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How the United States Whitewashes May Day

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When I was an 11-year-old kid in Chicago, my fifth grade class was assigned to do a school assembly for the month of May. As my teacher brainstormed what holidays are in May, I innocently suggested May Day. "No, Paul," she replied sternly. "May Day is only celebrated in Communist countries -- we can't do a play about a Communist holiday."

Of course, Miss Barth was wrong -- May Day is celebrated in almost every country in the world, except the United States. Even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which happened -- of all places -- in Chicago. But for years, the United States has intentionally whitewashed May Day from our culture and our consciousness.

Even in Chicago, it's almost impossible to find Haymarket Square where the riot occurred -- because it basically no longer exists. As Occupy protesters plan to wage massive May Day rallies today across the country, they will have a basic problem -- outside a circle of left-wing activists, most Americans have never heard of May Day. People may be drawn to protest because of their economic woes or Wall Street greed, but not because of some holiday that they never learned about in school.

When I suggested May Day to my fifth grade teacher for our school play, I was not a very precocious 11-year-old -- or even a red-diaper baby. I had just vaguely heard about May Day, as the holiday of fertility where you make flower baskets to celebrate the coming of spring. Any association that May Day has to workers rights -- or left-wing causes -- was foreign to me. But we should have learned about it in school, because the Haymarket Riot happened in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, as part of a national effort by labor unions to pass an eight-hour workday, activists held a peaceful rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square. At around 10:30 p.m., a dynamite bomb exploded in the crowd -- killing seven police officers and four civilians. No one knows who threw the bomb, but the Police suspected and arrested eight anarchists. They were tried and convicted in what everyone admits was a sham trial -- and four of them were executed (one committed suicide in jail.)

The Haymarket Riot and its aftermath outraged working people and their allies across the world, and they started May Day to remember its martyrs and celebrate the struggles of working people. Today, May Day is a national holiday in over 80 countries across the world. While celebrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, it is also a holiday in countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. After South Africa had its first free elections in 1994, May Day became a holiday.

In these countries, workers typically get the day off -- and mass rallies are held to celebrate the struggle of working people for fair wages and an eight-hour workday. My father now lives in Barcelona, Spain (after teaching at the University of Chicago for 20 years) -- and only first learned about May Day because of its rallies there.

But May Day never took hold in the United States. In 1894, after the Pullman Strike (which also happened in Chicago), President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day -- the first Monday in September -- a national holiday. Labor Day was chosen to intentionally co-opt May Day, because they feared commemorating the Haymarket Riot would build support for communism and other radical causes. In 1958 during the McCarthy Era, President Dwight Eisenhower took it even further by signing a law making May 1st Loyalty Day. And in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan enacted May 1st as "Law Day."

Unless you were a red-diaper baby, Americans don't grow up learning about May Day. We did not get the day off in school, and we certainly didn't do a fifth grade play about it. But when I was in the Chicago Public Schools, we got a three-day weekend in early March for Casimir Pulaski Day -- because of Chicago's large Polish-American community. Even the first grade class at Lincoln Elementary School did a play about Pulaski Day.

Haymarket Square? I lived in Chicago for 18 years, and only discovered its location while researching this article. There isn't much left of it, frankly. What used to be Haymarket Square is a block of West Randolph Street - between the Loop & the Kennedy Expressway. But we all knew Mrs. O'Leary's barn where her cow kicked the lantern, because the Chicago Fire Department now has a Training Academy there. Even though 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire, a reporter admitted he made it all up just to sell papers.

Which is why the Occupy Movement's goal of a "General Strike" with thousands of people in the streets on May Day is a little tone-deaf. Yes, May Day 2006 was a huge success -- when thousands of Latino immigrant families marched in cities across the country. But they were not marching to commemorate the Haymarket Riot -- they were protesting mass deportations and the right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria.

What made the May Day 2006 rallies so powerful and influential was it rounded up more than the usual suspects. Spanish radio stations, churches and groups with deep ties in the Latino community spent weeks mobilizing people -- so that folks who you would never expect to be political suddenly got involved. Here in San Francisco, we're used to seeing a left-wing political protest every week with the same crowd. But the sight of immigrant moms marching down Market Street with baby strollers -- and kids waving Mexican and American flags -- was a sight to see.

Can the Occupy Movement generate a huge turnout of families being foreclosed on by the Wall Street banks, or young college graduates struggling for a job while under crushing debt? Sure, but you won't get the masses to turn out because it's May Day. And yet, all the flyers I've seen cater to the same left-wing crowd. If you want to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge (which Occupy organizers now admit they can't do), you need to expand your movement beyond the usual suspects -- i.e., people who don't know about May Day.

My fifth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School never did a school assembly about May Day -- in fact, Miss Barth could never find a good holiday in May to do instead. So we did a humorous play about a school cafeteria. I played the mashed potatoes, who none of the children ate because they all wanted French fries. Despite living in Chicago, it would be over a decade before I would learn the significance of May Day.

I often like to imagine what might have been if I were in Miss Barth's shoes. As the fifth grade teacher, I would have had the kids do a play about May Day -- where they re-enact the Haymarket Riot, and the conviction of eight anarchists. The kids would have learned about Chicago's proud labor history, and that these militant struggles brought workers' rights we take for granted today -- like the eight-hour workday.

After the play, the kids would turn to the audience and sing "Solidarity Forever" and "The Internationale" -- before concluding the assembly by enthusiastically shouting: "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" It would probably be at this point, where our school principal -- whose name (ironically) was Mr. May -- would have walked up to me in the auditorium, and fired me on the spot.

Paul Hogarth is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco. He is the managing editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.