The first of May has a fascinating folk history. In pre-Christian tradition, it was the first day of summer and a day to celebrate fertility. But beyond maypoles and bonfires, the Industrial era gave the day a wholly new meaning.
On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck and rallied for the establishment of the 8-hour workday. The largest participation was in Chicago, a rapidly expanding industrial town that had seen a huge influx of immigrants, many of whom were exploited as cheap labor by Gilded Age robber-barons. After a few days of protest, a bombing and subsequent shooting at Haymarket Square led to a massive crackdown on worker’s groups which resulted in a number of executions based on inconclusive evidence.
Over the next decades, the 1st of May became a rallying day for socialists and anarchists around the world, and in an attempt to distance itself, the U.S. government decided to set aside the first Monday of September to recognize Labor. Eventually May Day became a focal point for Communist nations, which made its celebration complete anathema to America. Its name was changed for a time to “Americanization Day”, and then to “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day” (which is today is the official name for May 1)
Nonetheless, International Workers’ Day, which has become an official holiday the world over, and has been dedicated to “Saint Joseph the Worker” by the Catholic Church, never stopped being remembered in the U.S., though never to any great extent.
That is, until this year. It’s been festering for decades, but the past months have seen a distinct resurgence of the concerns of class inequality and of corruption of a government closely tied to financial interest.
Early in 2012, during the winter in which it was said that the Occupy movement was over, Occupy LA called for a May Day “General Strike”, a day in which the so-called 99% would not work, go to school, nor participate in the economy in any way. The move was quickly approved nationwide, and over the next months gained support and endorsement from a number of unions, immigrant groups, and labor coalitions. Of course, no one truly believed that a vast number of the population would strike, but the goal was rather to make a large statement of solidarity and to demonstrate the power regular people can have if they band together, even outside of the traditional frameworks of American politics.
And so, on Tuesday, May Day returned home to the United States for its largest commemoration in generations. With the old labor movements and the Communist era receding further into history, the day is no longer about Socialism per se, nor does it carry antiquated “un-American” connotations any longer.
There were participants in hundreds of places across the country. But of course, urban centers attracted the most attention. In New York alone, upwards of 50,000 turned out, and other cities had proportionally similar attendance. In addition, there were countless online supporters who could not participate in person.
Most of the mainstream media have painted an awfully skewed picture of the day, focusing primarily on arrests and a handful of shameful vandals. I was out for 12 hours on May Day, covering miles of Manhattan, and the following was my experience, and the experience of many others:
“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out…”
The first stop was Bryant Park, the rallying point for numerous small-scale pickets to various locations throughout Midtown Manhattan. At 9am, it was rainy and the initial turnout was disappointing. This very quickly changed over the next few hours. The first picket that I went with numbered in the hundreds and wound its way through Times Square and around various bank office buildings along 6th Avenue near Radio City. On the way we passed and supported pickets of employees who’d walked out of their workplaces. The group, while spirited, kept to the sidewalk and remained resolutely peaceful. Of course, a small army of police tagged along.
“When immigrant workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
Next from Bryant Park we went with an immigrants group picketing various locations guilty of abuses towards restaurant and service industry workers. The police somehow missed this one, and the march took to the roadway, moving along the middle of Madison Avenue and then into the streets surrounding Grand Central Terminal. When the riot police showed up, the crowd immediately decided to return to the sidewalk and continued on with no loss of inspiration.
Meanwhile, Occupy Williamsburg and Occupy Bushwick had come across the Williamsburg Bridge (on the pedestrian walkway) and some were about to set off on a “wildcat” march – Historically, a wildcat strike is one in which people are participating without the consent of their unions. We were unable to catch up with it, but later heard reports of vandalism and purposeful taunting of police committed by idiots dressed in black, who were bent on tarnishing the day’s positive spirit to satisfy their own destructive impulses. Their actions have been condemned by the vast majority of May Day participants, but this unrepresentative 15-minute incident is one that the media chose to latch onto in their coverage of the day, in a strange attempt to amplify what they called “clashes with police”.
“Who do you protect, who do you serve?!”
We caught up in Washington Square Park, where a rally of NYU students was taking place. By now, the sun had appeared and the temperature was rising into a summerlike humidity. Many of those in the park eventually set off on a march towards 6th avenue with the ultimate goal of arrival at Union Square, where thousands were already converging, including the huge contingent from Bryant Park. Very soon after setting off, a few protesters on bikes were arrested, a couple first being thrown to the ground, and one suffering a bloody nose. The arrests were seemingly random, as we observed no criminal act and no warning; the ferocity of the police attack was completely uncalled for. Immediately the cops shut down the avenue and hundreds of officers in riot gear swarmed the block, creating a disruption far worse than that of the sidewalk protesters.
“We are the 99%”
Every demonstrator across the city now arrived at Union Square, site of the labor and May Day protests of the Progressive era. At 4pm there began a brief rally of short speeches and a few musical performances for what was now a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands; the entire park and surrounding streets were completely packed. It had turned into a beautiful afternoon and evening. At 5:30, the main event of the day, the march to Wall Street, set off down Broadway. It took around an hour to move the entire park out, and the line stretched for blocks, perhaps around 3/4 of a mile long.
The march demonstrated the wide variety of causes at work: the United Federation of Teachers, the National Alliance of Filipino Concerns, the Transit Workers Union, solidarity groups from Montreal and the suburbs, construction workers, Socialists, immigrant groups, Ron Paul supporters, and of course, Occupy Wall Street, to name only a few.
People watched from their windows and fire escapes while bemused tourists on the sidewalk snapped photos. There were many shouts of solidarity from the bystanders, and a handful of taunts from others.
“Get up, get down, there’s revolution in this town!”
The participants could be numbered in the tens of thousands. Though impossible to accurately count, my conservative estimate was roughly 30,000. As the march approached the financial district, the mood rose to a joyous fever pitch climaxing into euphoria as it arrived at Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the movement. Compared to the numbers on the streets, the park looked small – an inspiring testament to what had became of a handful of campers back in September, not all that long ago. Wall Street itself was guarded by a phalanx of cops on horseback, and the march ended at the Battery where there were speakers, a small free-food kitchen, and a large General Assembly that celebrated the day and discussed the future. A few hundred yards away the New York Bay was silent, untouched by the fervor of the streets.
The whole way down, an army of NYPD, including 3 helicopters, “guarded” the demonstration, moving walls of scooters alongside protesters, despite the fact that the route was already barricaded in the manner that all NYC parades are. We witnessed one seemingly pointless arrest as riot police plucked an individual from the crowd for who-knows-what.
Despite isolated incidents of this sort, the march was hugely peaceful. The local media reported that the Office of Emergency Management had issued an advisory of “emergency street closures”. In fact, the march had city permits, was anticipated, and followed the protocol of all New York parades. There were no “emergency closures”. Along with the isolated “clashes with police”, traffic disruptions were another fixation of the day’s mainstream reportage. Surely, there was a disruption, but certainly no more than that caused by sports victory parades, St Patrick’s Day, and scores of other parades that happen year round across the city.
The mainstream media has regularly proven itself skewed across the board. But this is becoming less and less important as independent journalists have increasing ability to get their stories out there.
My 12-hour, citywide, May Day experience was wholly positive, communicated very serious issues, and brought together a plethora of causes in a spirit of solidarity and common goals. All this was conveyed with much vigor, but, to my eyes, always remained peaceful. Aside from the handful of despicable vandals, disruptions were relatively few. No matter one’s position, how can one hold in contempt the fundamental right of citizens to petition their grievances? “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” it has been said. If people are passionate enough to take their message to the street in significant numbers, who can say that their voices should not be heard, and their actions not reported with accuracy?
But no matter- it was certainly the largest protest since the autumn, and the future promises exciting developments. This May Day, as recognized by folk tradition, was truly the beginning of summer.
May Day is most commonly associated with Socialism, worker’s rights, and pre-Christian customs like those of Beltane, Walpurgis Night, and the Maypole. What many don’t know is that up unitl the mid-1800’s, every lease in New York City would expire on May 1- with the result of horrendous gridlock as 1,000’s of tenants moved their stuff from apartment to apartment!
These days come but once a year- the first unequivocally spring weekend- when everyone comes out and basks in the glory of warmth and sun after an all-too-long hibernation. Days when one can enjoy the city without hurrying from here to there beating the cold.
Today everyone was in Central Park, the great green lung of the city. Sunbathing, picnic-ing, strolling, reading, dog-walking, boating, bird-watching, chatting, playing, gawking, etc. All under the returning canopy of youthful bright green leaves and splashes of suddenly returning flowers.
The city is alive at all times of year, but never quite as fresh and liberating as in these first warm months, before the blaze and haze of summer kick in.