Throughout the 1960’s passions flared and tempers soared over the events happening in Vietnam. By 1967, the United States had been involved in Southeast Asia for over 10 years and more than 15,000 American lives had been lost. In early 1967, a nationwide call went out from the Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam for a march on Washington to protest the war. It was planned for Saturday, October 21, at the Lincoln Memorial.
Thousands of people showed up for the rally. Crowds were estimated at 50,000 plus. The rally commenced with speeches and demonstrations. By about 3:00 p.m. some protesters had started to leave. But around 5:30 p.m., 35,000 decided to cross the Memorial Bridge and march on the Pentagon.
The U.S. Marshals had been informed that the rally was going to take place, and 250 Deputy Marshals were brought in from all over the country to aid the army and act as the civilian arresting authority. They were instructed to arrest any protester who came too close to the Pentagon or who made threats against the building or those protecting it. They formed a single file line around the Pentagon, backed up by a force of thousands of soldiers and military police.
As the protesters approached, many broke into a run and simply tried to force their way through the line of Marshals and soldiers. They were roughly repelled, and some became aggressive in return. Deputy Marshal James O’Toole was surrounded by a mob, stabbed in the thigh and forced to the ground. He was saved by other Deputy Marshals, including Frank Vandegrift. One group of protesters almost reached one of the Pentagon doorways, but were repelled by a group of Marshals led by Al Butler, who pushed through the group swinging riot batons and dragging and shoving people away from the doors.
After the initial push by the protesters, the riot gradually settled into a sit-in. The protesters planted themselves in front of the defense line and refused to move, while they chanted and screamed protests. Some protesters slipped flowers into the barrels of soldiers’ guns. On edge after hours of intense rioting, Marshals and soldiers arrested anyone who so much as touched them. Protesters quickly figured out an effective way to resist arrest- they simply went limp, so that the Marshals and soldiers had to carry or drag their dead weight to the waiting vans and buses, which left the officers exhausted and weakened.
The protesters' demonstration permit expired at midnight and many drifted away. As the hour approached, Deputies warned those who remained to disband. As their time dwindled down, the soldiers inched their way forward; the Marshals arrested anyone with whom they came into contact. By dawn, the demonstration was over, and almost 700 protesters had been arrested. Most were charged with disorderly conduct after they refused to leave restricted Federal property. Deputy Marshals, not soldiers, arrested them, fulfilling the historic role of U.S. Marshals as the civilian arm of federal authority. Forty-seven people, including demonstrators, Deputy Marshals and soldiers, were wounded. The Pentagon grounds were trashed with the litter of more than 35,000 people. But the U.S. Marshals again proved their worth to the government in civilian law enforcement and crisis situations, just as the government confirmed its commitment to civilian control rather than the military.