Let's not have 'successful' protests: May Day should be for real dissent

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On Friday, May 1, the United States officially celebrates Loyalty Day. On this day, we are supposed to reaffirm loyalty to the nation and thank our lucky stars and stripes for our American freedom.

Elsewhere, May 1 marks International Workers Day—May Day, a time for solidarity, dissent, and protest. But during the Red Scare, Loyalty Day was made an official holiday with the explicit anti-Communist, labor crushing intent. Workers Day had originated as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre, a riot in Chicago following the police killing of several workers.

So this May 1 is no Loyalty Day. Major demonstrations planned for Friday dig up May Day's historic roots—furious protest against police violence.


May Day is a time for dissent, not merely demonstration. A number of labor marches, as is typical on this day, will proceed within the barricaded confines of police-permitted protest. So be it. But it will be a great shame if this May Day is used to further the pernicious, reactionary dichotomy of "good protest" and "bad protest," drawn along fault-lines of violence versus non-violence. And it would be a particularly pernicious time to celebrate marches permitted and under uncontested police control, while condemning the riotous action in Baltimore in reaction to police violence.

Seattle police announced that they hoped for a repeat of May Day 2014, which they deemed "successful." I hope not one police force has a successful May Day this year. We know too well what successful policing means: the control, oppression, and decimation of black life. May the odds, for once, be against their favor.


Despite official efforts to erase May Day from the U.S. imaginary, it has remained marked by protests and labor movement action. In 2006, immigration reform activists rallied hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country in support of a mass one-day boycott by immigrants of U.S. schools and businesses. In 2012, Occupy optimistically called for a General Strike. The day did bring tens of thousands into the streets, but the fevered hopes of those of who wanted capital-shattering social rupture did not, shockingly, come to fruition.

For me, May 2012 was when I saw the capacity with which activists—especially those undying cadres of grey-haired, dyed in the wool liberal-leftists—choose to defang protests. I witnessed, and have again seen since, the NYPD's ferocious ability to shut down dissent (a fact of which we were fiercely reminded as police cracked down on Thursday's Baltimore solidarity march). Above all, though, May Day 2012 taught me the pitfalls of putting too much focus on one day, as if Rome could fall so fast.


Three years later, we find ourselves in an importantly different political moment. If Occupy brought an air of resistance, the Ferguson protests fostered a tornado, the force of which we owe to the bold acts of young black people in the streets. Again and again, Black Lives Matter protests have shut down major infrastructure in cities across the nation. The Baltimore unrest refuses business-as-usual; the business, that is, of white supremacy and racist cop violence.

No calendar day, however steeped in historic unrest, provokes urgent fury. Not like Mike Brown's body lying in the street for four hours, the non-indictment of his killer and that of Eric Garner's killer, Freddie Gray's severed spine. We know these catalytic horrors to be part of U.S. policing's constant assault on black life. As such, every occasion is one for rage. It's simply some providence that May Day falls now, thick with historic symbolism.