On May 3, 4, and 5, 1971, more than 13,000 people were arrested in Washington, D.C.—the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.
Many of them had come to Washington to demonstrate against the War in Vietnam. Some planned to block streets and bridges. The Nixon administration decided to be proactive, and arrest anyone who looked like they might try to do such a thing. (Most arrests were made by D.C. police, but the decisions were made right in the White House.) As a result, 7,000 people were arrested on May 3—including a few people who were blocking streets and bridges, and thousands of people who were demonstrating legally, or walking to school or work, or watching from the sidelines. Basically, if you were in downtown D.C., you were liable to be arrested—including undercover police officers who were arrested because other officers didn’t know the code word signifying “I’m a cop.”
More than 2,000 were arrested on May 4 while demonstrating on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Justice Department, and on May 5 more than 1,200 were arrested on the Capitol steps, where they had been invited by Reps. Ron Dellums and Bella Abzug, who watched their audience arrested out from under them as they were addressing the crowd.
Normal arrest and booking procedures went out the window. The police kept hardly any records that would enable them to show the legal basis of an arrest—and for most people there was no legal basis. Thousands of arrestees were detained in outdoor fenced areas, and in the old D.C. Coliseum, where they slept on the floor. The court system was also thrown into chaos.
The D.C. Public Defender Service and the ACLU rushed to court to secure the immediate release of the detainees. Many were released fairly quickly, but those who refused to give their names or fingerprints were held, in some cases, for several days.
The ACLU-DC—then known as the ACLU of the National Capitol Area—quickly filed a class action seeking to have the arrest records of all 13,000 people expunged, except for the 79 who were actually convicted of crimes. That case succeeded, and the federal court issued an order providing that those people had never been arrested, only “detained,” and that they could deny, even under oath, that they had been arrested on those dates. That order remains a model for expungement orders in D.C. to this day.
Prosecutors selected eight of the people who had been arrested on the Capitol steps and brought them to trial in August 1972. After a 13-day trial it took the jury less than four hours (including lunch) to acquit all eight. Charges against the remaining arrestees were dropped soon afterwards.
The ACLU then filed three additional class actions seeking damages for people who had been falsely arrested and wrongfully detained on May 3, May 4, and May 5. Unfortunately, the courts found that the facts regarding the people arrested on May 3 and 4 were not sufficiently uniform to justify a class action. Nevertheless, scores of people who came forward and identified themselves were able to obtain compensation in settlements. The case on behalf of the Capitol Steps arrestees, called Dellums v. Powell, was certified as a class action, and after trial, the jury awarded the class members $12 million in damages (about $61 million in 2021 dollars), which was said to be the largest verdict in a case that didn’t involve a major corporation. But the court of appeals thought that was too high and sent the case back for a new trial on damages; the parties then settled for about $2 million (more than $10 million in 2021 dollars).
Rep. Dellums went on to become the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and after retiring from Congress was Mayor of Oakland, California from 2008 to 2011. Dellums v. Powell remains a landmark case about the ability to obtain monetary damages for violation of one’s First Amendment rights. ACLU-DC is relying on that precedent even now, in our class action lawsuit on behalf of people who were protesting peacefully in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, when scores of federal officers attacked peaceful protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and a baton charge prior to President Trump’s walk to St. John’s Church to stage a photo-op holding a Bible.