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When stock brokers joined construction workers: 'Hard Hat Riot' turns 44 today

Hard hats have had enough.
Hard hats have had enough.
Wikimedia-Commons

"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.

What has been largely forgotten by both the mainstream media and academia nation-wide, today marks the 44th anniversary of New York City's pivotal "Hard Hat Riot" what began as a violent reaction from a relative handful of NYC construction workers, many of whom were World War II, Korea War and Viet-Nam War veterans, against a rather large number of anti-Vietnam War protesters. As reported by the New York Times on May 9, 1970, the Wall Street Journal on May 11, 1970, and also the Vancouver (Canada) Sun on May 20, 2970, an estimated two hundred "Hard Hats" battled roughly one thousand antiwar protesters literally in the shadows of the New York Stock Exchange.

Despite the anti-war movement's history of violence and its leadership being heavily populated by political leftists who called for the violent overthrow of the United States government, the popular media at the time branded the confrontation as "The Hard Hat Riot." Marxist led anti-war agitators established a base camp at the statue of George Washington on Wall Street, all the while waving Communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese battle flags while they burned and urinated on Old Glory.

That's when a reported 200 of New York's Toughest decided enough was enough. The iron workers, the carpenters and the cement mixers then proceeded to charge the makeshift camp and forcibly replaced the Communist banners with the Stars and Stripes. As news reports of the day explained, it was 200 construction workers who "attacked" 1,000 of the "peace marchers."

What happened next caught just about everyone by surprise. The construction workers were unexpectedly joined by white collar workers from the New York Stock Exchange, many of them were also military veterans. The NYSE reportedly emptied as stock brokers, analysts and even office administrative workers took to the streets and fought shoulder-to-shoulder along side the Hard Hats as they took on those who reveled in desecrating the American flag.

After the initial foray, the construction workers regrouped to march first down Wall Street and then up lower Broadway. As they marched, they chanted "USA, all the way" and "America, love it of leave it" many in the dense crowds on the sidewalks cheered. From the windows of offices lining the street came streams of ticker-tape and data processing punch cards. New York City's Democrat Mayor John Lindsay had recently ordered all flags on City buildings be lowered to half mast due to the Kent State shootings, which many of the construction workers took as insulting. As electrician and war veteran Morty Grutman was quoted, "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."

The assembled construction and stock exchange workers threatened to overwhelm city hall unless the flag was raised to full mast, which it was... by a patriotic US Postal worker who had spontaneously joined in with the construction workers. In another unexpected turn of events, the 150 NYPD officers assigned to City Hall were asked by the construction workers to remove their riot helmets out of respect as the American flag was returned to full staff. They did.

The scuffle over the flag at city hall was accompanied by chants of "Lindsay's a Red," which prompted one of the mayor's aides, Donald Evans, to lecture the workers to "stop being juveniles." Possibly only as a New York hard hat could put it, the working man replied "what do you mean, 'being a juvenile'?" He then punched Evans in the mouth.

The Hard Hat Riots were followed by a series of patriotic rallies in New York almost every day during May. These rallies culminated in a large rally on May 20th, purposefully on a Wednesday to illustrate just how many citizens supported them. An estimated 150,000 hard hats, stock brokers and other workers peacefully marched through the streets of downtown New York City.