They sought to show the rest of the world (and themselves) that they weren’t alone—that millions of people agreed the war must end, and that the administration of President Richard Nixon be held accountable.
The next day, college students in New York City gathered with nearly 1,000 demonstrators to protest at the United Nations. In the wake of the massacre rapidly becoming a national flashpoint, Mayor John Lindsay, who had spoken against the war at the 1968 Republican National Convention, ordered the flag at City Hall flown at half-mast in the Kent State students’ memory. The backlash began soon after.
On May 6, protesting students at City College met resistance from a small group of construction workers, some of whom self-identified themselves as Vietnam veterans, a preview of what would come later that week. Two days later, hundreds of local students gathered in the morning for a memorial demonstration in Lower Manhattan, eventually moving towards Federal Hall, the historic site where George Washington first took the oath of office as President. At this spot, in front of a statue of Washington, the protesters reiterated their commitment to ending the war. Then, chaos descended on the peaceful scene, as nearly 200 construction workers arrived at the protest bearing patriotic signs and, according to a New York Times report on the incident, chants of “All The Way, U.S.A.” and “Love It or Leave It.”
The workers quickly pushed through a line of mostly indifferent police officers to get to the protesters, charging at, according to the Times, students who closely resembled the stereotypical longhaired hippie that had come to symbolize opposition to the war. About 70 people were injured in the scuffle. The construction workers marched on through the narrow streets of the Financial District towards City Hall, where they sang the Star-Spangled Banner and demanded that Mayor Lindsay raise the flags to full-mast; they eventually got their way.
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Penny Lewis, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, argues that the event that would come to be known as the Hard Hat riot came to symbolize the ‘hippie versus longhair’ debate in popular culture. “Seared into our collective memory,” she writes in Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, “the image of hardhats assaulting antiwar protestors in May 1970 crystallized long-standing popular narratives about class, race, and protest in this country.”
But to leave it there, Lewis writes, is to miss that the Hard Hat Riot was more than just the straightforward narrative of ‘construction worker versus longhair.’ It was a convergence of genuine pro-Nixon sentiment, an administration eager to capitalize on a nation in crisis, and the dawn of a political realignment that would shape the nation's direction for generations.
Born in 1918, Peter J. Brennan lived most of his life in New York City. Raised by a single mother after his ironworker father died of influenza, Brennan went to City College and apprenticed as a painter, and after serving in the Navy during World War II, was elected to a leadership position in his local painter’s union, and he quickly climbed the ladder of organized labor—by the late 1950s, he was president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice president of the New York State AFL-CIO.
Brennan, as one of New York City’s most prominent labor leaders, often clashed with Mayor Lindsay’s administration. A liberal Republican, Lindsay ran on a platform of progressive change for New York, and pushed for New York’s trade unions to adopt affirmative action and non-discrimination policies. Many union officials, including Brennan, saw this as an overreach on Lindsay’s part, and rank-and-file union members, who were overwhelmingly white, resisted integration. Brennan cannily used this paradigm to his own political advantage; he positioned the labor movement as anti-anti-war as a way to cleave its members away from other racially progressive platforms.
Days after the riot, Brennan asserted that the construction workers acted on their own volition, and not motivated only by a love for country and president.
“The unions had nothing to do with it, he said in an interview. “The men acted on their own. They did it because they were fed up with violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat at the American flag and desecrated it.”
The Nixon administration likewise framed the counter-protest as a genuine, and organic, expression of support for the war. But in reality, the administration, in concert with New York labor leaders, had helped coordinate the counterprotest and several more that would take place throughout May. Both the president’s advisors and many labor leaders saw promise in putting forth the traditionally Democrat-aligned labor unions as a counteracting force to the rapidly growing number of anti-war protesters.
Several days before the eruption of violence in New York, Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman suggested to the president that construction workers, or ‘hard hats,’ be used to create conflict. Local shop stewards, according to sources who spoke out years later, specifically encouraged workers to counter-protest the May 8 demonstration, in some cases even offering them cash bonuses to do so.
By the time of Brennan’s death in 1996, obituary writers presented it as a given fact that he had personally helped orchestrate the melee.
Further demonstrations in the days after May 8 proved that many in the city did genuinely support the war. In The Ungovernable City, an account of Lindsay’s time as mayor, historian Vincent Cannato points out that some veterans and relatives of veterans found Lindsay’s personal opposition to the war offensive, while others felt anger about what they saw as disrespect on the part of anti-war protesters.
The riot got Brennan and other Nixon-friendly labor leaders invited to the White House—in Nixonland, writes Rick Perelstein, the president himself was overjoyed by the riot, even exclaiming “Thank God for the hard hats!”
Brennan, who clearly recognized the importance of the moment, presented Nixon himself with a white hard hat, which he called “a symbol, along with our great flag, of freedom and patriotism to our beloved country.” In the same moment, writes University of Massachusetts, Amherst historian Christian G. Appy, Brennan also pinned a small American flag made of enamel onto Nixon’s lapel, making him the first president to adopt the flag as part of his uniform. “The flag pin,” writes Appy, “was not an emblem of national unity, but a political badge as intentionally confrontational as the peace symbol.
After the “hard hat riot,” the pro-war demonstrations in New York continued. On Saturday, May 11, more than 150,000 supporters of Nixon’s policies marched in the streets, though many of the signs and chants indicated that the event was less a show of support for the war in Vietnam and more a direct rebuke of Lindsay’s mayoral administration—“Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi” and “Lindsay for President of North Vietnam,” some signs read.
The riot ended up serving as a launching pad for Peter Brennan’s national career—he worked to deliver labor support to Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, and was rewarded with an appointment to the post of Secretary of Labor. Brennan took a not-small amount of credit for building political bloc of blue-collar social conservatives that would come to be known collectively as Reagan Democrats. In Nixonland, Perlstein writes about the significance of conscripting blue-collar workers into the anti-anti-war movement:
“But to extend to blue-collar workers the hand of cultural recognition—that was a different ball game altogether… the hard-hat ascendency set into motion a qualitative shift: the first concerted effort to turn the white working class, via its aesthetic disgusts, against a Democratic Party now joining itself objectively, with their Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments, to the agenda of the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings.”
Today, the hard hat Brennan presented to Nixon is enshrined in the the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California. Upon handing it to the president, Brennan predicted what it would come to mean: “The hard hat will stand as a symbol,” he declared, “along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism to our beloved country."
Angela Serratore is a writer and a contributing editor at SmithsonianMag.com.