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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love May Day

Putting me in the middle of a crowd chanting “The people united! Will never be defeated!” is a bit like putting the Grinch in the middle of a Christmas choir.

by Harry Cheadle
May 2 2012, 9:30pm

I went out to the May Day general strike protests in New York City yesterday, ironically enough, because it was my job. I was carrying bags of equipment to help with VICE’s live stream of the proceedings—if I wasn’t doing that there’s no way you would have found me humping across the Williamsburg Bridge in the mist, jostling against motorcycle cops and the bearded kids of Occupy Bushwick. Without going off on a rant that’s sure to attract a bunch of commenters who use V for Vendetta masks as their avatars, I’ll just say that I’ve always disagreed with the confused, anti-capitalist messaging of Occupy Wall Street, as well as their undergraduate-esque conviction that camping in public parks is a major historical development. So putting me in the middle of a crowd chanting “The people united! Will never be defeated!” is a bit like putting the Grinch in the middle of a Christmas choir, only I don’t think the Grinch rolled his eyes until they hurt.

A lot of what happened on May Day was pretty goddamn silly. Some of it was the bad kind of silliness, like “anarchists” in Seattle smashing up chain stores and cars (because that worked out so well a decade ago at WTO, right guys? You fucking won that war and felt good about yourselves, right?) or cops and protestors not getting along in Montreal. But if Seattle and Montreal were scenes out of Rage Against the Machine songs, New York’s marches—at least the bits I saw—resembled Neutral Milk Hotel B-sides, including tubas, twee outfits, and handmade instruments.

Events in New York included a meditation circle, a surprisingly well-choreographed marching band routine, a set from Das Racist, and a lot—a lot—of impromptu drumming. A young girl walked around on stilts to represent I don’t know what in Union Square, and some guys representing the one percent in “Tax Dodger” baseball uniforms (get it?) were photographed over and over again. During the march from Union Square to Wall Street, a guy in a very convincing Captain America costume stepped out onto a third-story window ledge to cheers. Believing that any of this is going to lead to the downfall of capitalism, or even, say, the government reconsidering giving subsidies to oil companies is silly—there’s no other word for it. It’s like attempting to fly to Mars by eating a lot of mayonnaise.

My main gripe with May Day, actually, concerns the people who really think they can bring the state down through protests. The anarcho-communist-whatevers in the Blac Bloc want to accomplish this goal through, um, breaking windows, or attacking photographers, or burning an American flag. How this helps anyone is kind of beyond me, but then again, I’m not a piece of shit teenager who uses The Communist Manifesto and a black handkerchief as an excuse to act like a drunken fratboy. But in New York, these guys were in the minority. There were a reported 30 people arrested yesterday, mostly on disorderly conduct charges, which seems like a lot unless you consider what happens at the West Indian Day Parade every year. And for all the black-clad stupid silliness of the Black Bloc, there was stuff like this to counterbalance it:

A lot of the silliness on May Day was the good kind of silly, the silliness that hurts no one and makes even a cold-hearted capitalist like me smile. Regardless of political affiliation, if you can’t grin at a couple of mimes pretending to be cops “frisking” bystanders, you need to lighten up a little. In the context of a protest like May Day, I don’t know how you define “success.” If the goal was to get any closer to any of OWS and co.’s demands—higher wages, more jobs, raising taxes on millionaires, relaxing immigration policy, legalizing pot and gay marriage, etc. etc. etc.—I doubt any of what happened yesterday helped anything. On the other hand, if you look at May Day as a kind of Leftist Pride Parade, not unlike Gay Pride events or New York’s Puerto Rico day, you can understand the marches as a big party that celebrates a shared identity. “Celebrates” being the key word.

Over the past several decades, America’s moved to the right thanks to a ruthless and fairly quiet conservative movement that won local elections, funded think tanks and media outlets, appointed judges, and won so much influence that today Democrats’ major policy proposals—cap and trade and the mandate that everyone buy health insurance—were originally Republican ideas that the ever-further-to-the-right GOP now denounces as socialism. (Maybe there’s a lesson there for OWSers trying to build a movement?) During that time, left-wingers have kind of dropped out of the public eye, to the point where most politicians enjoy being called “conservatives” or “moderates,” but never, ever “liberals.” What better way to get some positive mainstream attention for leftism and left-wing values than a day of chants, costumes, marches, and street fairs? Just like the Grinch, my heart has been forcibly warmed by the pure cheerfulness of the holiday. I hope this becomes a tradition, and look forward to May Day 2025, when a just-reunited Radiohead plays a show in Central Park, sponsored by Apple and Ben and Jerry’s.

More May Day 2012:

May Day 2012: VICE Live Coverage

May Day Made My Day