Athenians celebrate May Day with poets, music and activism

In a lot off of Commerce Road next to a Shell station, poets, musicians, dancers, political organizers, and a couple dozen Athenians gathered to share food and commemorate working people around the world. 

On May 1, Cedar Shoals peer leadership teacher Montu Miller assisted in hosting the celebration for May Day, or International Workers’ Day. 

“They’re (Athenians are) celebrating the worker. This system would not run without the worker. The worker is an important cog in this whole machine. There’s people who do all kinds of stuff — workers of all shapes and sizes doing different things, and you’ve got to celebrate people that actually go out and work,” Miller said. 

May Day marks the anniversary of an 1886 Chicago labor protest during which police officers fired into the crowd. Known as the Haymarket Affair, the Chicago protest was one of many movements across the country organized in the fight for the eight-hour workday.

“May Day should be a celebration that’s about commemorating what the workers have done to get us where we are now and to continue that fight to get us further in the future,” Devante Jones, a representative from the Athens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said.

In Athens though, the first week of May also marks the anniversary of Jubilee — or the day Union soldiers arrived in Athens to emancipate approximately 5,000 enslaved people in 1865.

“You can’t really have a May Day celebration without acknowledging the Jubilee. I understand the union solidarity and celebrating the workers, but who better to celebrate than the slaves who helped build this country,” Angela Phinazee, a poet also known as The Arsonist, said.

POETRY PERFORMANCE: Angela Phinazee, also known as The Arsonist, shares a poem at the May Day celebration. She says she wrote her first poem when she was 11 and Phinazee’s mother told her to clean her room. “I didn’t particularly want to, so the first piece I wrote was called ‘I hate people telling me what to do.’ I found that it was a good outlet for me, and it helped me through some dark times in my life,” Phinazee said. Photo by Marcus Welch.

Phinazee shared a poem at the celebration about the injustices that enslaved African American people faced prior to their liberation in May of 1865.

“My ancestors were neglected and subjected to unbearable pains, disconnected from family and bound in chains, desecrated and disrespected of their final remains. Just as there is a day of wreckoning, there is a day of jubilee,” she said in her performance.

Co-chair of the University of Georgia branch of the United Campus Workers of Georgia Mikaela Warner also took the microphone. UCWGA-UGA is a union of 500 UGA employees that worked for a mask mandate at UGA during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the elimination of the special institutional fee, and a $15 minimum wage. Though they achieved the first two goals, Warner says the union is still working to raise the minimum wage.

“I’m a proud daughter of a union steward and I’m from a family of six. On a blue collar salary, we would have not been able to afford health insurance without my dad’s union benefits,” Warner said. “I give a lot of my health growing up to union power and want to continue to build that for my life, even though I’m in more of a white collar industry of higher education. All workers deserve good wages and good conditions.”

UNION HELP: Mikaela Warner, a co-chair of the University of Georgia branch of United Campus Workers of Georgia, speaks on International Workers’ Day. She shares chair responsibilities with Bryant Barnes, and says there are 500 members in the UGA branch of UCWGA. “We are by workers for workers and we build up campaigns based on what workers are interested in and what they want to put the energy into, and we try to make change happen on campus,” Warner said. Photo by Marcus Welch.

Anne Belocurra, a member of the Athens branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation attended the festival as well, and spoke about the relationship between socialism and union work.

Belocurra says she comes from a working class family in which many family members work in the healthcare industry. During the pandemic, she says, they were seen as dispensable.

“We just saw this negligence from the ruling class — how the government tried to appeal to us or placate us with these words of heroism. Yeah, thank God for all the health care workers, but what can you give us materially to ensure that workers aren’t being sent to basically the gallows every time they go to work?” Belocurra said.

SERVICE AND SOCIALISM: Anne Belocurra represents the Athens branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation on May Day. She says work for the branch combines education about socialism and service to communities. “We worked with west Atlanta to make sure that we get people registered to get vaccines. We also helped with other coalitions doing drives, like we host drives for homeless people. We do outreach in the communities to spread the word about socialism, but also if they want to get involved with the community, we pair them up with other organizations around the county,” Belocurra said. Photo by Marcus Welch.

In addition to celebrating victories in the labor movement, for Belocurra, May Day is also about continued worker empowerment in the face of exploitation and lies.

“My family came here in search of the American dream. Then they come here and they realize, it’s not actually possible for a lot of people. There’s these lies that we’re being fed that it’s possible to amass all this wealth. But that kind of wealth is not possible without exploiting a large number,” Belocurra said. “This is a day that’s really important to me, because I want to make sure that workers realize that when we come together, we have so much power and the ruling class should be afraid of us.”

Photos by Marcus Welch.