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MayDay 2015: Reckoning

I was always struck by the fact that May 1st, May Day, is pronounced the same as Mayday, the international distress call.

May Day. May Pole. International Worker’s Day. Beltane, ancient gaelic celebration of summer and fire. Light, flower, dances around the May Pole.

Mayday. M’aidez. SOS. Distress. Mayday Mayday Mayday. Three times it is repeated to signal life-threatening emergencies. Making a false Mayday call to the US Coast Guard can result in 6 years in prison or a fine of up to $250,000.

Speaking metaphorically, when is it appropriate to send out a distress call? When your ship is sinking? When your house is on fire? When your children are being killed in the streets?

Is it appropriate to send out a distress call when you are working 60 hours a week for dollars a day? Threatened with deportation, destitute or detained? What insidious force convinces us that pervasive and systemic injustice and inequality are not “urgent” simply because they have lasted hundreds of years? Who gets to decide what is life-threatening, what constitutes an emergency?

“Mayday” became the official distress call for radio communications in 1932, when British radio officer Frederick Mockford was asked to find a word “that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency.”[1] He chose Mayday for “m’aidez”, French for “help me.”

May Day. Mayday. May Day.

Five decades before the term was coined, US workers facing deplorable conditions deemed May 1, 1886 the day by which the 8-hour workday would become standard. For the two years leading up to it, workers — mostly immigrants—orchestrated work slowdowns and protests to convince industrial titans to reduce their workload to 8-hour days without lowering their pay. That day, hundreds of thousands of workers across the US held a general strike, its epicenter in Chicago. Over the following days tensions grew. On May 3, police fired onto a crowd. The next day, a homemade bomb was fired back at police, and later 8 activists and self-identified anarchists— none of whom had launched the bomb, some who weren’t even there — were found guilty, and 4 were hanged. They became martyrs, sparking international outrage and prompting May Day to forever be linked to labor movements, and chosen as International Workers Day. [2]

Mayday. May Day. Mayday.

At the time of the Haymarket Affair, “mayday” wasn’t a term that yet meant anything. But what was being cried out in the streets, in the factories, in the shipyards and union halls if not distress, a cry for help, a Mayday?

Mayday Mayday Mayday. Isn’t this the cry that folks in the US, as a nation, are starting to hear and respond to as systemic violence and racial injustice — baked into our society from the beginning — are being increasingly recognized and challenged? People march in the streets to say #Blacklivesmatter. #HandsUpDon’tShoot. #WeCan’tBreathe. Mayday, goddammit! Enough is enough.

And so here we are at May Day 2015, 129 years after the Haymarket affair. Mourning Freddie Gray, a young man who committed the crime of being young, male and black, and paid for it with his life. Rage and grief fill the streets, for Freddie, for so many others, known and unknown. The most extreme cases of police brutality garner extra attention, and yet we know these are but symptoms of a broader society that values some lives more than others — to the detriment of all of our souls.

May Day, 2015. Unionized longshoreman and other port workers collaborate with anti-racist activists to march from the Port of Oakland to City Hall. In Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, [3] newly-elected prosecutor for the city of Baltimore announces the prosecution of the six officers linked with Freddie Gray’s death.

“To the people of Baltimore and demonstrators across America, I heard your call for, ‘No justice, no peace’. Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

“To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.”

Mayday. When a distress call has been issued because a system has collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy, what is the appropriate response? When a Mayday signal indicates we’re all in it together in a life-threatening emergency, how can we collaborate to save ourselves?

There is no Coast Guard who can rescue us in this emergency. It will take us — all of us- to change the status quo, because change grows from the ground up. And yet, it can be represented in higher places, and it feels hopeful to me that on this May Day, Mosby and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, both relatively newly elected, young Black women, made public statements that directly addressed the popular uprising calling for justice across the country. Following Mosby’s public announcement of the charges, Rawlings-Blake made it clear:

“There will be justice for Mr. Gray, there will be justice for his family and there will be justice for the city of Baltimore.”

May Day 2015. I walk to downtown Oakland in the afternoon, and attend the First Friday artwalk in the evening, a glorious gathering of Oakland’s diverse community. Protesters march through; some continue on to Broadway’s Auto Row, where they smash windshields and windows in a few car dealerships. I walk home shortly after, past the broken glass, past police officers in riot gear. Property destruction. This behavior is the kind that gets condemned by so many ordinary citizens and media outlets, and I understand that. Broken windows don’t bring back the dead. They don’t dismantle inequitable power structures. They arguably increase animosity by feeding it. But I can understand why someone might break a window, smash a bank logo, rage against status quo. Because when I look at those broken windshields and think about Freddie Gray’s broken spine, I feel something breaking in my heart. Who am I to judge those who would rather break a window than face the brokenheartedness of a system that so consistently pits working class people against one another? And just how broken is a system that prioritizes protecting private property over people’s lives? Most importantly, what can and will I do to contribute towards a more just community?

May Day. May Day. May Day. Not just strikes and protests. May Day of ancient rites, a dance of masculine and feminine, the power of summer sun and the fecundity reached by the end of spring.

Mayday Mayday Mayday. Even as we celebrate a new season, can we take a step back and look at the global picture. From a species-wide perspective, isn’t it about time we issue a distress call? Or listen to the ones that have already been issued, about carbon levels in the atmosphere, acidifying oceans, species collapse, and so on? Does a distress call cease to matter when it goes unacknowledged?

It’s easy to think like that, to hurdle headfirst down that cynical path. But I know the true story is much bigger than that, because I know so many people who have heard the distress call, the SOS, the Mayday regarding our global ecosystem, and are responding to the call, each in their own individual, critical and necessary way.

Labor advocate August Spies was on stage after giving a speech when the bomb went off in Haymarket Square, May 4 1886. He was found guilty for conspiracy to commit murder. These were his last words before he was hung:

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

So, too, the silence of those killed by police brutality is being heard and reverberated a thousand times over. I don’t know what happens next. I know that there are forces bigger than us as individuals at play. The drama of human affairs, the quest we are all on to find meaning in our lives and a contribute to a society we can believe in … all of these are at play this May Day.

Mayday, May Day, Mayday. May we all find the courage to recognize valid calls of distress and respond to them with all the creativity and compassion we can muster — which is to say all the creativity, compassion and courage we’ve always had in us all along.

cross-posted on Medium

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