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

Pervoe Maia: Soviet May Day

I couldn’t resist posting this typically over-the-top bit of Soviet propaganda–footage of the Pervomaysky parade from 1950. Thousands stroll through Red Square and enthusiastically wave to Stalin, Beria, Malenkov and Molotov. May Day was the biggest holiday of the year after the Day of the Great October Revolution. As my college roommate used to say, it’s a great day to wear the Red Scarf of Socialism.

The Soviet Communist Party idolized the worker according to Marxist-Leninist ideology–symbolized by the hammer and sickle–but as we know, it brutally crushed the individual under its boot. The stark difference between what the State said and what it did couldn’t have been more crazy-making.

In the modern capitalist West, we’ve lost respect for the worker and instead idolize the entrepreneur, the industrialist, the CEO, the hedge fund manager. At least the Soviets knew how to talk the talk–we’ve completely lost the vocabulary and therefore the concepts behind popular support of the labor movement.

Since I spent some student days in the Soviet Union and know at least a little of its evils first hand, I flinch when I see any hint of its distinctive imagery and style in modern May Day art:

In contrast, we see an artist who consciously copied a Soviet poster, yet successfully captured the modern May Day message:

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.

Noam Chomsky on May Day

From Huffington Post:

Zuccotti Park Press, a project of Adelante Alliance, a Brooklyn-based immigrant advocacy group, is releasing Occupy, a new book by Noam Chomsky, on May Day.

People seem to know about May Day everywhere except where it began, here in the United States of America. That’s because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning. For example, Ronald Reagan designated what he called “Law Day” — a day of jingoist fanaticism, like an extra twist of the knife in the labor movement. Today, there is a renewed awareness, energized by the Occupy movement’s organizing, around May Day, and its relevance for reform and perhaps eventual revolution.

If you’re a serious revolutionary, then you are not looking for an autocratic revolution, but a popular one which will move towards freedom and democracy. That can take place only if a mass of the population is implementing it, carrying it out, and solving problems. They’re not going to undertake that commitment, understandably, unless they have discovered for themselves that there are limits to reform.

A sensible revolutionary will try to push reform to the limits, for two good reasons. First, because the reforms can be valuable in themselves. People should have an eight-hour day rather than a twelve-hour day. And in general, we should want to act in accord with decent ethical values.

Secondly, on strategic grounds, you have to show that there are limits to reform. Perhaps sometimes the system will accommodate to needed reforms. If so, well and good. But if it won’t, then new questions arise. Perhaps that is a moment when resistance is necessary, steps to overcome the barriers to justified changes. Perhaps the time has come to resort to coercive measures in defense of rights and justice, a form of self-defense. Unless the general population recognizes such measures to be a form of self-defense, they’re not going to take part in them, at least they shouldn’t.

If you get to a point where the existing institutions will not bend to the popular will, you have to eliminate the institutions.

May Day started here, but then became an international day in support of American workers who were being subjected to brutal violence and judicial punishment.

Today, the struggle continues to celebrate May Day not as a “law day” as defined by political leaders, but as a day whose meaning is decided by the people, a day rooted in organizing and working for a better future for the whole of society.

Originally posted by Zuccotti Park Press

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)