Here are some pictures of May 1 commemorations this year in downtown Portland, Oregon, the city where I was raised.
You will notice that the costuming is different, as are the activities, which included setting fires, vandalizing a police car, breaking windows in storefronts and government offices, slashing every tire in a line of bicycles and lobbing rocks and full cans of cola at police officers.
I believe these demonstrators would describe themselves as anarchists. They advertised their May Day plans with banners like the one below.
It is difficult to know what the goal was. Perhaps the provocateurs believed their behavior would move Portlanders to join their cause. Perhaps they wished to be abused by police officers and thus to gain sympathy as victims of oppression.
In fact, the Portland police showed up in riot gear and arrested 25 people. Given the property damage and personal violence, what else could be expected?
The appeal of anarchy and its burn-it-down sentiment have been observed for at least two thousand years, and the word itself was coined by the ancient Greeks. A state of anarchy generally is described as one in which social and political rules do not obtain and individuals are free of these constraints.
In some cases, anarchy has succeeded in toppling governments. This happened in 1789 in the French Revolution, in 1917 in the Russian Revolution and in 2010 during Egypt's Arab Spring. It is a truism of history that events like these create vacuums that usually are filled by new governments that resemble the deposed ones, and in some cases are worse.
Another truism is that human societies do not learn much from history . Since the turn of the century, there has been a rise in May Day-like marches and riots around the U.S. Whether they will have long-term effects remains to be seen.
Hijacking a Peaceful Event
The May Day event in Portland began as an immigrants' rights march that had been planned ahead of time. It drew several hundred people bearing signs, and included dancers and apparent camaraderie among demonstrators who shared a strong political conviction.
This was a good thing. There is a broad national discussion about immigration these days, and the marchers wanted to make their views known in Portland.
The people in black, wearing balaclavas and face-covering masks, did not participate in the march but hung around on the sidelines, with sticks and projectiles and self-made shields at the ready.
About 15 minutes after the legitimate march began, the anarchists moved in and by their action turned the attention to themselves.
Now you have to look hard to find any mention of the immigrant supporters' concerns in reporting from Portland last Monday.