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Taking Back May Day: What to Expect on the Nationwide Day of Rallies, Strikes and Actions

Organizers and activists have planned direct actions and mass rallies, marches and blockades, as well as mutual aid and concerts to include as many people as possible.

The stickers, posters and graffiti have been popping up for months on subway walls, street signs, pay phones, and abandoned buildings, all with the same message: "May 1: Strike!"

Some are gorgeously designed or illustrated works of art. Some list the activities in which one shouldn't participate: no housework, banking or work. Others rattle off the types of workers who should strike—freelance and union workers, students and teachers. But they all have the same date: May 1st. Long celebrated as International Workers' Day, long forgotten in the United States and replaced with the defanged Labor Day, May Day is once again shaping up to be a national day of action for the “99 percent,” thanks to the Occupy movement.

The last time May 1 brought coordinated action across the country was in 2006, when immigrant workers took to the streets to remind the country what it would be like without them in the famous “Day Without an Immigrant.” May 1, 2012 has been called a general strike, but also, in direct reference to and solidarity with the immigrant rights actions of 2006, “A Day Without the 99%.” Organizers and activists, aware that actually pulling off a nationwide general strike will take years, not months, of work, have planned direct actions and mass rallies, marches and blockades, as well as mutual aid, concerts, and other events to include as wide a swath of the population as possible, providing workers who can't strike with other ways to take part.

“I hope this brings in a new history to May Day; instead of being one struggle or another struggle each year, to really just be a movement struggle,” Nelini Stamp, an organizer with the Working Families Party and Occupy Wall Street, told AlterNet. “May Day has grit to it that I think is really beautiful and really inspiring and has that direct action piece ingrained with it.”

Educate and celebrate

Internationally, May 1 is a day for celebration, a holiday in many countries, and many of the actions this year focus on bringing that spirit of celebration back and into the streets. “I've actually spent two May Days not in the States and it was just amazing, the workers are out in the streets and it's their holiday,” Stamp said.

“My favorite art for May Day depicts the shedding of chains,” George Machado, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who helped put together a concert in New York's Union Square, told AlterNet. “We have our grievances and yeah we're angry, but we want to celebrate with one another.”

Unlike last fall's rumor that Radiohead was playing the Liberty Plaza occupation, this concert is really happening: Tom Morello, Das Racist, Immortal Technique and others are playing in the public square from 4 to 5:30pm. But like that rumored show, Machado and other organizers hope that the big-name artists will help draw in people who've never been involved with Occupy, labor, or immigrant rights organizing.

“It's been so difficult for the media to categorize this movement because there's this large social aspect to it,” Machado noted. The concert aims to bring people together around music, but in a politicized context, adding weight to the already political work of the musicians involved, but also reminding everyone that there is a joyful dimension to collective action.

One of the integral components of the original occupation of Zuccotti Park was public education; lectures from world-renowned thinkers and professors like Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek were common occurrences, as were teach-ins on a variety of subjects. May 1 will take that to another level with the Free University, held in Madison Square Park from 10am to 3pm. There will be over 124 classes, lectures or discussions happening in the park, where educators have been invited to bring their classes if they cannot skip a day, and create a space for free public education. “It's a rethinking of higher education, as we fight tuition increases, debt increases—it's about what we fundamentally believe, which is that we all deserve access to education,” said Manissa McCleave Maharawal, one of the organizers of Free University. “It's the Occupy idea, that what we're actually going to do is create what we want. We don't want debt, we don't want tuition increases, we don't want precarious adjunct labor, but what we do want is a free university that is organized in a horizontal way, that lets everyone be valued.”