Three unofficial holidays fall on the 1st of May. In Hawaii, there's Lei Day, or May Day. This was a really big deal in elementary school. In the days leading up to the pageant at Haiku School, volunteering adults built a stage out of plywood and chicken wire and adorned it with dark green ti leaves and fresh flowers. In the meantime, each class practiced a song or hula. Lucky kids were selected onto a court that represented each island's flower and color.
When the big day finally came, parents gathered with teachers in the yard down the hill from the cafeteria. We performed, and then we had a luau. I'm sure other schools had similar celebrations.
In high school, a substitute teacher told us about the other May Day she discovered while going to school on the Mainland. She was from the islands and was homesick. Then she heard about some May Day events at some building on campus. She couldn't believe it. She was so excited to see lei, talk to others from Hawaii, and maybe even eat some local food again. When she got there, she was disappointed. There were no flowers. No locals. And certainly no hula.
Instead, she saw angry students who needed haircuts. They wore drab clothing and talked about things like class struggle, the Paris Commune and the Soviet Union. There was no food at all. So much for May Day on the Mainland.
I was reminded of that story when fliers started popping up around my college campus in California around the end of April. Sure enough, on May 1 there was a little demonstration with similar angry students in drab clothing. This time they weren't talking about communism. They were more interested in the World Trade Organization, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and stopping the Gap and the aptly named Banana Republic from exploiting workers abroad.
The celebration of working people still occurs on May 1 in just about every country in the world except this one. In Latin America, El Dia del Trabajo is commemorated with parades, rallies and cookouts. The Eastern Bloc staged massive military rallies and parades. Ironically, it was celebrated in both West and East Germany. And what's even more confusing is that both the extreme left and the right have claimed the holiday as their own. It's still really big in Europe. Annual protests flare up in nearly every capital city throughout the industrialized world.
Not here. The United States government has made conscious efforts to end May Day. In 1958, President Eisenhower declared May 1 as "Law Day, U.S.A." A federal statute even declares that on Law Day, Americans - instead of protesting and marching -- should reaffirm their loyalty to the United States and respect the law. Law Day should be observed "with appropriate ceremonies and in other appropriate ways."
It seems like something straight out of "Dr. Strangelove." Back then, we were in the middle of a long Cold War and were downright fanatical about opposing anything that even hinted at communism. You'd think that all that stuff would have faded away, but every single president since the '50s has declared the 1st of May as Law Day, and not a day to acknowledge international solidarity among the working classes.
And still May Day dies hard. Last year, thousands marched in solidarity in New York City to protest the excesses of Wall Street and the brutality of the capitalist system as a whole. This year was no different. Labor unions and other groups staged demonstrations across the country. They cried out for justice for undocumented workers, a living wage, and ending unsafe working conditions that may have led to death and destruction in West, Texas, last month. They continued to question the doctrine of an unbridled free-market economy.
At the same time, the American Bar Association still encouraged Law Day. Here on Maui, the Hawaii State Bar Association will hold a free legal clinic tomorrow at the Maui Mall from 8 a.m. to noon. Volunteer attorneys will be there to help anyone with legal matters of any kind.
Our clinic is a far cry from Law Day's anti-communist origins, but it's no demonstration either. It's somewhere in the middle. Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson's 1968 Law Day proclamation summed it up best when he urged "all those members of the bar, the bench and the law enforcement system who work to improve the performance of this system - to make it more just, more effective, and more responsive to our people's needs. America is grateful to them for their efforts to improve and extend legal services to the poor; to streamline the machinery of our courts . . . "
In the end, we get to have all three. Enjoy Lei Day, consider May Day, and see you on Law Day.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."