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May Day Unrest in Europe, Calls for Immigration Reforms in U.S.

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1 May 09 | AJE, BBC, FT, AP and ISN

May Day protesters have taken to the streets across Europe, clashing with police in several cities in further signs of social unrest due to the economic crisis.
Traditional labour day demonstrations are reported to have turned violent in Germany and Turkey, while thousands of protesters have rallied in Russia and Greece.

In Berlin, demonstrators hurled bottles and rocks at police, injuring a number of officers, while clashes were also reported in Hamburg.

Protesters have also clashed with police in Istanbul, Turkey, where forces fired water cannons and arrested several protesters.

Several thousand union and left-wing activists took part in the annual protest.

The Turkish parliament on Wednesday re-introduced a law making May 1 a national holiday. It had been taken off the public holiday list following a military coup in 1980.

On May 1, 1977, suspected extreme right-wing snipers shot May Day demonstrators in Taksim Square in Istanbul, killing 34 people.

Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Istanbul, reported that there had been some skirmishes on the side streets around Taksim square, but the overall mood was “peaceful and not particularly tense”.

“The authorities have a problem here – there is obviously a globally recognised need to celebrate May 1 as a workers’ day. But this place has become a lightning conductor for protests because of previous crackdowns and because of the events of 1977.

“Today, the decision has been made to allow a limited number of protesters to come right to Taksim Square to commemorate workers’ day but also to commemorate the people who died in 1977.

“This is a test of crowd control on the part of the Turkish authorities but also a test of restraint on the part of the demonstrators.” >>>

Police battle May Day protesters

Clashes have broken out in a number of countries as unions used traditional May Day marches to protest against the handling of the global economic crisis.

In the Turkish city of Istanbul, riot police fired tear gas and water cannon as protesters threw petrol bombs and attacked banks and shops.

Police made dozens of arrests in the German capital, Berlin, where protesters set fire to cars.

Greek police battled to quell rioters in Athens after banks were attacked.

There have also been marches in France and Russia, as well as the Philippines, Japan and Hong Kong, where demonstrators called on the authorities to do more to protect jobs.

Major demonstrations were also planned in Spain, Italy and Cuba.

“Workers are reiterating their demand that the government should find a way to stop mass lay-offs of workers and it should provide decent jobs, not short-lived jobs, not jobs for three months,” said Leody de Guzman, of the Union of Filipino Workers. >>>


In Berlin, around 5,000 police were expected to be deployed on the streets of the capital, in preparation for potential rerun of the violent clashes that have marred Germany’s May Day celebrations for several years.

In a sign of the potential for violence, anarchists gathered in the early hours on Friday and threw bottles and stones, attacking bus shelters and setting fire to cars, rubbish bins and porta-loos.

In Ulm, southwestern Germany, simultaneous demonstrations by around 1,000 Neo-Nazis and several thousand opposing protesters descended into chaos, forcing police to use water canon to contain the violence.

Although officials described the protests during Friday as “predominantly peaceful” although 50 police officers were injured and there were dozens of arrests. German unions estimated that 484,00 people took part in the demonstrations, while French activists said up to 1.2m participated. French police put the figure at 465,000.


In Turkey, where almost a third of young people are unemployed, dozens were injured and over a hundred people were detained by police in the May Day demonstrations.

The violence mainly took place in and around Taksim Square, where 34 people were killed by an unidentified guman during a May Day demonstration in 1977. Friday’s march was the first time in 31 years that the Square had been opened to May Day demonstrations, with authorities fearing precisely this violent outcome.


In Athens, almost 6,000 people initially marched peacefully – under the careful watch of 4,000 police – to protest the crisis and bank bailouts. But clashes quickly broke out at Athens Polytechnic, where some 300 self-styled anarchists fought with police. Late last year the country was paralysed by weeks of student riots and demonstrations as unemployment began to rise for the first time since 2004. >>>

Immigrants push for reforms at rallies across US

Immigrants and their families began gathering at rallies across the country Friday to push for changes to U.S. immigration policy, but as a swine flu outbreak continued to spread, attendance at some events was smaller than what organizers had hoped.

The area hardest hit by the swine flu is Mexico, also the native home of many rally participants. There were no immediate reports of canceled events, but Juan Pablo Chavez, a Tampa-based community organizer for the Florida Immigration Coalition, said he and others were monitoring the situation and in close contact with state health care officials.

“If they tell us to halt the events, we will cancel immediately. But for now, we are simply asking people who are sick not to come out,” Chavez said.

Organizers are seeking to channel the political muscle Hispanics showed last fall in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. They hope that energy will jump-start stalled efforts to pass an immigration law that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

They had hoped crowds would equal or exceed those of last year, down from the 2006 turnout, when a stringent immigration bill poised to pass in Congress drew massive protests.

Thousands were expected at events in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities — mostly in the late afternoon, when workers finished their shifts. But early reports suggested turnout would be far lower than in previous years. >>>

What is May Day and why is it called International Workers Day?

May 1st, International Worker’s Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized in every country except the United States and Canada. This is despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880’s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day led by immigrant workers. The recent historic marches and protests for immigrant rights, which began with “El Gran Paro Americano 2006,” have brought back into our memories May 1 as an important day of struggle. Although the history of the day has largely been forgotten in the United States, it is still actively remembered and celebrated today by workers, unionists and oppressed peoples all over the world. In fact you can still walk through neighborhoods in Mexico and find streets such as Calle Los Martires de Chicago in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, commemorating the leaders of the eight-hour day movement who were imprisoned and executed.

It is not surprising that the government, business leaders, mainstream union leaders, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day, portraying it as a “communist” holiday celebrated only in the Soviet Union. In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May Day, the United States government declared May 1st to be “Law Day,” and gave us instead Labor Day—a holiday devoid of any historical significance other than a three weekend holiday at the end of the summer.

The story of the Eight-Hour Day Movement

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886. The resolution called for a general strike (meaning a strike of all workers at all workplaces) to achieve the goal, since years of lobbying and legislative methods had already failed. With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, rank-and-file support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly, despite the indifference and hostility of many union leaders. By April 1886, 250,000 workers across the US were involved in the May Day movement.

The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organized primarily by the anarchist International Working People’s Association which believed in using education and direct action to create a free and revolutionary society based on the end of capitalism, the end of inequality based on class, race and sex, and where working and oppressed peoples and communities were able participate and have a meaningful voice in society. Their movement was based in the working class immigrant communities of the city, mainly among Germans, and was centered around a vibrant radical community that included daily and weekly newspapers in several languages, cultural clubs, youth groups, choirs, sports teams and especially within labor unions.

Businesses and the government were terrified by the increasingly revolutionary character of the movement and prepared accordingly. The police and militia were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons financed by local business leaders. Chicago’s Commercial Club purchased a $2000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers. Nevertheless, by May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago clothing cutters, shoemakers, and packing-house workers. Many participated in strikes and hundreds of thousands- estimated between 300,000 and 1 million- participated in marches and parades on that day. But on May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory, killing four and wounding many. Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality of the police.

The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with only a few hundred people remaining. It was then that 180 cops marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. As the speakers climbed down from the platform, a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one and injuring seventy. Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one worker and injuring many others.

The story of the Haymarket Martyrs

Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse to attack the entire Left and labor movement. Police ransacked the homes and offices of suspected anarchists and socialists and hundreds were arrested without charge. Anarchists in particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago’s most active leaders in the movement—Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe—were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. A kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bomb-thrower (only one was even present at the meeting, and he was on the speakers’ platform). On August 19th seven of the defendants were sentenced to death and Neebe to 15 years in prison.

After a massive international campaign for their release, the government “compromised” and commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. Lingg cheated the hangman by committing suicide in his cell the day before the executions. On November 11th 1887 Albert Parsons, George Engel, August Spies and Adolf Fischer were hanged. Six hundred thousand working people turned out for their funeral. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and Fielden continued.

On June 26 1893, Governor Altgeld set them free because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. They and the hanged men had been the victims of “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.” Evidence later came to light that the bomb may have been thrown by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses to discredit the labor movement.
The Legacy of the Haymarket Incident

When Spies addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die, he was confident the repression of the government would not succeed. “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement . . . the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

Nevertheless, rather than suppressing labor and radical movements, the events of 1886 and the execution of the Chicago anarchists actually mobilized many generations of radicals. Two lesser known but inspirational revolutionary women emerged out of this legacy. Emma Goldman- who would become a famous anarchist speaker, feminist and labor activist from the 1910’s through the 1930’s- was a young immigrant from Russia at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket affair as her moment of political birth. Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, widow to Chicago Martyr Albert Parsons, was born in Texas as a slave and was of Black, Native American and Mexican ancestry, played a leading role in campaigning for the release of the imprisoned activists. Active in anarchist and labor movements long before the Haymarket incident, she continued to play a role in labor organizing (participating in the founding of the radical Industrial Workers of the World), advocated for women workers, published an anarchist newspaper The Liberator and fought for racial justice up until her death in 1942 at 89 years old.

By covering up the history of May Day, the government, business, mainstream unions, and the media have attempted to hide an entire legacy of dissent in this country. They are terrified of what a similarly militant and organized movement could accomplish today, and they suppress the seeds of such organization whenever and wherever they can. As workers, students and community members committed to building a new and free society, we must recognize and commemorate May Day not only for its historical significance, but also as a time to organize around issues of vital importance to working-class people today.


Written by Editors

1 May 2009 at 2:50 pm

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