--from the New York Times, May 9, 1970. The accompanying caption read: "FLAGS, at full staff, were carried by the marching construction workers."

Whose Flag?

The American flag was a potent symbol among the construction workers who demonstrated on May 8. They used it to represent their support for the war in Vietnam. Antiwar activists challenged American military action in Vietnam, and sometimes flew the Vietcong flag instead of the American flag as a gesture of protest.


Why do flags have such emotional power?

Flags represent national identity, national values, and national action both at home and abroad. Flags are associated with war, and with death. Americans fly the flag at half-mast when those who have served the country die. Dead soldiers are returned to the U.S. in flag-draped coffins.

Because the flag represented American military action, antiwar activists sometimes expressed their protests by undermining its solemn symbolism, such as when Abbie Hoffman used an American flag handkerchief to blow his nose.


What provoked the construction workers?




This photo appeared in the New York Times on May 9, 1970. The caption reads: "DEMAND: Marchers wanted City Hall flag raised to full staff. It was."

According to construction workers...

New York City union leader Peter Brennan, denying that the May 8 hard hat demonstration had been organized by labor unions, said the workers had demonstrated spontaneously because "they were fed up with the violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat at the American flag and desecrated it."

"A lot of us are World War II vets and fathers and purple hearts. We're from a generation that believes the flag over everything." (Electrician Morty Grutman, quoted in the New York Post, May 9, 1970)

On May 12, construction workers and antiwar demonstrators met again on the streets of lower Manhattan. This time, however, there was little violence, due in large part to the considerable police presence. But one worker had another opinion about why there was no violence--he told a reporter it was because "there was no provocation, no one spit on the flag." (Wall Street Journal May 13, 1970)

According to witnesses...

"They chanted 'Raise our flag, raise our flag.' Almost at once a man walked out on the roof and raised the flag from its half-mast position. A cheer went up...[then] the flag on the roof of City Hall was lowered once more which precipitated a great outcry." (letter from Geoffrey Needler to President Mortola, Pace College).

The public responds...

"Mayor Lindsay would you have lowered the flag if four policemen or four National Guards had been killed?" (telegram from Mrs. Henry Harm to Mayor Lindsay).

"Those noisy men the hard hats all brawn and little brain have had their day so be it. I and many other responsible truly patriotic citizens are for you." (telegram from Miss Clara Antin to Mayor Lindsay).

"It seems to me that Richard Rogin's article is slightly condescending in implying that Kelly and the 'hardhats' are nice guys but may not be too bright. My wife (Phi Beta Kappa) and I (summa cum laude and law school with honors) feel the same way about flag and country that Joe Kelly does-and so do most of our friends..." (letter to New York Times Magazine by Robert S. Miller, Old Bridge, N.J.)

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