May Day in cyberspace
The what, why, how...and so what? of May Day 2001.
On 1 May 2001, all over the world, protesters will take to the streets. Like May Day’s trade unionists of the past, today’s activists march under the vague banners of ‘anti-capitalism’ – but this is where the similarity ends.
Today’s politics of protest is new; based on non-hierarchical organisation and ‘expressive’ actions, and motivated by a gamut of causes from animal rights to saving the environment to destroying multinationals.
Protesters communicate and organise, not through dog-eared newspapers, fly-posters or leaflets, but through that twenty-first-century medium: the internet. spiked has surfed the May Day websites of the world, to find out the what, why and how of May Day 2001.
What is May Day protest?
By most accounts, May Day protests are about using your imagination and having a fun time.
London protesters aim for their protests to be: ‘A celebration of diversity, vitality, creativity and the imagination. Autonomous action, separate yet interconnected, bringing colour, noise, energy and vibrancy to the grey, lifeless, shopfronts of capital’ (Maydaymonopoly.net). Adverts for potential protesters call for ‘Working groups for puppet, prop and banner-making. Anyone in a band, with a sound system’ (Maydaymonopoly.net). LA protesters say their May Day will be ‘a day of dancing, of expression, of action and refusal’ (Infoshop.org).
The UK WOMBLES (White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles) plan to march around London with a giant blow-up Uncle Bulgaria (the leader of the fictional creatures, the Wombles, who go around London’s Wimbledon Common picking up and recycling litter).
The UK protests are organised around the theme of Monopoly, a board game that involves people buying and selling property in London (and is usually played on Christmas-day afternoons in respectable homes). The Monopoly board is a prop, a muse, to stimulate the protesters’ creativity: ‘Look at a Monopoly board and consider the possibilities – housing, debt, railways, privatised utilities, prisons and above all streets and areas in which the daily business of capitalism continues, normally unhindered.’ (Maydaymonopoly.net)
After contemplating the monopoly board, the website recommends: ‘Get your group or campaign to begin discussing what action they want to do. If you do not belong to a group then get together with a few mates.’ Build-up actions could involve ‘Entering a pub quiz or a football league with a team called “The Anti-Capitalists” [to] alert people to your presence’ (Urban75).
This imaginative playfulness sits incongruously with statements about bringing down capitalism: ‘As the global capitalist misery machine continues, our struggle will continue: join in the fun on Tuesday 1 May’ (Wombleaction). In Australia, ‘May Day is historically an international day of solidarity for the oppressed and exploited. And we are going to party while we own the streets of Sydney for the day.’ (Geocities.com) In Los Angeles: ‘On 1 May people all over the world will take over the cities of this crumbling civilisation! We will dance. We will love.’ (Angelfire.com)
Of course, there are always a few protesters who will use their creativity to more destructive ends. Such as: ‘The International Network of Night Workers (INNW) is calling for a night of property destruction against capitalism on May Day eve. Their suggested target list for May Day 2001 includes: McDonalds, Nike, Monsanto, Citibank, Shell, and the Gap.’ (Infoshop.org)
Today’s protesters see themselves as more radical than the staid old union affairs of the past. Sydney protesters look back at the tradition of May Day and assesses that ‘This year it is going to be bigger and more focused than ever’ (Geocities.com). London protesters criticise the way that in the past ‘Labour bosses turned May Day into a safe bank holiday for speachifying’, and claim that their new brand of protest is a radical break from this: ‘in the last few years there have been attempts to reclaim May Day as a day to celebrate our struggles…May Day Monopoly will continue this process’ (Maydaymonopoly.net).
Why don’t they like capitalism?
There are lots of different aspects of capitalism that the protesters don’t like. May Day 2001 sum up their problems in a few statements at the bottom of their page: ‘Shell kill Nigerians; McDonalds kill cows; Monsanto spread weeds; the Murdochs lie; Nestle kill babies.’ (Mayday2001.org) London protesters object to the ‘monopoly that capitalism has over our lives’ and ‘the logic of an economy that produces war, famine, ecological destruction, fear and instability in its search to accumulate profit’ (Maydaymonopoly.net).
Despite this conviction about capitalism’s badness, some of the protesters’ grasp of the workings of the system seem a bit mystifying. One UK site says that the game of Monopoly originally was ‘a distraction from the reality of capitalist poverty. Such distractions may have got more sophisticated – TV, the internet, holidays abroad, flashy cars, etc – but our exploitation continues unchecked’ (Maydaymonopoly.net).
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your flashy cars and holidays abroad.
Brisbane protesters explain the existence of the stock exchange as ‘Compulsive gambling’, which ‘destroys lives…democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, third world development and the environment’. They raise the clarion call: ‘Please help compulsive gamblers.’ (M1brisbane)
The point of how May Day actions will lead to the downfall of capitalism is not explained. A London website flashes up the sequence: business man – bags of money – woman with arms upraised, her chains broken – dice – question mark (Maydaymonopoly.net). This gives a vague idea of the what, but not the how.
Sydney protesters explain the effects of their street party: ‘By throwing a spanner in the workings of a modern industrialised city such as Sydney we are creating a breathing space for the citizens of the third world and sending a wake-up call to the workers and community of the first.’ (Geocities.com) (It might be interesting to survey the citizens of South-East Asia to see how many felt they had a ‘breathing space’ on 1 May.)
This association of grand aims and small-scale, individual means, belies a childlike view of the world. Brisbane’s May Day site calls on protesters to ‘Give corporate tyranny the finger!’ by blockading the stock exchange (M1brisbane). The stock exchange ‘Represents the worst aspects of capitalism in Australia’ – ‘OUR WORLD IS NOT FOR SALE’. UK protesters think that by playing ‘monopoly’ for a day they can ‘disown it all’ (Maydaymonopoly.net).
If you are still confused, perhaps the key to the meaning of these protests can be found on one May Day holding page, which features a picture of three naked people running off into a blue background. A dreadlocked man points the way (heavenward and slightly to the right) with his hand (S11.org).
How to protest on May Day?
After their foggyness about the what and why of May Day, protesters’ websites display an array of expertise on the how.
Comprehensive advice on protection gear for protesting (including recommended makes, prices and delivery periods) can be found at the Ya Basta! US site (Freespeech.org). This chatty site has many pearls of protesters’ wisdom: ‘Ear plugs are useful. They are cheap and will offer some protection against concussion grenades and other acoustic attacks. They are light and easy to use.’ And, ‘Outside the helmet as discussed earlier one should also bring things to protect your eyes if you do not have a gas mask. Swimming goggles are cheap and effective. Skiing goggles and other sports goggles can work well (some need to be modified with duct tape to plug vents)’.
This protection gear site provides a link to the outdoor sports site, the Sportsman’s Guide, where would-be protesters can equip themselves to take the sting out of the policeman’s baton (Sportsmansguide.com). The logo for the Sportsman’s Guide is a deer leaping in front of a wooded country background, while founder and chairman Gary Olen grins in a wholesome manner in front of a snowy tree. Sociologists would have a field day analysing the subversiveness of this link to respectable, middle America.
US anarchists outline some of their protest ‘Blackbloc techniques’:
‘Tactics vary from black bloc to black bloc. Some common ones include unarresting and arm-linking. Unarresting is where the bloc frees people who don’t want to be arrested. This usually works if you outnumber the cops. Arm linking, or locking, helps a bloc maintain cohesion and makes it harder for the police to disperse members. It’s kind of like a police formation, although more fluid and organic.’ (Infoshop.org)
Australian protesters give you practise at avoiding cops on the day, with their ‘resistance’ internet game. Cops with raised batons fall out of the sky like rain, while you dodge them with your computer mouse (Resistance.org).
UK Urban75 documents the appalling infringements of rights to protest that have been brought through under the UK Criminal Justice Act, and provides a substantial guide to the few remaining rights protesters have, before and after arrest (Urban75).
Those wishing to play informed Monopoly on May Day in London can find background information on streets (Old Street, Pall Mall), and the street numbers of properties that may be of interest to potential protesters (Urban75). It is suggested that would-be protesters research their chosen building before planning their action.
After this review, it must be said that May Day protest websites are not much help in explaining what May Day protest is supposed to represent, or why we should protest. Their strong point is that they could help you perform an act of protest that is meticulously planned, and beautifully executed.
Direct action and dire ideas, by Mick Hume
May Day UK: media-staged, police-controlled, damp squib, by Josie Appleton
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