More Than May Day

by Nikkita Oliver

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is celebrated on May 1st in countries across the globe. Established by members of the The Second International, a socialist party, May Day both honors the struggles of workers and memorializes the Haymarket Massacre of 1886. The Haymarket Massacre was a peaceful worker-led workers-rights demonstration turned violent by police; which seems to be the status quo Seattle Police Department is hell-bent on continuing to preserve.

For the past two May Days I have both marched at the May Day March/Parade and served as a legal observer at the Anticapitalist March. To say the least, it is a long day–some parts far more enjoyable than others and some much more traumatizing than others. The parade is always like a family reunion. Reconnecting with organizers and activists I haven’t had the chance to speak with since the start of the year. There are a lot of hugs and kisses and “what are you up to nows.” It is a beautiful parade of marchers!

The Anticapitalist March is a much different experience. Imagine the streets full of hundreds of police officers (500-600+) from different jurisdictions and cities dressed like storm troopers–riding bikes, carrying sticks, launching flashbangs, and shooting god knows what at people running from them (some of them not even a part of the march). Imagine anarchists (about 200) dressed in all black prepared for their yearly dance with the devil chanting about the ills of capitalism, bringing down the system, and state sanctioned violence. It is a sordid sight to behold.

This year’s march left me in tears with clear signs of PTSD. Maybe it was the hundreds of police officers in riot gear carrying big long sticks reminiscent of something most people have only seen in a history book or on television. Maybe it was the way the police blocked the march in at Westlake engaging the protesters with violent and aggressive tactics from the start. Maybe it was the flashbangs they threw into the crowd while thrusting their bikes forward yelling move back knowing the protestors were hemmed in for at least two blocks in all directions but one. Maybe it was the tents full of houseless people, many of them black and native, living on the sidewalk in Pioneer Square, cheering on the protesters as they run from the police attack, looking like a scene straight out of New Orleans after Katrina. Or maybe it was spotting one of my youth, a young 6’2” black male whom I’ve know since he was in elementary school, standing in the middle of the sidewalk in a daze with his hands in the air struggling to decide which direction he will run as flashbangs and smoke fill the air. When I first spotted him all I could do in the moment was yell, “Go home! Just go home!”

Upon seeing him a deep instinctual fear filled my belly. All I could do was tell him to get in somewhere safe; to go home if he could. I mean the words literally sobbed out of my mouth as tears filled my eyes. He was easily one of the tallest and one of the youngest people out there. Being tall, young and black also made him a major target.

I’m sure someone reading this is thinking, “Well, he shouldn’t have been out there.” He wasn’t. He was doing what teenagers do in Seattle on a sunny Sunday–kickin’ it and just walking around downtown. He had no idea the Anticapitalist March was happening and when he found himself in the middle of it all he had no idea how to protect himself.

After I told him to go home he ran away like a P.O.W.; his hands up in the air, his head hanging low, and his feet swift and quick. I watched his white shirt and red hat disappear into the distance. I worried about him the rest of the evening until I could verify he made it home safely. Seeing him there in the midst of the chaos accompanied by anarchist chants, police yelling, flashbangs and the pungent smell of mase while running through a Katrina-esque encampment in Pioneer Square is traumatizing.

There are so many things that I could write about regarding May Day, but what I experienced on Sunday was much more than May Day. Much more than police brutality (and some obvious use of force violations *cough cough* the Federal consent decree). Much more than anarchy. It was yet another encounter with the truth of our existence in this country. As a black, brown and/or poor peoples in this place our existence here is like standing on thin ice. Like my student we need only be in the wrong place at the wrong time having no idea how to protect ourselves for us to fall through the ice. If I had not told him to go home when I did or if he had chosen not to listen to me, he would have been swept up in a protest for which he was not prepared.

This is the struggle of black, brown and/or poor youth all over the United States today. They are being swept up into a protest for which they are not prepared and it is our, the organizers and activists, job to be preparing them. I love the May Day March, but is more like a parade. There are a lot of rousing speeches and a lot of opportunity to reconnect with other movers and shakers; which is great but not enough. I also fully support the right of all people, including anarchists and anticapitalists, to assemble and protest. Nearly all important justice oriented change in the United States has been the result of the People resisting, organizing and uprising for change. Also, great but not enough. Whether you prefer the May Day Parade or the Anticapitalist Rally and March, I ask, “What are we doing to ensure the next generation is prepared to take up the torch?”

The painful reality is: Next time I may not be there to tell my student to “go home.” So next time, because there will likely be a next time, he needs to be prepared to protect himself. He must be prepared to resist, organize, and uprise. His preparation is his and our responsibility. We must do more than May Day.

Nikkita Oliver is a Seattle based lawyer, organizer, educator and spoken word artist