But What The Fuck Is May Day?
In the 1880s, U.S. anarchists, socialists, and unions sidestepped the stale reform-versus-revolution debate by fighting for the eight-hour workday. Their agitation and actions targeted both employers and the state. They declared on May 1st, 1886, the eight-hour day would be enacted, or they would shut down the country with a general strike. And on the day of, half a million people went out on strike.
On May 3rd, at the McCormick Harvester factory in Chicago, the police fired on a picket-line, killing at least four people. A group of anarchists immediately printed fliers in English and German to flood the city, calling on people to defend themselves and join an emergency rally the next day. Thousands of people showed up at Haymarket Square. As the rally was winding down, the police marched forward and ordered the crowd to disperse. Someone threw a bomb, killing a police officer; the police opened fire, killing an unknown number of people, including several of their own.
The police rounded up hundreds of people, raiding homes and union halls. The State of Illinois tried eight men — most of them poor German immigrants — not for their involvement in the events, but for promoting anarchism. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his cell; August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were hanged. Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, and Oscar Neebe were imprisoned for six years before being pardoned.
The anarchist movement and the eight-hour workday fight continued, against immense repression. Several unions and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, widow of Albert Parsons, also began campaigning to make May Day a public holiday, International Workers Day. Today, it is a day for anarchist and anti-capitalist protests around the world, and a public holiday in almost every country — but not in the United States, the country where it started. As a concession to U.S. unions, Labor Day was established on the first weekend of September — not on May Day, to avoid encouraging the anarchists and socialists. Later, anti-communist groups began promoting May Day as Americanization Day, which became the national holiday Loyalty Day.
Lucy Parsons continued organizing and promoting anarchism in speeches, newspapers, and pamphlets. In 1905, she co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). Lucy predicted the rise of workplace takeovers, saying, “My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.”
Let’s jump ahead to December 2005. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to build a wall along the Mexican border, make being undocumented or sheltering an undocumented person a felony, require employers to use E-Verify, and study the potential of building a wall along the Canadian border. Protests spread across the country, demanding that the Senate and President reject the bill, and that the U.S. government extend citizenship to all undocumented people. Organizers decided to call for an immigrants’ strike on May Day 2006 — “a day without immigrants.” Spanish-language radio stations and a broad coalition of groups were key in promoting the movement. On the day, millions of people rallied in across the country. In Seattle, 30,000 people marched from the Central District to the federal courthouse. In Washington D.C., the bill died in the Senate.
However, the U.S. government retaliated brutally. 700,000 people were deported in the next two years, and the Obama administration has deported millions more. For the last decade, the U.S. government has used Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and mass deportations to suppress further immigrant organizing, to spread fear and demobilize workers. Each year, El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria y Justicia Social has organized a May Day March for Immigrant and Workers’ Rights.
Meanwhile, anarchism in Seattle experienced a revival. A series of anarchist social centers provided meeting and event spaces: L@s Quixotes Radical Lending Library, Autonomia, and The Wildcat. Left Bank Books has held it down since 1973. The Seattle Anarchist Bookfair and several distros spread zines and posters across the city. There was a steady tick of direct actions, from solidarity banner drops and wheatpasting to smashed bank windows and sabotaged ATMs (Wells Fargo, investor in privatized immigrant detention centers, was a favorite target), with communiques regularly posted online. A flurry of outreach, forums, direct actions, and riots occurred in the winter of 2011 after Seattle PD Officer Ian Burke shot John T. Williams (recounted in the zine “Burning the Bridges They Are Building: Anarchist Strategies Against the Police in the Puget Sound, Winter 2011”). A biweekly newspaper, Tides of Flame, published news, analysis, and outreach material. Then Occupy Seattle happened, anarchists squatted several vacant houses around the city, and a rowdy march of hundreds shut down much of the Port of Seattle with flaming barricades during the West Coast Port Shut Down.
May Day 2012 was widely promoted with graffiti, posters, fliers, newspapers, and banner drops. There was a full schedule of events that day: a breakfast and worker speakout at 9 am, a hip-hop concert at 11 am, the anti-capitalist march at noon, the “Honor the Dead, Fight for the Living March Against Police and Racist Violence” at 3 pm, the immigrants’ and workers’ march at 5 pm, a rally at 6 pm and a general assembly at 7 pm. The noon anti-capitalist march managed to cause more damage to banks (the first target was a Wells Fargo), government buildings, and bourgeois shops than all the May Day marches since. By the 3 pm march, a rowdy crowd of young people, inspired by the noon march, showed up in massive numbers; however, so did the SPD. Nothing was damaged, and many people were arrested.
Since then, May Day in Seattle has become a cottage industry for local media, a brief reprieve in the slow death of journalism. It is a modern wonder how hundreds of articles can be produced each year from a handful of templates. We all know the “scary anarchists” stories, and the “bad protesters/bad police” articles, splashed with riot porn for 11 o’clock news viewers. We also get few “good protesters/bad protesters” pieces. For example, KING 5’s “Amid violence, May Day marchers push message,” which quotes one immigrants’ and workers’ rights march organizer as saying, “The sting here is not what everybody else does. It’s what’s the press does.”
Then we have the peculiar adventure of Eli Sanders, Stranger editor, who attends both marches, to bemoan the spectacle of the anti-capitalist march and praise the immigrants’ and workers’ rights march. He claims the anti-capitalist march “began in 2012, when anarchists used the annual El Comite march, a long-running demonstration seeking to reform America’s unjust immigration laws, as cover for launching a bunch of smash-and-run property crimes in the downtown core. The mostly white anarchists broke windows at retail businesses, various banks, and the federal courthouse, and in doing so effectively hijacked El Comite’s message that year.” That is a lie.
Why does it matter what the media says about us? Unfortunately, it matters because Seattle anarchists have basically conceded defining anarchism to the mainstream media. Even worse, anarchists have basically conceded defining anti-capitalism to liberals, Leninists, conspiracy theorists, and Trump supporters.
Both the anti-capitalist march and the immigrants’ and workers’ rights march were smaller than last year. The Solidarity Music Festival was barely attended. This was in spite of a sunny weekend day, when anti-capitalist and anti-fascist sentiment are at an all-time high. These events were barely promoted. This is endemic on the left: people put the bare minimum effort into event promotion, rely too much on social media, and are surprised when few people show up. We need the old tools too. A callout needs a fuck ton of posters and fliers, with the designs shared online, distributed as early as possible. Tabling, forums, banner-drops, and graffiti can help. Steal copies from work, from school, obtain money for printing, get a used copier — do whatever you have to do, as generations of people resisting oppressive regimes have done. Affinity groups: they’re not just for taking the streets!
There are a few big forces against anarchist organizing in Seattle since 2012. Displacement has destroyed neighborhoods and scattered communities. People have to work all the time to afford to live in the city. How do we build to power to resist displacement, pay less rent, feed ourselves, survive? The grand jury scared and discouraged a lot of people. So did the increase in police and domestic surveillance (or what we know about surveillance) throughout the U.S. Anarchists are organizing and involved in many projects around the city, but few projects are openly anarchist. How many people and projects are willing to be openly anarchist in such circumstances? Whether we choose to organize aboveground or underground, with or without the A-word, how do we share the meaning of anarchism and find each other?
The anti-capitalist May Day march has become spectacle-driven, a stand-alone complex. Year after year, when you read the stats about May Day arrestees, they’re usually young (teens and early twenties) and from the greater Seattle area — though not from the bourgeois suburbs. The phenomenon of the march appeals to disenfranchised youth. In another Stranger article from 2012, “Anarchy is Boring,” Brendan Kiley described the anti-capitalist march as “the spectacular tip of a mundane iceberg.” What does it mean when the roots of a movement — the mutual aid, communities, friendships — shrivel and the spectacular phenomenon keeps ambling forward, aimless and zombie-like? The police take control. And it’s also a big problem when the bloc becomes influenced by macho posturing, that someone in bloc can get away with shouting misogynist shit.
The anti-capitalist march on May Day 2012 was effective by catching the police off guard. It should have been clear, ever since the 3 pm march on May Day 2012, that the Seattle PD is never going to let that happen again. There’s a saying that all military strategy comes down to “Be there the first with the most.” The 2016 black bloc was notably better organized, tactically, than the last three years; but black bloc’ers sorely need to develop strategies beyond what’s in a call-out by some rando on the internet.
In “10 Points on the Black Bloc,” Harsha Walia offers some insight. “Tactics can be effective, they can be ineffective, but inherently they are neither. Whether the black block tactic of smashing windows is simply symbolic and gains nothing, well again, a whole lot of our protests are often symbolic. Like any other mass movement, we have to gauge them as part of a long-term campaign…
“I don’t think building a mass movement is always the gauge of the success of a tactic. If that was the case, Indigenous blockades would not be happening, because we’d have to wait for every single Canadian to denounce Canadian nationalism. Direct action happens because there is a need for it. Direct action happens because people are fighting back, and we’re not waiting for millions of people to stand beside us for the revolution to happen.”
This May Day in Texas and Alabama, prisoners were on strike. They are calling for a national prison strike on September 9th. When Trump is nominated, if he is elected and inaugurated, we should be organizing and getting out in the streets. Same if Clinton is elected and inaugurated. The Republican National Convention is July 18th to 20th; this would be an especially good time to move against deportations, the border, the wall, Wells Fargo, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, and so on. The Democratic convention is July 25th to 28th; this would be an especially good time to publicly organize against the same border regime, as well as Wall Street, Wal-Mart, militarism, prisons, and to promote the September 9th prisoner strike.
In the Slingshot newspaper last fall was an article by Wolverine de Cleyre, “Alive and Well: A Visit to Zapatista Territory.” de Cleyre traveled around Chiapas, talking with Zapatista militants, and reports: “The ones I spoke to had absolutely no interest in our demonstrations, our revolts, our publications. All they ask me is ‘And what food projects do you have? And what of the education of your children?’”
Ultimately, these are what we need to be ungovernable.
1 You might be asking, “What about the police?” CrimethInc. responds: “Yes, cops are people too, and deserve the same respect due all living things. The point is not that they deserve to suffer, or that we have to bring them to justice — that’s Christian morality again, dealing in currencies of superstition and resentment. The point is that, in purely pragmatic terms, in order that others not have to suffer, it may be necessary to interrupt, by militant and confrontational means, the injustices perpetrated by police officers. It can be empowering for those who have spent their lives under the heel of oppression to contemplate finally settling the score with their oppressors; however, a real liberation struggle does not focus on exacting revenge, but rather on solving problems so that all might have better lives…
“Not only do police officers have a disproportionately high rate of domestic violence and child abuse, they also get killed, commit suicide, and become addicts with disproportionate frequency. Anything that demoralizes police officers and delegitimizes their authority, thus encouraging them to quit their posts, is in their best interest as well as the interest of their loved ones and society at large.”