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Historian Peter Linebaugh on “The Incomplete, True, Authentic & Wonderful History of May Day”

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Sunday is May Day, and organizers and activists across the United States are planning celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the massive May Day marches of 2006. That year, more than 1.5 million people took to the streets to support workers’ and immigrant rights. It was one of the largest days of protest in the country’s history. Now we look at a new book by historian Peter Linebaugh entitled “The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day.” Linebaugh is the author of many books, including “The Many-Headed Hydra” and “The Magna Carta Manifesto.” Historian Robin D. G. Kelley has said of Linebaugh: “There is not a more important historian living today. Period.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rude Mechanical Orchestra performing a few May Days ago. Yes, this is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on our 100-city tour today in Tucson, Arizona, headed to Fresno, California, tonight, and then we’ll be in California, and then New Orleans as well as Houston on May Day.

That’s right, Sunday is May Day, or International Workers’ Day. Organizers and activists across the United States are planning celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the massive May Day marches of 2006, when more than a million-and-a-half people took to the streets to support workers’ and immigrant rights. It was one of the largest days of protest in this country’s history. In most countries, May Day is an official government holiday, with mass demonstrations, rallies, marches, all being held to express labor solidarity and celebrate workers’ rights. But here in the United States, May Day is not a government-sanctioned holiday, even though the commemoration originated here over a century ago.

Well, today we look at The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. That’s the name of a new book by historian Peter Linebaugh. He is the author of many books, including The Many-Headed Hydra and The Magna Carta Manifesto. Historian Robin D. G. Kelley said of Linebaugh, quote, “There is not a more important historian living today. Period.” Well, I sat down with Peter Linebaugh earlier this month to discuss his new book. I began by asking him how May Day was established and how it came to be established right here in the United States.

PETER LINEBAUGH: Well, it never has yet been established by the establishment. That is, the government doesn’t want to look at May Day. But it’s been—always been a contested holiday and contested in the United States. In a way, there’s manufactured ignorance that prevents us from knowing about May Day. The rest of the world celebrates it, but here at the center, where May Day was created as a workers’ holiday, as a—we’re in ignorance. And this ignorance has been caused. Instead, we have Labor Day in September, and then they changed the meaning of May Day, and they called it Law Day. Eisenhower did that. Cleveland did the Labor Day. But May Day itself is much older.

And there’s two stories about May Day that everyone should know, on this May Day in particular, because in this May Day people all over the United States, finally, are thinking about what is a political revolution, and they’re thinking about what is socialism. May Day can help us. It’s a day, first of all, of no work. It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day to dance around the maypole. My mother-in-law used to say, “Hooray, hooray, the 1st of May, outdoor loving begins today!”

So, there are two stories: There’s a green story, and there’s a red story. The green story begins first, and that goes back to agriculture, it goes back to the sun, because this is springtime. This is the beginning—the Earth has turned in its relationship to solar energy. The green story is a story of fertility. Winter is over. Summer is upon us. It’s a time of fruition and dancing and happiness. It’s a time to dance around the maypole. And the first maypole in North America was in 1627 in Merrymount, Massachusetts, which is in Boston Bay, in Quincy. It’s called Merrymount. And Thomas Morton, with a ganymede, runaway servants, some former slaves and indigenous people, danced around the maypole. They had the first poetry ever in English in North America. This was 1627. It was a multicultural, antihierarchy, anticolonial assembly. And the Puritans in Boston came down heavy against it. They came down yelling, “God’s scarcity, be quiet, shut up!” This was Cotton Mather and William Bradford. They put an end to it. But this green story persisted, not as an established holiday, but as a custom of people on both sides of the Atlantic, in North and South America. That’s the green story.

Now, it comes to an end with a mechanization of agriculture, with the reaper, the mechanical reaper, which is made in Chicago. I’m coming to the red story now. After the American Civil War, workers, women, disabled people felt empowered and thrilled at the victories. I’m quoting from David Roediger now, his recent book. It’s wonderful, because he shows a direct link between this huge freedom struggle and the ancient May Day story. They said they began the eight-hour movement. That’s the movement of eight hours’ work, eight hours’ rest and eight hours’ play. That was their slogan. The McCormick reaper, that’s going to shave the Great Plains, was produced in Chicago by iron molders, skilled workers. And they took the lead, on the 1st of May, 1886. But McCormick and the police shot four of them dead. In response to this police violence, a meeting was called in Haymarket Square in Chicago a few days later, on the 4th of May. And at that time, a stick of dynamite was thrown. There were 200 policemen there to put an end to this meeting. The dynamite wreaked havoc among both the demonstrators and—there was a police casualty as well as seven casualties among the workers who were there.

AMY GOODMAN: Does anyone know who threw the dynamite?

PETER LINEBAUGH: To this day, it’s a matter of contested and controversy. No one knows. No one knows. The police claimed that it was demonstrators, and demonstrators claimed it was a police provocateur. Paul Avrich, Jim Greene—these are some historians—don’t know. Well, this caused a spasm of reactionary violence all across the United States. The trade union movement in city after city was betrayed and attacked by police forces. And in Chicago itself, eight people were charged in a kangaroo court with murder and found guilty. Four were hanged. And they were hanged on the 11th of November, 1887. Albert Parsons, he sang “The Internationale” as he swung at the gallows. August Spies said, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you throttle today,” and then he was choked and swung.

The result was, throughout the world, and especially in Mexico, but in England, in Ireland, in France, in Italy, the eight-hour movement became an international movement of workers all over. That’s the origin of the red side, because, later, the socialist movement, the anarchists and then the communist parties, they took it. They were forced to take it by workers all over who were demanding an eight-hour day. Men and women, black and white, Asian and European, all over, celebrate that day and the Chicago ideal. The Chicago ideal was, again, eight hours’ work, eight hours’ rest, eight hours for what you will. This is why we celebrate it.

AMY GOODMAN: And why don’t we celebrate it in the United States as an official holiday? What happened to May Day? Why is it called Law Day, yet there is a Labor Day in September?

PETER LINEBAUGH: It’s a contest, Amy. It’s a contest. It’s a confrontation. The rulers of the United States, the 1 percent, the slavocrats, the Gilded Age capitalists, the billionaires and the police forces behind them—this is at the end of the 19th century—they leagued together in order to separate May Day and that workers’ struggle from the rest of the world. And Grover Cleveland in 1894 said—was forced by labor unions; he wanted their vote—he said, “OK, you can have a Labor Day. It’s going to be the 1st of September.” And what you’re supposed to do on the 1st of September is not march, but go shopping. Go have a—go get some sales at the new department stores. That’s Labor Day.

And then, what they did with May Day—this is during the height of the Cold War—Eisenhower in 1958 said, “We’ll call—we’ll call May Day 'Law Day.'” And to this day, law schools all over the U.S. celebrate May Day by declaring it’s all about law. But, in fact, if you go back to the very origins of May Day in North America—that’s the green story—you will see that Thomas Morton and the others, they thought that moral decisions belonged in the conscience of the collective rather than in the laws of the Puritans. Technically, they were called antinomians, but that’s a theological term in opposition to strict law.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, which is a great title, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, you write about May Day in light of Waco and L.A.

PETER LINEBAUGH: Yeah, that’s back—I do, because I want to go into the roots. The thing there was X squared. That was—you know, we had a red and green story. The X squared means—this was back at a time when kids were wearing caps that an X on them. And, of course, it’s from Malcolm X. And Malcolm X chose the X because he didn’t know his African name. Part of slavery was robbing people’s identity, taking their name away. So that X was a constant reminder. And I explain the X with two words: expropriation—you’re being taken away from the means of life, taken away from the Earth—and exploitation, or being forced to labor by those who have the means and materials of work. So that’s the origin of that X squared. And it was after Waco and after the L.A. riots—when was this? back in ’92—that we began to see again people of different ethnicities, people of different so-called races, workers, trying to join together once again. And huge violence was set upon them.

And I take that story back to the Ghost Dance, back to the May Day riots at the beginning of capitalism in Europe in 1517. And then the great Ghost Dance, at the same time that the lands were being robbed from the Native Americans on the Great Plains and in the West, that Ghost Dance, it just scared the life out of the 1 percent, out of the gilded people. To this day, I don’t understand it, Amy, how just dancing one inch at a time could so frighten the powers that be. And it led to the great massacre of Wounded Knee. So these are the themes that I tied together in that particular chapter.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s May Day of 2006, at least May 1st, 2006.

PETER LINEBAUGH: Of the great mobilization of Hispanic-speaking Americans, which is the largest mobilization in North America ever, especially in Chicago and in L.A. And that’s a tradition we need to—that helped us remember what May Day really is, that—how it began at Haymarket, because it was Spanish workers in Mexico, Spanish workers in the plantations and mines and factories, who maintained the story of los mártires, of the martyrs, when we in North America had forgotten it. So we—workers around the world, we need your help. We can’t remember everything. We need to be reminded. And that 2006 mobilization helped to do it. And the other great mobilizations were in South Africa on May Day that led to the collapse of apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that event.

PETER LINEBAUGH: I can’t explain it much further, other than trade unions, political parties would come out into the streets, which is what we must do again in 2016. On this day, May Day, this weekend, we must come outside and celebrate our lives, our future, our dreams, and do it with one another and start talking with one another.

AMY GOODMAN: Your title, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, explain.

PETER LINEBAUGH: It’s incomplete because the job’s not finished. It’s true for the two stories I told you, the green story and the red story. It’s authentic because this book, this knowledge, belongs to working people, slaving at the kitchen sink, doing night shifts, doing flexi time, doing precarious work. And it’s authentic because los mártires, the Mexican people, the Hispanic people, remind us of it. It’s not part of institutions, of universities. And it’s wonderful, because if you go out on May Day and start dancing around the maypole, all kinds of things will happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Peter Linebaugh, author of The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. May Day is Sunday. And on this 100-city tour on Sunday, we’ll be in Houston in the afternoon, and we’ll be in New Orleans in the evening.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, new laws being pushed here in Arizona, and we’ll talk to a protester who was assaulted at a Donald Trump rally and then arrested. Stay with us.

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