May Day 2014

“Space is social”
— Henri Lefebvre

I’m too shy for this social activism stuff. But for the third year in a row I went to Denver on May Day to find out what the local anti-capitalist folks were up to. On my first May Day, 2012, I was in Denver anyway because my trial the previous day went long and I had to be in court on the morning of May 1st to find out from the jury whether I was guilty or not. That year, riding the momentum of Occupy Wall Street, there were hundreds of people out in the park all day. Various unions had organized speakers, some anarchists were hosting a really (really) free market, I saw pro-immigration chalk art advertising some Maoist website. Everyone was there! Some friendly transient kids even managed to outmaneuver my reluctance and included me in their conversation. When it got dark we slept out on the 16th Street Mall to protest the then-pending (now in force) urban camping ban.

Last year on May Day by the time I caught a bus to Denver it was snowing. I walked all over downtown (and then some) for hours and never found any May Day demonstrators. But the walk itself was lovely, the snowfall being unusually still and the flakes large. By the time I gave up and went back to the bus station, there was 5" of snow on the ground.

This year it was sunny, and I found the demonstration immediately: several dozen people holding banners and red flags at the bottom of the steps leading up to the capitol building. May Day this year happened to fall on the first Thursday of May, the National Day of Prayer.[1] While the socialists were waving their red flags near the street at the bottom of the steps, about the same number of Christians were waving flags, singing, and praying at the top of the stairs. I don’t know which group was exhibiting the more wishful of thinking.

Photographs of musicians playing at Denver’s May Day
A bunch of commies showed up for the National Day of Prayer (photo by Janet Matzen)

I was a little disappointed with the small number of people who turned out. In a park a couple of blocks away from the demonstration I had walked past people doing some sort of group exercise. There were more people there, stretching in a park in the middle of a Thursday, than the entire gamut of working class and anti-capitalist groups in Denver could get to show up for an international labour day. At one point in the afternoon an elementary school class walked through our demonstration as part of a field trip to the state capitol. I think there were more children in that class learning the name of the state bird than there were demonstrators.

But a small demonstration can be a good thing, offering opportunities for more intimate conversation and an exchange of ideas which is not possible during massive demonstrations. The topics represented by the banners and short speeches being made throughout the day included refusal of work, the criminalization of homelessness, anarchism, and the police (who were gathered across the street and around the corner — at times there was probably a police officer surveilling us or ready for action for every two protesters in attendance). In other words, these were people who were interested in the same things I’m interested in — yet I managed to keep to myself for most of the day, feeling increasingly disconnected and depressed.

It is geography that fails me in my shyness. When I arrive at a place, and I do all the time, I don’t ask, “What is this place and how was it produced?” I need instead a normative geography. I’m constantly finding myself at places, and when I do I want to know, “What should I do here?” But I don’t know. I never know what to do when I get somewhere.

At demonstrations like the one on May Day I just hold to a vague hope that my presence alone will add to the body count and thereby increase the effectiveness of any worthwhile message. “Look, they’ve got flags, megaphones, and a guy sitting on the grass. Maybe capitalism is bad after all!” I’ve brought signs to protests before; those are good because they allow you to ineffectively communicate without even speaking. This year I brought some pamphlets I made just in case opportunities arose to hand them out. No such opportunities did arise.

Another aspect of the demonstration which left me feeling a little disaffected was some of the ideas being extolled by the group of anti-authoritarian (self-proclaimed anarchist) young men in attendance. One of them lamented the NSA in one sentence, and then expressed concern over “chemtrails” in the next. Many of them identified with Anonymous, complete with Guy Fawkes masks and the insufferably melodramatic aesthetic which characterizes that movements' propaganda. They also endorsed the Zeitgeist Movement, which is a throwback to old utopian socialism inspired by a trilogy of conspiracy-theory laden documentaries created by Peter Joseph.

I don’t know any of the Denver Anonymous kids, so I might be reading too much idealism into a few statements I overheard. But I know substituting conspiracy theories and blind anti-authoritarian rhetoric for a solid materialist understanding of capitalism would not be unusual for inquisitive young anarchists. It’s my estimation that the people (who usually seem to be young men) attracted to those movements and theories have good instincts and motives, it is their sense of justice and their anti-authoritarian instincts which have guided them towards anarchism, but it is that same instinct which allows them to view conspiracy theories as reasonable. They know the world is organized backwards, and they are eager to accept any explanation for the current state of affairs so that they might have somewhere to direct their energy and their anger. They have a sense of their own alienation, but not an articulated consciousness of it. I guess unsubstantiated conspiracy theories are more accessible or easier to digest than solid Marxist and anarchist critiques of capitalism. That’s unfortunate.

I did greet and meet a few people. One homeless vet who has been involved in homeless rights activism on his own saw the sign calling for a repeal of the camping ban and asked me about it. I was able to point him to the Denver Homeless Out Loud website.

Janet Matzen was there; she’s the tireless activist who has been leading boycotts against members of the Downtown Denver Partnership in an effort to get the camping ban repealed. They’ve already convinced two businesses to take a public stance against the ban, and they are currently targeting the Tattered Cover Bookstore having picketed it (while also feeding any hungry passersby) every Friday evening for the past twenty weeks.

My favorite part of the entire event was the banjo player and drummer (members of the band Seizure Rights and pictured above), who were playing songs — both radical and popular — all day.

Haymarket Pamphlet

Wikipedia has a high quality article on the Haymarket affair. I adapted an abridged version into a pamphlet titled “Origins of May Day: The Haymarket Affair.” It is available in several sizes of PDF:

Thumbnail of pamphlet

Other Reports

1. The National Day of Prayer does not always fall on May Day, but two other federal holidays do (less accidentally): Loyalty Day and Law Day.


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