On May 1st 2012 activists all around the globe gathered to celebrate May Day, a pagan holiday that has become a traditional date for insurrection and revolution.
In 1886 the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago heralded a new era of uprisings by labor unions after a rally against police brutality turned violent. Workers at the McCormick farm machine factory were striking for an 8 hour day. A huge march was held on May Day to celebrate the labor uprising. Two days later a person was killed at labor protests outside the McCormick plant.
On May 4th a demonstration and rally was called to protest police brutality. When police tried to disburse the crowd, a bomb was detonated. Police fired into the crowd and by the end of the melee eleven people were killed, including seven police officers. Later reports suggest that some of the cops were probably killed by bullets fired by their fellow officers.
A controversial trial ensued and four “Anarchists” were hanged. Labor leaders and the famous attorney Clarence Darrow petitioned the governor to grant clemency to three of the prisoners. In 1893 Governor John Altgeld granted them clemency. He claimed the trials had been unfair and were a miscarriage of justice. Altgeld was thereafter forever branded by conservatives as the “friend of Anarchists”. His statement on the pardons:
“It is further shown here that much of the evidence given at the trial was a pure fabrication; that some of the prominent police officials, in their zeal, not only terrorized ignorant men by throwing them into prison and threatening them with torture if they refused to swear to anything desired but that they offered money and employment to those who would consent to do this. Further, that they deliberately planned to have fictitious conspiracies formed in order that they might get the glory of discovering them.”
On May Day 2012 Occupy Seattle responded to a call out from Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street for support for a “general strike”. A day long series of rallies, concerts and marches were staged, and although the general strike idea never really came to fruition, a small group of people practicing “Black Bloc” tactics managed to gain the attention of most of the world’s media by smashing windows in the downtown Seattle business district.
Around noon an independent march against capitalism set off from Westlake Park and headed south on Fourth Avenue. Within an hour, windows were broken at the Jackson Federal Building, the old federal courthouse and at several downtown corporate businesses and banks. Cars were also vandalized in the area. The Federal Building was immediately evacuated and Mayor Mike McGinn declared a state of emergency. Police were given the extraordinary power to confiscate anything capable of being used as a weapon – sticks, flag poles, rocks, hammers, etc.
Even local self-proclaimed super hero Phoenix Jones got into the May Day action. He managed to pepper spray a few of the Black Bloc marchers outside the old courthouse where protesters were busy creating new business for local glass makers by smashing out windows with the poles on their black and red banners.
Meanwhile, Westlake Park remained a green zone where May Day participants listened to some of the most talented hip hop artists in Seattle performing live onstage. The atmosphere was joyous as folks danced, partook of the free food and greeted one another with the love that only comes from solidarity in a mutual movement for peace and justice.
The Hip Hop Occupies group held down the home front with a great line up of speakers and entertainers, including former Black Panther member Aaron Dixon.
Dixon stressed the idea of reaching out to the community. “I’m not talking about a violent revolution,” he said. “What we need is a peaceful social revolution that will transform society. We need to feed folks and offer benefits to the community. If we don’t show that we are a benefit to the community, why should they support us?”
The rest of the day remained peaceful as protesters marched and rallied for workers and immigrant rights, but the incidents of property damage were reported by mainstream media as “Mayhem on May Day in Seattle”. If you listened to the local news reports, you would have thought that the anti-WTO riots had risen again. There was tear gas in the streets, small fires on the sidewalk, and black clad anarchists attacking Nike Town and shoving news cameramen to the ground.
The corporate media had a field day reporting on the “Anarchists” and the damage to downtown businesses. A KOMO TV reporter asked “Will companies leave Seattle because it’s not safe to do business here?”
I could only think to myself, “This is exactly what the Black Bloc probably wants to hear in the media.” In other words, the reporter may have been unwittingly supplying encouragement for their next outing…
Within the Occupy Wall Street movement a debate has been sparked once again over Black Bloc tactics as a means of expressing opposition to corporate power. Mainstream liberals and progressives are very worried that these small fringe actions will alienate the 99% and leave the activists vulnerable to police and federal harassment. The radicals however, believe in the concept of “diversity of tactics”. While not advocating or endorsing any property destruction, they see it as the natural result of political and economic repression by the ruling class.
Whatever the case may be, it is clear that even iconoclasts like Chris Hedges are struggling with the idea of riots and breaking windows. While I must admit that Hedge’s February column on the Black Bloc was not well researched, his personal emotional reaction to them does highlight many of the concerns of participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement. While it must be pointed out that no one was seriously injured due to physical attacks from demonstrators, the fact remains that these kind of tactics turn off the majority of people who support the OWS movement in the US.
Unlike their Greek and Italian counterparts, most American activists don’t believe that violence is an effective way to get their message across or to challenge the economic and political system. Instead, they have used occupations of public space, alternative media and political theater to push their agenda for an end to the corruption on Wall Street and in Washington, DC. So far, this Gandhian style non-violent approach has been effective in getting their message out to the world through the global media.
I personally do not condone smashing windows as a way to get the attention of the people. Yes, the media cameras love spectacle, especially if it involves violence and chaos. But if the news coverage turns out to be just another propaganda campaign for corporate interests so they can bash the movement and play into the fearful rhetoric of the right-wingers, then I question whether this tactic can be effective in the long run. Local and federal law enforcement authorities use these incidents of property destruction as justification for the further militarization of police departments.
Having said that, I do understand the frustrations people have with corporations and their monopolistic control over the economy, the government and our daily lives. It is perhaps not surprising that occasionally a few folks decide to take matters into their own hands and lash out at inanimate objects like windows or machines.
But the reality in 2012 is that no firearms were either used or even confiscated during the May Day events in Seattle. People were not interested in directing violence towards human beings. So, in comparison to the Haymarket riots in Chicago, things in Seattle were relatively safe and peaceful despite the media circus. The fact is, the vast majority of the US is largely apathetic or opposed to radical uprisings. They prefer occasional demonstrations and sit-ins.
Mass revolution does not seem to be an imminent threat to the authorities in the United States of America. People are far too passive and apathetic to pay much attention to who’s stealing their future. Most folks only want to live for today, which is why the corporate masters have been getting away with so much debauchery, chicanery, corruption and deceit with any effective opposition.
The bread and circuses of US media has everyone so busy talking about Dancing With The Stars that they don’t have any time to worry about global climate change or the rapid destruction of life in the planet’s oceans. What is needed is actually some kind of planetary or cosmic consciousness that would allow us all to see beyond the borders of our own neighborhoods, cities, countries and planet. Let’s be honest, most residents on earth have very little perspective on what’s happening to the international economy or the global ecosystem. Their knowledge ends when the corporate media picks up the manufactured story.
While ignorance reigns, change may be impossible. As activists spend their valuable time arguing over protest tactics, the planet will continue to suffer under tyranny, corporate greed and rampant militarism. The dying shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico don’t give a damn about whether anarchy or socialism is preferable, but they sure as hell are going to need our help if the planet is to survive!
Meanwhile, the US government is still eavesdropping, building its prison/military/industrial complex and pursuing plans to use drones to assassinate US citizens in other countries. Folks are still shopping, using their credit cards and going into debt at alarming rates while homelessness increases to staggering poroportions. Yet professional sports teams and Hollywood celebrities still reign supreme with no end in sight to their all powerful dominance of American culture.
May Day 2012 was definitely not the revolution the radicals are hoping for…