May Day has been celebrated as International Workers’ Day since 1890 when it was instituted as a day of commemoration for the Haymarket Martyrs, anarchist labour organisers who were hanged amongst anti-radical hysteria in Chicago in 1888.
It is celebrated with varying levels of enthusiasm and popular involvement across the globe. In every town and city in Spain it remains a day when the libertarian labour movement holds marches, rallies and fiestas; in Moscow numerous reconstituted communist parties dominate the rallies; in Berlin a ritualised riot usually ensues as fascists attempt to claim the day for themselves. In London, the Trades Union Congress, which has been involved in every 1 May rally since 1890, organises a march greatly populated by Turkish Marxist-Leninists!
In Glasgow, the ‘official’ May bank holiday event, held on a Sunday, is known as ‘Maydaze’ and organised by the city council. The connection with the historic workers, holiday is provided by a march to the venue organised by the Glasgow Trades Union Council.
The idea of a Glasgow May Day event actually on 1 May itself was first mooted in the 2001. This “autonomous” May Day, organised by various affinity groups, collectives and sound systems has become a tradition in itself. The initial idea was to reclaim May Day for a real celebration and the early May Day events usually involved a colourful and noisy march around the city centre prior to a decamping to Kelvingrove Park where a party would continue into the late evening. Numbers have varied but reached more than a thousand at the early events. Being an effectively illegal manifestation, the autonomous May Days have always had the close attention of the Strathclyde Police, but despite intimidation, harassment and occasional arrests they have been overwhelmingly peaceful and good-humoured events. In recent years the marches around the shopping precincts have stopped and the celebration is a mostly stationary one, on the pedestrianised Buchanan Street, followed by an exodus to a suitable free party space.
This year the Glasgow autonomous May Day numbered about 150-200 at its height. Two sofas were placed in the middle of the gathering alongside a table overflowing with and free wholesome snack foods. The assembled and spectators alike were entertained by an eclectic selection from the sound system, encouraging some to indulge in spontaneous dance-like movements.
Passers-by were offered not just free food but various items of political literature, including a leaflet from the organisers explaining what May Day was all about. For those attracted by the noise and spectacle of a political event in the city centre on a weekday, there were information stalls from the Glasgow Anarchists, Unity: Union of Asylum Seekers, the Clydeside Industrial Workers of the World and the Anarchist Federation.
Over four hours, the celebration took place under the watchful eye of the police.
A fair number of interested, mostly sympathetic, parties approached the stalls and engaged in conversation or bought literature. Far, far larger numbers however walked past with an air of bemusement, indifference or slight apprehension.
Although the event attempts to be inclusive, open and friendly it is obvious that most Glaswegians do not identify with either the demonstration or the day that it celebrates.
Perhaps in future the 1 May event could orientate itself to a specific struggle that is ongoing and with which the participants have prior involvement. The event also needs to extend its organising base and involve as many people as possible beyond the anarchist/autonomous scene and encourage the participation of those from all the rebel milieu, including the workers’ movement. May Day is a day for celebration and defiance and well worth reclaiming.