May Day brings Occupy DC, unions together in solidarity

(This article originally appeared on D.C. Mic Check)

The “American Spring” climaxed around the country with a celebration of May Day on Tuesday. Locally, Occupy DC organized a festival that drew hundreds to Malcolm X Park, which was followed by an impassioned march to the White House on behalf of the workers of the world. Planned in conjunction with several unions and other organizations, Occupy DC’s actions were part of a nationwide effort to hold a “General Strike of the 99%” on May Day – a holiday with its roots in the labor rights movement.

“[Celebrating May Day] helps create solidarity in terms of the working class of the world and help[s] in the fight against imperialism,” said Mike Golash, one of the organizers of D.C.’s event, emphasizing the importance of observing May Day. “Since 1947 and the Taft-Hartley Act, the capitalists have been on the warpath against the workers in the country. We can begin to rebuild our movement.”

The Taft-Hartley Act effectively made strikes of a political or solidarity nature, such as the one proposed across the country for May Day, illegal for unions to participate in officially. Neither that fact nor the weather could stop people from flocking to the park on this May Day to take part in games and teach-ins and cheering for the speakers, poets, and singers on stage.

Only one activity in Washington, D.C. met with police resistance. The traditional dance around the May Pole, which dates back to ancient times, still occurred in spite of Park Police Captain Phil Beck’s order that the May Pole be unplanted from the ground.

This conflict was minuscule in comparison with clashes experienced by some in some West Coast cities. In Oakland, for example, police used tear gas and and flash-bang grenades on protestors. Still, May Day activities were generally peaceful around the world. Large crowds turned out in Manila and Tunis, among other cities. In this country, there were estimates of 30,000 participants in New York City.

In Washington, D.C., several police cars and motorcycles escorted May Day marchers to the White House as the march widened to all four lanes of 14th Street NW. A sunflower-headed dragon, with a body of green leaves, snaked behind banners and red flags carried by those who gave full-throated support to justice for workers.

The marchers chanted, “”We are the working class, we are the 99%!” and “Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” (“Obama listen!  We are in the fight!”) as numerous people snapping cell phone photos looked on. Once in front of the White House, the heads of unions from Honduras, Bangladesh, and the Philippines addressed the boisterous crowd, thanking them for being part of the struggle for workers’ rights around the world.

Several participants thought the day was a good one for the Occupy movement. “This is a good way to kick off all the actions we’re doing for the summer,” said Javier Ocasin. “I want to see Occupy start a damn revolution. If I have to, I’ll start one myself!”

Barry Knight also thought the turnout was positive. “We need this. We need the masses to get out. This town is full of apathy,” he said. “As long as people say they support the Occupy movement while they sit in their Barcaloungers, that ain’t gonna do it. They gotta get out on the streets.”

“Don’t count Occupy out,” said Rob Brune, echoing the sentiments of many in the crowd, “This could be part of a new surge. It’s possible.”

(Photo by

Cool Day in History: May Day, 1886

“It was the very dawning of the day when the term ‘dignity of labor’ meant something.”

-George E. McNeill, labor historian

At a time when industrial wage slaves worked 10 to 16 hour days, the 8-hour day became a rallying cry:

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye. With their fiery speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, anarchists and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists.

Workers in greater numbers continued to walk out in a nationwide general strike. For the next few days they demonstrated peacefully. Finally, police opened fire on workers locked out of plant in Chicago. At a rally later at Haymarket, someone threw a bomb, killing seven police officers and four civilians. Eight anarchist “martyrs” were convicted of conspiracy, and four were executed.

Truly, history has a lot to teach us about the roots of our radicalism. When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for.

May Day: Whose time? Our time.

The schedule for MAY DAY DC:

The day’s events will begin with a festival at Malcolm X Park (16th and Euclid Street NW) at 3:30 pm.  At 5:00pm there will be  a rally with entertainment and speeches.  At 6:00pm the March to the White house will begin.  There will be another rally at the White House at 7:00pm featuring international guests.

(Artwork by Elizabeth Knafo and MPA)