“The people’s flag is deepest red.
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
when ‘ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
their hearts’ blood dyed in every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Beneath its folds we live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
we’ll keep the red flag flying here!”
–Billy Bragg, “The Red Flag”
Excuse me for this very long and rambling May Day post, but I’m trying to relinquish my slavish devotion to elusively perfect writing in the hopes that doing so will encourage me to write more frequently. (Also excuse me for the purple prose. I tend to be more verbose, not less, without substantial editing.)
Unfortunately, I worked this May Day. I wish I could have taken off to participate in the protests and march in solidarity with immigrant workers. Instead, I vicariously followed the action on Twitter, as my camrades across the country posted photos and videos of the demonstrations taking place in their cities.
My initial impression, without having been there, is that this year, May Day was a Thing.
I went to a May Day march last year. It rained. The crowd was sparse and only thinned as the march started and people peeled off to go home, out of the bad weather. I distinctly remember a white girl with dreadlocks, which made me roll my eyes, marching in front of me and carrying a terrified looking pit bull puppy, who seemed overwhelmed and fearful of the chanting and clapping and occasionally whoops of police sirens. (For the love of Dog, camrades, do not bring your furbabies to protests, please. I have seen far too many scared puppies, especially at direct actions involving civil disobedience. Find a pet sitter and leave your dogs at home.) Despite some of the obnoxious company taking part in activist tourism, there was also a vocal and energetic cadre of Wobblies (but when are the Wobblies not vocal and energetic?), along with some very earnest Brazilian activists. Someone showed up with more picket signs reading, “Boycott Driscoll’s berries” than there were people to carry them, so myself and a couple of friends ended up taking a few of them. We were then asked by a passer-by to explain the boycott, and we sort of helplessly stared at each other until one of us whipped out a smartphone, Googled the boycott and began scrolling through the site with the interested onlooker so that they could learn about it together. I admire him for studying up on the issue in less than a minute and then managing to speak about it relatively intelligently.
All of this is to say that last year’s May Day march was like many Left demonstrations–mainly made up of small, deeply committed activists, mixing with a few students looking for something to do on a weekend, who came together for a cause that felt rather fringe, given that most people were staying inside and dry with Netflix or a good book or whatever else one does on a Sunday afternoon. There’s something comforting about being surrounded by such an eclectic and oddball group. As someone who’s always been something of an outsider, when I found Democratic Socialists of America, I felt immediately at home with the scrappy, ragtag group of former SDS members and hippies, along with the younger Occupy converts and Jacobin subscribers. Yes, we were all a little eccentric, but we were united in our quirkiness. The fringe is sometimes an awkward place to be, but with my fellow fringe dwellers, I felt as though I belonged.
Unfortunately, fringe doesn’t build mass movements. Fringe doesn’t leverage people power to spur a political revolution. Fringe doesn’t mobilize the masses to take action to oppose injustice. Much as many of us on the Left are at home on the fringe, we can’t stay there, especially now. There’s too much at stake for us to risk losing our civil liberties and what little gains we’ve made for healthcare and the safety net for us to stay ensconced in our comforting cocoons of reading groups and small demonstrations.
We also can’t stay there because our fringe is expanding so rapidly that it suddenly doesn’t seem so fringe. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, we may actually become–gulp–the mainstream. I know, I know. What will Leftists do with actual numbers? What will we do now that–gasp–we actually have a little bit of money? The possibilities seem endless, and yet some of us are still to shocked at this unexpected turn of good fortune to do much more than stand in awe.
And awe was truly what I felt this past weekend at the People’s Climate March and then again today as I looked at the May Day posts on Twitter. Rather than a damp handful of marchers trodding down the DC streets, this year’s May Day demonstrations looked huge! My Twitter feed had exploded with a sea of red flags emblazoned with roses.
I’m not a particularly sentimental person. I scoff at people who wrap their identity around Apple versus Android (although, seriously, Android is better) or Macbook versus Microsoft (#TeamMicrosoft). I don’t care what brand of shoes I’m wearing. I think designer purses are dumb. And I am bored to tears by the PlayStation and Xbox arguments. But goddmanit, I almost cried a couple times this weekend at the People’s Climate March when I looked up and saw myself surrounded by red flags.
Ever since I first listened to Billy Bragg’s “The Red Flag,” I dreamed of a day when Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) might wave a red flag in marches. In the days after the presidential election, the thought that one day we might see a red flag waving as a symbol of hope and resilience and revolution was a thought that kept me going. In times of despair, symbols suddenly become more meaningful. As I was casting about for any source of hope or optimism, the idea of a bright, beautiful red flag carrying the promise of socialism and justice and equity was an idea that gave me strength. It’s silly, of course. A flag is just a piece of cloth. But in that moment, I wrapped up all of my ideals for a better world, a world in which people have democratic control over the economy and their own working conditions, a world in which people have freedom and dignity and safety because they live in a society that takes care of them rather than working them to death, a world in which everyone is equal regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation or identity or ability. I took these ideals, and I placed them into the image of a red flag.
This weekend, that dream became a reality.
Today, that dream became a reality.
This May Day, red flags didn’t just wave over the flags of DC, they waved in Chicago and New York City and Boston. There were red flags in Los Angeles, in Pittsburgh and in Atlanta. Today, the United States was blanketed with red flags in cities across the country.
We are already legion, and we are growing.
We are building a movement.
We have the momentum, and you will not stop us.
We’re no longer a few fringe die-hards shuffling through the rain on a Sunday afternoon. Today, we were hoards of people converging in the streets in a mass show of solidarity with immigrants and all exploited workers. Today, we were the mainstream.
Today, we waved the red flag over this bastion of capitalism in a show of defiance.
This weekend, we waved the red flag over what was once the beauty of nature, now turned into concrete and exhaust fumes in the name of profit.
You can threaten us. You can blacklist us. You can interrogate us. You can call us slurs like “pinko” or “commie,” and we don’t care anymore. We’ll just keep waving our red flags.
They’re red because our blood boils now that we know you lied to us and told us you were representing us, acting in our best interest, when really you served your own greed and the interests of your corporate donors. They’re red because we remember the blood of the strikers who died for our right to march in the streets today. They’re red because our own blood is pulsing through our hearts with a fire and a life that we never knew we had until now.
Since the presidential election, I’ve often felt defeated and alone and scared. But I didn’t feel that way this weekend and I didn’t feel that way today.
You can’t keep the red flag down because you can’t keep the people down. The people will always rise to raise the red flag as a symbol of our hope and endurance. The people demand justice, and we will not be beaten down or intimidated or lied to any longer.