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“Cheese and Bread”
The first time the red flag was ever flown as a symbol of revolution was during the uprising in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil that began in May of 1831. The Merthyr Rising was the last in a long series of such efforts on the part of different elements of Welsh society — peasants, miners, artisans and others. Merthyr was the last armed revolt, but far from the last act of large-scale rebellion in Wales. After Merthyr, in Wales as well as in England and Scotland, the class struggle evolved to take different forms. Namely, with the formation of labor unions for the first time in the following years, strikes and pickets replaced firearms and bloodshed as a means of winning the essential things so desperately needed by the half-starved working class of Great Britain — enough money for food, housing, and clothes.
“The First of May”
On May 1st, 1886, workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day were massacred in Chicago by the police. The following day a massacre took place in Milwaukee. In the aftermath, unions in the US and around the world began marking May 1st as International Workers Day. In most of the world it still is — but not in the US, where it started. This bizarre history of International Workers Day is very representative of the history of the US labor movement and radicalism in the US generally. Although many of the world’s most militant, creative, and effective mass movements originated at some point in the United States, over time pretty much every other industrialized nation overtook the US in every conceivable measure of quality of life.
“Jar of Ashes”
Before his execution, Joe Hill had requested that his ashes be scattered to the wind on International Workers Day. So on May 1st, 1916, in every US state except for Utah, envelopes containing Joe Hill’s ashes were released, with hundreds of thousands of IWW members marking the occasion. By the time of Joe Hill’s arrest, imprisonment and execution, leaders and members of the Industrial Workers of the World were under assault everywhere in the US for their very effective, musical leadership of the restive, largely immigrant working class of the day. Joe Hill was only one of many Wobblies who were killed during those years, and he was only one of many other artists who were as much a valued part of the movement as anyone else.
The Winnipeg General Strike began in earnest on May 15th, 1919, when basically every worker in the city of Winnipeg, both unionized and non-unionized, walked off the job — even including the city’s police force. The strike lasted for over five weeks, and ended in bloodshed on the part of untrained, deputized anti-union thugs who had been whipped up into a xenophobic furor. Although the strike ended in defeat, it was a turning point in Canadian history which saw some of the leaders of the strike being elected to the Canadian parliament.
“Send Them Back”
On May 13th, 1939 the MS St Louis set sail from Hamburg, filled with 937 European refugees. The ship’s passengers were seeking asylum from the Nazi terror that had been ruling Germany already for six years. The ship was first turned away by Cuba, then by the US, then by Canada. It then set sail back to Europe. Hundreds of the refugees would soon be killed when the Nazis invaded the countries in which they had been given asylum, such as the Netherlands and France. One of the refugees who was forced to return to Europe was Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, who later became one of the most famous victims of the Nazi holocaust.
“They All Sang the Internationale”
After seven years in and out of prisons and concentration camps, Katherina Jacob was one of hundreds of prisoners from Ravensbruck who were being led on a death march to Berlin. And then on the morning of May 1st, 1945 came their liberation by Russian troops. The now-liberated former prisoners — many of whom, like Katharina, were communists — began singing the international communist anthem, “the Internationale” (originally a poem written in French during the Paris Commune uprising in 1871).
May 14th, 1948 marks the Naqba — what most Israelis call their Independence Day, when over 700,000 Palestinians fled for their lives from the insurgent Zionist movement. The vast majority of these Palestinian refugees have never been allowed to return to their homes. They and generations of their descendants now live in refugee camps throughout Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and across the planet in the Palestinian diaspora. UN declaration after UN declaration has been ignored by Israel, with the United States facilitating Israel’s intransigence at every turn.
On May 4th, 1970, National Guard soldiers opened fire on protesters at Kent State University who were at least 300 feet away, killing four. Two weeks later a similar massacre would take place at Jackson State. In the weeks and months preceding these massacres, the rhetoric from politicians in Washington as well as the state capitals in California, Ohio and elsewhere had become even more toxic, with student protesters essentially declared to be enemy combatants. It wasn’t long before they were being treated as such by the US military. The willingness of the US authorities to systematically use deadly force against protesters was an essential element in giving birth to militant organizations such as the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army. (In much the same way that the regular use of live ammunition against striking workers led the early twentieth-century anarchist movement in the US to engage in campaigns of bombings and assassinations of top government officials.)
On May 18th, 1971, the walls of a disused military base were breached so local folks could build a playground for their kids. These were the first steps in what would soon became Freetown Christiania, which is still today the biggest urban commune in Europe, and a major Danish tourist attraction. Certainly one of the most lasting and visible contributions of the movement associated with the 1960’s that challenged establishment notions of property ownership and what kind of development was in the public’s interest — in short, whose world is this, anyway?
“Up the Provos”
On May 12th, 1981, Francis Hughes became the second of ten Irish Republican prisoners to die on hunger strike in Belfast. He was a legend long before he was ultimately captured by British military forces — for having evaded capture for a full six years, all the while carrying out the IRA’s version of urban guerrilla warfare. Bobby Sands — the first to go on hunger strike and the first to die — was noted for his eloquence. Francis Hughes, on the other hand, was a man of few words — most known for uttering the phrase “Up the Provos” in every possible circumstance. The fact that telling a historically accurate tale about a man can elicit such radically different reactions from different people is a clear indication of how much our experiences and the narrative about our society that we has internalized determine how we view the same reality.
“Just A Renter”
While few people were paying attention, during a time when many people were still trying to get out of the urban cores of many US cities, state legislatures across the US were taking the opportunity to ban rent control. It was in May, 1985 that Oregon’s legislature banned rent control. The timing was similar for many other state legislatures, with only California and New York being the two states that never banned the practice of the state having some role in determining the practices of landlords in relation to their tenants. The complete deregulation of the rental market has brought us to the extreme housing crisis the US is currently experiencing — the cities of Oregon very much included. The experience of the past and of civilized countries around the world make it crystal clear — the solution is not just more building, but the state acting like it believes housing is a right, not a privilege, and imposing strict controls over the many unscrupulous landlords who would make themselves rich from exploiting the suffering of the poor.
On May 24th, 1990, someone attempted to kill Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, both prominent environmental activists in California at the time. A bomb went off underneath the driver’s seat, where Judi sat when the two of them got in the car. The bomb was planted by someone. Judi survived, in pain, in a wheelchair, for a few more years. Whoever planted the bomb, many aspects of the situation led many people to quickly suspect FBI involvement.
“All the Ghosts That Walk This Earth”
On May 1st, 1993, my housemate and good friend Eric Mark was killed in San Francisco’s Mission District when we went out together that night. His death was devastating to many, especially his family and friends. Through the intense grief that Eric’s death brought me, I learned of my humanity, and in that process also learned how to write good songs.
“On the Streets of Copenhagen”
On May 18th, 1993, eleven people were shot by police with live ammunition in the Norrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen. Demonstrations had erupted in Denmark after Danish voters just barely voted in favor of European centralization of power in the form of the Maastricht Treaty, which most of them had just rejected the year before.
In May, 1993, the Lancet medical journal published a study demonstrating how the dioxin present in waterways throughout the industrialized world is causing the genitalia of mammals and other creatures to shrink in size over the generations.
“More Gardens Song”
On May 8th, 2001, a community garden was raided by police in the Bronx. It was one of hundreds of illegal, “guerilla” gardens, started by movement activists and locals. The gardens serve multiple essential roles in their communities — as a gathering place, as a source of healthy food, and as an implicit challenge to the powers-that-be to the way land is owned, distributed (or not) and used in society. Should a city just be a place for real estate developers to maximize their profits at the expense of the lives of the population? Or should it somehow be something more than that? Who should decide, and how? Lobbyists with bribes, or children with shovels?
“The War Is Over”
On May 1st, 2003, six weeks into the latest US invasion of Iraq, George W Bush gave a speech on top of an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego. In the wake of the utter devastation and destitution that over a decade of sanctions and a massive bombing campaign had wrought, the president declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. The insurgency would begin in earnest within weeks.
“In the Name of God”
On May 31st, 2009, Dr George Tiller was murdered in church by a woman-hating right-wing terrorist. Dr Tiller was the only full-service abortion provider in the state of Kansas. He was a committed servant of womankind, and a believer in safe and legal access to abortion. The “pro-life” killer of the doctor followed in a long tradition of religious zealots and bigots in the United States, beginning with our founding Puritans — a really sick bunch of genocidal racists with absolutely no tolerance for religious dissent. (They hanged Quakers and Catholics for being Quakers or Catholics. Rhode Island existed as a colony for two centuries before there was a single Catholic Church in it.)
“Song for the Mavi Marmara”
At the end of May, 2010, humanitarian aid ships on their way to the Gaza Strip were raided by Israeli military commandos. Nine people were killed, including a US citizen. Scores were injured, everyone was detained, and the ships confiscated. The largest of the aid ships, the Mavi Marmara, owned by a Turkish aid organization called IHH, was eventually returned to Turkey due to Turkish government pressure. Usually Israel doesn’t give the ships back after it illegally raids them in international waters, but this time it eventually did.
“Osama Bin Laden Is Dead”
On May 2nd, 2011, Osama bin Laden, founder of Al-Qaeda and longtime recipient of CIA aid, was ostensibly killed by US Navy commandos in Pakistan. His body was dumped at sea, so who knows what really happened. It was a fairly anticlimactic non-ending to what seems to have become an unending, undefined “War On Terror.” Who defines “terror”? Who is the enemy? Who knows.
“Israeli Geography 101”
On May 24th, 2011, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu got 29 standing ovations in the US Congress — a notably warm reception for a man condemned on innumerable occasions by human rights commissions and UN panels for committing war crimes against Palestinians, Lebanese and others. A man who was engaged in what was being called a “peace process” with an occupied adversary and no mediator. A “peace process” where the occupying power doesn’t even have to define the borders of their country in the course of any negotiations.
“Meanwhile In Afghanistan”
In May, 2012, there was a NATO summit in Chicago. Thousands protested the meetings. An undercover cop framed several Occupy Wall Street activists from Florida for terrorism offenses. Supposedly they were preparing to throw Molotov cocktails at the NATO meetings. In actuality they were staying with a guy who had a home-brewing operation. The filmmaker Haskell Wexler was there, and he made a great film about the protests called Four Days In Chicago. I was there, too (and I’m in the film).
“No Fracking Way”
On May 17th, 2012, Vermont became the first US state to ban the highly toxic practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is the main reason why Vermont has clean drinking water, and Pennsylvania does not. The rapid growth of the fracking industry under both Republican and Democratic state and federal administrations is one more indication of the control corporations have over both parties — with certain notable exceptions, generally in places where social movements are strong enough to bring enough pressure to bear on otherwise unreliable politicians.
On May 2nd, 2013 — coincidentally or not on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden — the governor of New Jersey and an FBI spokesman announced that Assata Shakur was now the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist. Her crime? Allegedly killing a cop who had shot her after she and her colleagues were pulled over and attacked by police on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2nd, 1973. The police had “shoot to kill” orders if they encountered suspected members of the Black Liberation Army — and that’s what they did in this instance, which is why there was a firefight, which is why Assata was shot, which is why the cop was also shot. But he wasn’t shot by Assata, as she had been shot and had her hands above her head at the time. The all-white jury that convicted her, however, didn’t care.
“On the Train”
On May 26th, 2017, three people were stabbed, two of them killed — killed on a Portland MAX train because they came to the defense of two teenage girls who were being racially harassed by a very angry, very violent, armed Nazi.
“Mawda Was Her Name”
On May 17th, 2018, a Belgian cop opened fire on a van full of refugees because the driver wouldn’t stop the van. The van was on the highway, heading towards Antwerp, from which people on board hoped somehow to get to England. The cop was evidently aiming to shoot the driver, but he missed, and killed a two-year-old girl Kurdish girl named Mawda Shamdin instead.