A favourite festival
What I love about May-day is the sheer number of meanings, stacked over each other. "Police vs. Punks" has been top of the deck in Berlin since annual riots became a Mayday calendar fixture in the 1980s. Numerically larger but less prominent are the marches of trade unionists and political parties, and a free music festival attempts to divert people's attention. Below it all are the spring festivities of Beltane, Walpurgisnacht and the like.
The interplay between those meanings isn't a side-note; it's what makes the festival. It's a day for anarchists and trade unionists, hippies and organizers, spontaneity and organization. Political may-day grew out of the campaign for an 8-hour day, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Organized from above as a limited political protest, it absorbed from below a tangle of quasi-religious meaning, drawn from folk customs and the unfulfilled desire for a workers' festival. Events could take place under the dual banners "Proletarians of all lands, unite" and "Love one another"; red flags and red flowers were jointly symbols.
By the same token, the idea of a sensible protest being disrupted by a violent minority doesn't wash. Much of what started the demonstrations was police violence: French police killed eight peaceful protesters on May 1, 1891; five years earlier many had been killed by a bomb at a protest or by the police response in Chicago. The murkiness of the latter is utterly familiar; it's unclear who threw the bomb, but four anarchists were nonetheless executed for it. I'm no great fan of "playing chicken with pigs" as a form of protest, but it's no strange hijacking of something otherwise calm.
This year, the German media have spent several months hyping the destructive side of the demonstrations, egging on the car-bombers with their lurid outrage, predicting that the recession will make the whole event bigger and more destructive. Maybe they're right; hype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Personally I'll be avoiding the riots and letting my hippie side hang out for a day.
[the historical bits here have largely been yoinked from Hobsbawm]