March 8th 1970: Hard Hat Riot

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A scene from the Hard Hat Riot

 

On this day in 1970 construction workers in New York City attacked a group of protestors. The latter group, made up of around 1,000 students and others, were anti-war protestors moved to action by the shootings at Kent State University four days before which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. Around two hundred of the so-called ‘hard hats’, who supported President Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, took to the streets in a counter-protest. They were particularly incensed by the mayor’s decision to keep the City Hall flags at half mast in honour of the Kent State victims, a move they considered unpatriotic. Around seventy people were injured in the riot, but only six were arrested in the aftermath. President Nixon didn’t directly endorse the actions of the hard-hats, but later was presented with a hard hat by a delegation of union leaders at the White House.

 

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Hard hats on a table after Nixon’s meeting with union groups

 

The often-forgotten event is frequently buried in the narrative of this period of American history as a time of liberal protests. However the Hard Hat Riot reminds us that there was considerable conservative opposition to these developments from people like these blue-collar New York workers. The 1960s and 1970s were not purely a story of liberal students finding a voice and successfully protesting for change. The the so-called ‘forgotten American’ – the blue collar, white, working class man – also played his part in the popular politics of the day. If we see this full picture of American public opinion, the rise of Reagan and the New Right becomes less surprising and instead we can see the long-term roots of the conservative tide, dissatisfied with the changes of the Great Society era.

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