The first of May is tomorrow. As you have probably seen hastily scrawled in the street or in the subway in “kill-the-banker” fashion, there seems to loom an ominous threat by some surreptitious minority scheduled for May Day. While this may be the case, a quick history of the holiday should illuminate exactly how May 1st is, first and foremost, a day for you, and why you should not play down your holiday, even if the graffiti that has accompanied it (and the increasingly self-alienating contingent that drew it) is just not your thing.
Dismissive assumptions of comfortable complacency is not enough for tomorrow, and here’s a history of why:
On the first of May in 1886, International Workers’ Day meant a general strike. As most of us know from high school history classes, industrialization left the majority of urban citizens in misery, so the calls for alleviating these stresses centered around shortening the workday. The strike was centered around Chicago but saw tremendous participation in New York, Detroit and Philadelphia, with hundreds of thousands of employees demanding shorter working hours – usually the eight-hour day.
This strike was an overwhelming success, beginning the normalization of what, for us, has been accepted as the terms of full-time employment. But three days into the strike, police fired into a crowd that was antagonizing strike breakers. They killed six people, and the following day an assembly was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. After a disappointing turnout and several speeches, police came to disperse the unthreatening meeting. Dynamite was thrown into the onslaught, killing a police officer and prompting the cops to open fire in the crowd. The terrorism-by-dynamite was used as a pretext for the shake up of the nation’s labor movement, and the execution of eight Anarchist labor leaders in a trial whose prosecution was, as the following governor of Illinois called it, “a pure fabrication.”
And so on May 1st every year since, the nations of the world celebrate the fruits of this labor movement, of which we still benefit today, and commemorate the casualties of the police suppression that followed it every step of the way. In spite of official attempts to marginalize this history, with the concession of Labor Day after the 1894 Pullman Strike (suppressed by 12,000 federal troops, killing 13 workers) on September 3rd, May Day has prevailed in the United States as the vociferous forum of those marginalized by the political and economic process.
Throughout the 1930s May 1st was marked by marches in our nation’s cities voicing discontent – in New York these occurred in Union Square. In 1946 Truman threatened to send the army again against striking railroad workers after their May Day strike. It was the continuation of May Day protests at Kent State, Ohio that resulted in the four deaths on that campus three days later.
The next year saw one of the largest mass arrests outside our nation’s capitol during a protest against the Vietnam War. Five years ago Los Angeles saw mass protests for immigrants rights that resulted in 10 hospitalizations and a $13 million dollar lawsuit. That was the one-year anniversary of the labor boycott on May first of 2006, which saw 400,000 in the streets of Chicago, 500,000 in LA, not to mention the turnout here in New York.
So while some may see the holiday as the platform for those “death to the bankers” graffitists, it is much more fitting to consider it hard-earned moment of public displeasure. With the weakest labor market in a decade – we’ve all read the articles claiming that half of all recent graduates are facing unemployment – there is certainly reason for discontent. The organizers of May Day grasped that a while ago, and the planning has been going on for quite some time. There are exciting things are in the works for tomorrow.
Bryant Park will host a fair all morning, and the guitarist of the band Rage Against the Machine will lead a march, joined by one thousand guitarists, from Brooklyn to Union Square. And a concert headlining Das Racist, Dan Deacon, Tom Morello, and Immortal Technique will happen at 4 pm in Union Square.
While there is certainly a chance for disturbances and its concomitant repression – given the size and response to the Trayvon Martin march at the end of March, and the riot on Astor place two weeks ago – we hope that the insipid threats of violence do not prevent you from participating in the holiday that helped to enable the standard of living you enjoy today, and that will continue to play a role in securing and advancing those standards in our faltering economy. If nothing else, Das Racist is playing for free in Union Square, and while their last album may have disappointed, at least they will be upholding a great American tradition.