On Newness and History as Occupy and the World Celebrate May Day
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While May Day began as a day of struggle that included the mobilization of all sorts of workers, immigrants, leftists, socialists, communists, anarco-syndicalists and anarchists, since WWII, particularly in Europe and the US, it became characterized more by reformist union marches. In 1958 in the US, the government even tried to hijack the date designating it as Loyalty Day and attempting to physically obstruct mobilizations. With the decline of the industrial labor force in the later 1970s in the global north, May Day seemed to be increasingly less a point of reference for movements, especially in the global North.
Instead of losing its importance in the past decades however, May Day has begun to be re-signified by the movements and has begun to move again into one of the centers of massive mobilization.
One thread of the re-appropriation of May Day can be found in the “Revolutionary May Day” demonstrations in Germany and parts of (mainly) Northern Europe. They trace back to May 1st 1987 when police stormed a peaceful street festival organized by revolutionary collectives and neighborhood organizations in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, an area characterized by a strong immigrant and leftist population. Radical activists and inhabitants of Kreuzberg started to fight back against police attacks, setting up barricades and burning police cars. It was then that the battle turned into an urban uprising, which eventually forced the police out of the neighborhood for the night. That night the streets in the heart of Kreuzberg were filled with massive street parties, while simultaneously there was looting of shops and grocery stores. The Kreuzberg uprising became a symbol, and ever since “Revolutionary May Day” demonstrations are held in Kreuzberg, often with up to 20.000 participants. The police mobilize for every one, and there is almost always repression and skirmishes. Over the years “Revolutionary May Day” has spread to other cities in Germany and throughout northern Europe.
Another appropriation of May 1st by the more recent movements is with the EuroMayDay. EuroMayDay began in 2005 in dozens of European cities, including Milan, Naples, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Helsinki, Seville-Malaga, Lisbon, Vienna, Maribor, Zurich, Copenhagen, and Liège, and then spread to other cities around the world, such as Tokyo and Toronto, loosing its prefix “Euro”. The MayDay Parade emerged from the global justice movement in October 2004 during an autonomous event organized parallel to the European Social Forum. The basic idea was to unify the struggles of precarious workers and migrants for social rights and the freedom of movement across borders, as well as to create a trans-European network for mobilizations beyond the, up until then, one day of mobilization focus. The first coordinated EuroMayDay was held in 2005. Its origins go back to 2001 in Milan, Italy, when an alliance of labor activists of precarious workers, Rank-and-File Union Committees (CUB) squatted social centers and migrant organizations unified efforts for a May Day of the “precarious”. The term “precarious” refers to all people living with income and work insecurity, uneven or a total lack of access to social services and/or often being subjected to repressive migration laws.
One of the central characteristics of MayDay is to understand the diversity of the subjectivities engaged as an enrichment of the struggle – therefore the concept of unity is a different one than in traditional workers and leftist organizations, where the concept is based more on homogenization. This diversity is often expressed in the form of a parade - drawing upon the tactics of the global justice movement - where joy and celebration were core, as shown with groups such as Reclaim The Streets and The Pink Block, but also simultaneously mixing this joyous celebration with direct actions, such as temporary occupations of institutions, expropriation of food and other goods from chain food stores, and the use of public transport without paying. Some of the MayDay networks became places where precarious workers, migrants and other workers, came for support around particular issues, struggles and actions – not related to May 1st actions. The rubric and actual networks of MayDay became central places for organizing around issues such as the struggles and protests of precarious workers, such as those in call centers or short time contract workers in the service industries, as well as struggles against deportation and detention centers, against copyright and for general access to services understood as commons. The different MayDays around Europe met regularly for discussion and coordination and made transnational calls for demonstrations. As of 2010 this form of organization began to shift, and while they still exist they have also again begun to change form.