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The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, And The Dawn Of The White Working-Class Revolution (Review)

The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution, by David Paul Kuhn (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020)

“Give em hell boys!” exclaimed one patrolman. “We’ll kill them!” warned a construction worker. “Don’t kill him” pleaded a bystander. These are just a few of the more memorable quotes that capture the violence featured in David Paul Kuhn’s extensively researched account of the events of May 8, 1970, otherwise known as the Hardhat Riot. As the nation erupted in antiwar protests that spring, hundreds of construction workers attacked mostly young protestors  in Lower Manhattan. More than a hundred people were injured on “Bloody Friday,” a day that many have concluded was a turning point for the American working class. Kuhn notes that the workers were also joined by white-collar workers on Wall Street. “It was a sudden new alliance, throughout downtown, workingmen and businessmen, cheering, U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Even in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent defeat, the story is a dramatic reminder of the cultural divisions that led to the downfall of the New Deal coalition, and Democrats’ subsequent struggles to fully recapture the white working class. “Two liberalisms collided that day, presaging the long Democratic civil war ahead, and revealing a rupture expanding across the American landscape.” 

The Hardhat Riot provides a valuable reminder of how class contributed to the nation’s culture wars during the Vietnam era, but it also explicitly pushes back against what Kuhn identifies as the “mental gymnastics” of scholars who have dismissed the anxieties of the white working-class of the era as being driven by racism. The author is not afraid to link the past to the present, as it makes a strong case that these anxieties had a profound impact on American politics. The book’s excavation of the New York Police Department’s archives is first-rate, offering up a narrative of the Hardhat Riot that does not gloss over the grotesque worker-led violence nor the NYPD’s inexcusable inaction. Still, Kuhn’s framing of the legacy of the Hardhat Riot oversimplifies the culture wars of the Vietnam era and does little to address the issue of race during the Nixon era. 

The first section examines the politics of 1960s New York, with a particular focus on how the New Left intersected with the city’s rising crime rate and its deindustrialization. Kuhn also presents establishment leaders like Mayor John Lindsay as out of touch with the concerns of blue-collar New Yorkers. Celebrated throughout the mainstream media as an heir to Kennedy’s throne, Lindsay courted segments of the antiwar movement and was despised by blue-collar workers. Kuhn believes that Lindsay represented everything that was wrong with the Ivy League establishment, especially when it comes to its inability to wrestle with what he views as the legitimate concerns that were at the core of law-and-order politics. Lindsay is repeatedly shown to dismiss residents’ concerns about crimes, violent protest, and the city’s shift towards white-collar jobs. “This is becoming a city with white-collar jobs and blue-collar people,” said a dress manufacturer. Kuhn’s social history of New York pits the people who supported liberal Republicanism and the New Left versus blue-collar workers, many of which were patriotic veterans. Relying on a coalition of the white upper-class liberals and non-white voters, and not organized labor, Lindsay chose to publicly support the civil rights and antiwar movements. Pro-war workers often framed Lindsay’s positions in class terms, heightening tensions between labor and left social movements. 

Read entire article at New York Labor History