May Day Philadelphia: Baby Steps Toward Something Different
There isn't much of a culture in Philadelphia of militant street presence at demonstrations and protests. A few of us felt that May Day would be an opportunity to begin taking steps to experiment and help build an anti-authoritarian conflictual force. We did not expect spectacular confrontations, we instead hoped to influence the narrative and begin conversations about how anarchists and other antagonists can approach street demonstrations.
A coalition of various groups had organized a march and rally for May Day downtown. At 4pm a few of us arrived at 15th and Market, the time the demo was to start, wearing masks and walking behind a banner that read "revolt against the misery of daily life". There was a decent amount of new faces and some familiar ones as well, about a hundred people were present. It was heartening to see that although we were some of the only people to arrive with masks on, others pulled theirs on after seeing us. Before speakers got on the megaphone we walked through the crowd distributing fliers about May Day and about anonymity*, people seemed curious and receptive. We also brought a few cloth masks to hand out but only gave one away. Speakers, a range of various leftists, spoke of the history of May Day, the struggle for a $15 an hour wage, struggles within schools and universities, and about work, poverty and capitalism.
After the speeches people marched around Center City to various places where shorter speeches were made about workers', prisoners', and environmental struggles, often outside the workplaces or offices relevant to said struggles. Stops included Staples, Comcast Center Plaza, and the district attorney's office. As the demo moved from place to place people shouted slogans and handed fliers to passers-by. For the most part most masked people walked together, albeit loosely.
At the second to last speech location many of the masked demonstrators left. Strike force cops (Philadelphia police with bicycles) followed a few people, but, eventually left them without detaining, questioning or arresting anyone. The march ended after returning to 15th and Market without incident shortly afterward.
The march was more heavily policed than usual by Philadelphia standards (although it was larger than most we've seen in the last year), the usual plainclothes cops with armbands as well as police strike force cops on bikes who kept a perimeter around the demo whenever it stopped. A few cars followed the demonstration as well. For the most part antagonism between police and protestors was non-existent, although at one point one masked protestor was checked by a police bicycle for not standing close enough to the sidewalk "for their own safety, buddy". In our experience cops here take a pretty hands off approach at these sorts of events, outside of directing traffic.
A few short conversations took place among radicals during the march, and we look forward to speaking again in a different context. We know that this march can easily be dismissed as boring (and many parts of it were), we're not interested in painting it to be more exciting than it was, we'd rather meet, experiment, and scheme with others about how we can change the way rebels in Philadelphia interact with street demos and push protest culture in a more conflictual direction. We have a lot to work on and learn, now seems as good a time as any to begin.
*The two different fliers were handed out, one read:
MAY 1st: REBELS TO THE STREETS
For centuries May Day has been a time to come together, revolt and celebrate. Generations of workers, witches, students and insurgents of all stripes have come out on May Day to attack the misery of daily life: work, police, gender, race, government and all the forces that try to control our lives.
Bonfires, riots, dancing, and magic have marked this day and we hope that until this terrible world is a a distant memory that people continue to welcome the spring with fire and conflict.
and the other:
It should be obvious by now that police are dangerous. By wearing masks together we can create a little bit of safety for ourselves. Masks make room for people to participate in public demonstrations that might not be able to because of their job status, legal status, or immigration issues. Police often film demonstrations and the city is full of surveillance cameras too; putting on masks lets us keep our anonymity in a world that tried harder and harder to monitor everything we do.
Be sure to cover any tattoos and avoid easily identifiable clothes. Some easy ways to mask are:
*Wearing a scarf or bandana with a hat or hood
*Putting your face in the hole of a t-shirt and tying the sleeves behind your head