I used to think "May Day" was a distress signal uniquely reserved for hapless pilots and captains. In fact, it wasn't until graduate school while taking an American rhetorical history course that I learned about the Haymarket Riots/Massacre and that Labor Day for many people around the world (International Workers Day), except for Americans, is May 1, in memory of those who died in Chicago on May 3 and 4, 1886 and in celebration of the humanist accomplishments of the international labor movement.
On May 1, labor unions had organized a strike there for the eight-hour day, better working conditions ("The Jungle" is hard to beat on this), for an ideal of international proportions: that one's labor and the person from whom it issues must be respected. For some people such respect meant that laborers deserved certain rights of negotiation and safety to avoid a new feudalism in the age of mass production.
On May3, they organized a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., where a fight broke out on the picket line; police intervened, killing two workers and wounding several others. Workers across the city were enraged. Anarchists then distributed flyers for a labor rally at Haymarket Square the following day. Reports vary in this highly politicized event, but many note that people listened peacefully to anarchist leader August Spies's address. Then apparently someone threw a bomb over the crowd, which landed on the police line killing a police officer and wounding other policeman who died later. Policeman fired into the crowd killing a number of people (there are no uncontested counts). Eight German immigrants associated with anarchism were rounded up and convicted on no evidence. The motive was that they were anarchists. Seven of them were sentenced to death. One committed suicide. One's sentence was commuted to life in prison. And five were hanged publicly.
The trial produced some of the most eloquent criticisms of American industrial society and its political butresses. Some, such as George Engel's, even provide an explanation/argument for how one came to be a socialist/anarchist. Here is an excerpt from George Englel's address to the jury, which I recommend reading in its entirety by clicking on this link.
[...]On the occasion of my arrival at Philadelphia, on the 8th of January, 1873, my heart swelled with joy in the hope and in the belief that in the future I would live
AMONG FREE MEN,
and in a free country. I made up my mind to become a good citizen of this country, and congratulated myself on having left Germany, and landed in this glorious republic. And I believe my past history will bear witness that I have ever striven to be a good citizen of this country. This is the first occasion of my standing before an American court, and on this occasion it is murder of which I am accused. And for what reasons do I stand here? For what reasons am I accused of murder? The same that caused me to leave Germany-
THE POVERTY-THE MISERY
of the working classes.
And here, too, in this "free republic," in the richest country of the world, there are numerous proletarians for whom no table is set; who, as outcasts of society, stray joylessly through life. I have seen human beings gather their daily food from the garbage heaps of the streets, to quiet therewith their knawing hunger.
I have read of occurrences in the daily papers which proves to me that here, too, in this great "free land," people are doomed to die of starvation. This brought me to reflection, and to the question: What are the peculiar causes that could bring about such a condition of society? I then began to give our political institutions more attention than formerly. [...]
"I came to the opinion that as long as workingmen are economically enslaved they cannot be politically free. [...]
Of what does my crime consist?
That I have labored to bring about a system of society by which it is impossible for one to hoard millions, through the improvements in machinery, while the great masses sink to degradation and misery. As water and air are free to all, so should the inventions of scientific men be applied for the benefit of all. The statute laws we have are
IN OPPOSITION TO THE LAWS OF NATURE,
in that they rob the great masses of their rights "to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I am too much a man of feeling not to battle against the societary conditions of today. Every considerate person must combat a system which makes it possible for the individual to rake and hoard millions in a few years, while, on the other side, thousands become tramps and beggars.
Is it to be wondered at that under such circumstances men arise, who strive and struggle to create other conditions,
WHERE THE HUMANE HUMANITY SHALL TAKE PRECEDENCE
over all other considerations? [...]
As this article demonstrates, the radical democratic history of May Day has been coopted in a few places in the world (in an attempt to rob it of its radical history as a resource for current politics), namely the U.S. Like other rights and practices many people hold to be sacred today, the eight-hour day was the result of social struggle and bloodshed (I'm just testifying about it; don't try this at home) by those considered "extremists."
In that same graduate school class where I learned about the history of May Day, a Polish student who had grown up in the last days of the Soviet Empire told an interesting story. Apparently on May Day, a Polish TV news correspondent was sent to Chicago to report on May Day. He went to the site of the Hay Market, where a monument to the police had been constructed then vandalized. (Only in 2004 was one constructed to acknowledge the workers who died there too. The politics of memorializing this event is quite a story in itself--see "Haymarket Square in the Aftermath"). The Polish reporter went around Chicago asking citizens if they knew that May Day was an international holiday in memory of the Haymarket riots and massacre. No one knew what he was talking about. He responded on their Communist state-run TV broadcast, "This is how capitalism perpetuates itself. Citizens here are robbed of their own history and live in a dreamworld." You don't have to like the Soviet Union to find truth in his observation. (and please, neo-liberals, don't be so cynical as to characterize this memorial as an extreme argument for state ownership of property;it's rather about some redistribution for equal opportunity and the basis for participation in civic life, and limitation of the most powerful who set the terms for the labor market)
The testimony of Engel and others at their fateful trial is also a causal argument about what desperate human beings will do when they suffer political exclusion to work out conflict peacefully. The fact that this event is largely a ghost in American history speaks to how unwilling some people are to look at the ugliness of our history (not that forgetting isn't best in some situations from a certain point of view), the struggles of citizen against citizen because such knowledge is threatening to myths of nation and its tenuous coherence. It's also threatening to those whose interests invested in criminalizing critiques of a consumer society that is killing our planet, not just its people. Part of the reason why it may continue is the suppression of other knowledges of the past and critiques of the present. Just as many wounded laborers were afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested when police opened fire on the crowd on May 4, 1886 (after the bomb exploded) , so today one faces being branded an extremist, a radical, a revolutionary, merely for remembering this past.
Today (yesterday for some people reading this) is May Day. Today, let us remember these people who brought us the weekend.