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Blood on Their Tuxes
By Peter P. Mahoney
Shortly after I arrived in New York—having been elected as a National Coordinator for VVAW at the Houston Steering Committee Meeting—on May 8, 1972, President Nixon announced the mining of the North Vietnamese harbors. VVAW denounced the action as the latest escalation in a war that was supposed to be winding down. A press conference was called by several New York City peace groups to announce plans to protest this escalation. I was chosen to be the VVAW spokesman at the press conference, and I announced on national TV that unless the United Nations took the government of the United States into receivership until such time as a government representative of the people could be elected, then in seventy-two hours, VVAW was going to take over the United Nations.
Of course, VVAW had neither the desire nor the capability to "take over" the United Nations, any more than the United Nations had any desire or capability to do anything about the US government, but if VVAW had learned anything, it was the value of symbolic action.
On the day our ultimatum expired, the sidewalk in front of the United Nations building had a New York City cop standing about every ten feet. We had separated our group into three teams. One team was able to get invited onto a regularly scheduled UN tour, and actually got into the building itself. A second team approached the main entrance gate, and started to make a ruckus. As expected, the line of cops along the sidewalk immediately gravitated towards the commotion. A third team—of which I was a member —had been watching from an office building across the street from the UN. Once we saw the cops abandoning their posts, we ran across the street, pushed through the hedge and scaled the low wall that separated the UN grounds from the street. All of us had chains wrapped around our bodies, with the intent to try to chain ourselves somewhere visible along the front of the building to symbolically "take over" the UN. We hadn't, however, accounted for how much the weight of the chains limited our mobility, and although we managed to get over the wall, we were quickly subdued by UN security personnel before we could chain ourselves to anything, and after a bit of roughing up by them, we were summarily ejected from the grounds. The team on the tour managed to barricade themselves in the UN chapel for a brief period before they, too, were ejected from the premises. Although we hadn't succeeded in what we had planned, we got good local news coverage that evening, and one channel even had footage of the cops running to the ruckus, and our team then running across the street and scaling the wall.
Our antics at the UN inspired a new possibility. Next day, we received a call at the VVAW office from some students who attended Riverdale High School up in the Bronx. They told us that the United Nations Association was holding a black tie dinner in their gym that evening to honor George and Barbara Bush, Bush being the US ambassador to the United Nations at that time. The students suggested that if VVAW wanted to get into the dinner, they could arrange to meet us at a back door and let us in.
We devised a similar plan to the one executed at the UN. We broke into two teams. One team approached the front door to the school, and started to chant anti-war slogans. Immediately, all the security for the place rushed to focus on these few. Diversionary tactics were a favorite ploy VVAW used against the cops, because the cops almost always fell for them. Meanwhile, the second team of five people—Danny Friedman, Brian Mattarese, Mark O'Connor, Ann Hirschman, and myself—met the students at the designated spot, and got inside the building. The students led us through what seemed like a maze of corridors until we reached the door of the gym. We burst in on the tuxedoed, evening-gowned crowd seated at the tables, and Brian gave a short anti-war speech, the last line of which was "The blood of the Vietnamese people is on your hands." We then proceeded to throw balloons full of blood (actually, red clothing dye) at the assemblage, and made our escape, before any of the startled dignitaries could react. We all got away scott free.
Now, as far as a "demonstration" goes, this one was probably a total failure. The purpose of a demonstration is to attract as much attention as possible to the message you want to convey, usually through trying to get the media to cover it. No one knew about what happened in that Riverdale High School gym that night except those who were there, although Karl Becker—my erstwhile friend and government informer—testified about it at the Gainesville 8 trial as proof of my "violent" nature. One of the other National Coordinators derisively dismissed it as pure adventurism, serving only to give a bunch of adrenaline junkies their latest fix. That was probably true. Yet, of all the various demonstrations I participated in during my lifetime, this one somehow was one of the most satisfying. Maybe it was the fact that we pulled it off and got away, but I think it was more than that. Most demonstrations you feel like you're beating your head against a stone wall, and those with the money and power are sitting there casually drinking their tea, blithely unconcerned with the rabble banging their bloody heads against the wall that protects them. This one time, they had to look us in the eyes, and, if only briefly, we got to disrupt their genteel indifference.
Peter P. Mahoney was one of the Gainesville 8. He now lives in Vermont.
Peter Mahoney, 1972.