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Nobody’s Hero: An appreciation of activist and punk musician Mike May

Mike May

The commute from Staten Island’s north shore to the New York County Court on Centre Street is 75 minutes each way, if you’re lucky. The gamble involves a bus, a ferry, and a subway, and more often than not you wait for the bus that will make you miss the ferry that would have got you there on time.

Knowing this, Mike May set off on February 10, 2014 from his north shore apartment to attend the first day of court for Cecily McMillan, an activist who had been accused of assault on a New York police officer during Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park era. At some point, he decided he was going to be there every day for the case, which ended with McMillan’s conviction on May 5, 2014.

He was the only one who made and stuck to that commitment. About the exhausting commute, and the fact that he was doing it while in Stage IV of his cancer treatment, he said nothing. To him that was not important. What mattered was supporting McMillan.

Mike May, born on the Gulf Coast on August 21, 1963 was no stranger to solidarity. May was a constant presence at New York-area demonstrations, protests, marches and picket lines for workers and those unjustly targeted by the state. Among the many causes he supported, he was a crusader against war and violence with Peace Action of Staten Island and fought against greed and exploitation as a proud Wobblie, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. His unvarnished passion and willingness to disrupt spaces for furthering the message made him a kind of unholy fool of social justice. He died Friday July 31, 2015. He was 51. May loved the moral imperative of the Peace Action slogan: peace demands action. His primary action was to fall Bayard Rustin’s call to “speak truth to power,” and he did so largely by shouts in the streets for thousands of protest actions.

His approach came from years honed as a front man and activist in 1980’s Houston, Texas punk bands Vex, Keelhaul, and Crust. As a free spirit who was raised as one of four siblings primarily by his conservative father, punk was his salvation. Houston Press remembers his role in the scene as “a lightning rod for issues focused along a left-wing trajectory [who] offered a hoarse howl that desired to bulldoze through the public's indifference.”

After May and his then partner moved from Houston to Staten Island in 1987, they tried a bit of suburban family life. They had a son, Luke, in 1992. May worked in construction, and the couple bought a house. They later separated, with Luke staying with his mom in the house and Mike going off on his own.

May became part of the 1990s Lower East Side activist scene that congregated around the community run art space ABC No Rio. It was there that he met with the Wobblies. Although the Wobblies focus on labor organizing, the group at the time was mostly anarchists, punk rockers, and activists who come together for demonstrations. May identified as an anarchist but was drawn to the union group for its goals and structures: horizontalism, explicitly anti-capitalist framework, and focus on fighting bosses. May and others from the union organized and ran a construction collective for a time, but it fell apart.

Around 2004-2006 the New York IWW branch started shifting priorities and having organizing drives. They decided to focus on the food processing industries, including Starbucks, and got some victories under their belts. Mike was the thread between this older group and the new group, and was the longest serving member.

The chapter was lucky to be able the organizer unfriendly provision of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which severely limits action capabilities, by doing secondary boycott actions in coalition. Together with student or other groups, they would go to fancy restaurants to educate and agitate.

Fellow Wobbly Ben Ferguson remembered May as their “biological weapon” for such actions. “Usually we’d just flyer, but with Mike, we went further. Once Mike just climbed on top of a counter of a Thai place and addressed the crowd, ‘Do you know where your food is coming from? SWEATSHOPS!’ He gave them much more than they bargained for that night!” The IWW convinced 75 restaurants to stop buying from one supplier by doing this kind of work.”

The Wobblies weren’t the only people May met at ABC No Rio. After a donation of wood and plants came in to the space, they needed volunteers to build a garden. Mike and another Wobbly stepped up to the job. Together they worked with a volunteer, Delfina, who would become Mike’s girlfriend, and, as May was fond of telling everyone he met since that time, the love of his life. They remained together as partners in life and activism since that time.

In the mid-2000s May pulled out his punk-era skill set to help radicalize his adopted home of Staten Island. As part of the Peace Action Staten Island chapter, he produced four years of the Peace and Freedom Festival in Tappen Park. There he booked musicians, spoken word artists, and movement people as well as local school choruses, church groups, dancing groups to undergird the message of anti-militarism and public participation in democracy.

Sally Jones, a member who currently sits on the Action’s state council, remembered the juxtaposition of May as organizer and as wild man she saw whenever the festival was on. “Mike would be focused on running the show.” Then, all of a sudden the music started, and the other Mike would switch. “There he was, bouncing all over the park, in front of the stage, running up and down the stairs, throwing his hands up and punching the air,” she said.

His showman persona came in handy for activism. One way was with his ability to talk. The man could talk. His mind was overstuffed with political slogans, stories, aphorisms and quotations, political theory, and up-to-the-minute news. He would pull out flurries of facts and thoughts for improvised but on point political speeches, poetry, rants, or sermons, as the situation needed. It was astonishing to hear.

He was unashamed and more than willing to do unusual things to unsettle people’s comfortable worlds. Stories of his bold, creative direct actions and protests could fill a book. He traced shadows on the walls of the Staten Island armory to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with detectives standing by “for his safety.” He made a huge cloth banner with a slogan against the Iraq War and took it to greet Fleet Week personnel at the Navy Pier. He played a self-important journalist in satirical street theater about McMillan’s trial. During the fraud trial for former Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm, he photo bombed press holding a “GRIMINAL” sign behind the Congressman. He sang tribute concerts in commemoration of Jacob George, a four-time Afghanistan veteran, activist and talented musician who succumbed to PTSD, He sang at peace events, and really, he sang whenever else he could.

His same high energy in action could turn into moments of uninhibited abandon or playful defiance in his daily life. Ben Ferguson remembered, “going to see Eric Burden and the Animals at John Varvatos, that rock star fashion place that used to be CBGB’s. I told a friend, ‘Mike’s going to get kicked out in 30 minutes or less.’ On the dot my friend said, “See, nothing happened!” and we turned. Mike was slam dancing to the band–who were like 70! And then he was whisked out.”

May knew his spirited displays could be too much for some; so getting kicked out was no big deal. “Oh, he’d laugh, and go down the street to the Mars Bar,” Ferguson said.

Sometimes his antics crossed over from punk provocations to the stuff of legends. “I once saw him eat a burning log like it was a ham sandwich, at this campout in Asheville, NC,” said Ferguson. “The spirit just moved him – and the drink.”

While drinking did loosen May into the free spirit everyone loved to watch, but it also became a difficulty. May also struggled to control his emotions. When he would see the darkness, he would focus on it as coming within a system, and “be clear about where violence would lead,” said Sally Jones. “He was committed to non-violence as a practice,” she said.

Matthew Daloisio, and organizer with Witness Against Torture remembered, “We would do a silent vigil in orange jumpsuits and black hoods. After it was over I would see Mike with his hood off, speaking with people. Usually it was a gentle education, but sometimes it got heated. He had so much passion about injustice that it sometimes overtook his ability to communicate. Afterwards he would feel terrible had he’d been so overcome.”

May lived in humble material conditions. One friend said of his style, “He never owned anything nice. He would go on a trip and pack everything he needed in a grocery bag.” The state of his wardrobe was topic of concern among his friends. “Mike would wear a t-shirt into the ground,” said Jones.  “Sometimes I wondered if it was the best way. We’d be flyering to commuters about ideas of peace to commuters at the Ferry. Mike would be shouting to everyone, and I would say to him, “Is this the best approach, do you think?”

“This is who I am, it’s my style,’ he said. ‘I think it has its place and it works for me.’ He wasn’t going to dumb things down, be sweet, or try to trick people into taking flyers. He had strong feelings and he was not compromising on his tone. And he was a worker. He wanted to communicate that. It convinced me.”

Although May was known as a raconteur, he was also known for contributing quiet, inconspicuous acts. He valued his skill as a carpenter, so he proudly volunteered to renovate activist offices. He was a strong person, so stepped up to unloaded cars and trucks at events. He was a compassionate person, so when someone agitated showed up at an action he would take him or her aside and listen to them.

But what was singular about May, what everyone who knew him remarked on, is what he did for McMillan and for anyone who needed it: he would be there. He showed up. Always. “Even when the cause was no longer popular, he had an unwavering commitment,” said Daloisio. Turning out is not as important when there were thousands expected, but when there were dozens or fewer it is crucial. That was where May shined. He was a guy who an organizer could rely on.

On the street, Mike May he was fully, lovingly, and intensely present. When he arrived at an action, he always gave a smile and giant hug with the greeting, “Hey, sister!” His voice was loud and his coal black eyes could shine or lock a stranger down, as needed. He would put all his energy into the moment and hold the space for as long a he could, and when it was time to go he would leave with more hugs and the goodbye of “peace, brother.”

Radical veteran Bill Perry remembered the Flood Wall Street, a day of direct action after the September 2014 People’s Climate March. It was Perry’s last demonstration before moving to a wheelchair, and was hobbling to the subway when May found him. May had already said his goodbyes and was headed home alone to take his meds. Instead he stayed with Bill to get him to the train. “This ‘Nam combat veteran calls Mike’s selfless act ‘leaving nobody on the mayor’s battlefield,’” Perry said.

May’s activism was not usually the kind celebrated in history: he was not known primarily as an organizer or as a leader (he stepped down from the Peace Action board after one term). There are some who would call May an “action junkie,” a pejorative used in movement circles to characterize those who prefer to spend their time in face to face encounters rather than in the more mundane, back office parts of movement building. There will always be a tension between these two personality types, but from Zuccotti to Ferguson one thing is clear: people want to speak and do politics on the streets. They do want the immediacy, the theater, and the connection to other passionate people. The urgency that has brought Americans out to protest in larger numbers than in decades is a feeling May had every day since the 1980s.

And perhaps May did need to be on the streets to feel connected to the struggles, and perhaps some of those thousands of actions he went to were futile. What mattered is that the people on the streets needed him there just as much, and that each time he was there it strengthened everyone’s resolve to do more and better next time, and to always come back. “Do what you can,” was a May-ism many will remember. Being there was what Mike could, and did, do.

May was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2002. After successful surgery, he went into remission. In early fall 2013, he started to have trouble breathing. His doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on, but eventually they found a tumor in his lungs. Before they operated they did a body scan. It showed 17 tumors, and they told May that it was not going to be possible to operate.

“Mike was accurate in talk about his illness and realistic in his options,” said Jones. The knowledge of his condition, “made him want to do as much activism as possible, since he knew his time was running out,” said his son Luke. In the last year, Mike was present in actions seeking justice for Eric Garner and gave court support to Ramsey Orta, (“Mike May’s Tribute to Ramsey Orta”) who many believe was targeted for arrest after he filmed Eric Garner’s killing by the NYPD. He most recently spoke out against Formica Construction, a company whose unsafe working conditions caused the death of Delfino Velasquez in a November 2014 building collapse on Staten Island.

So that is why it was heartbreaking when Ben Ferguson heard Mike say on the phone a few months ago, “I lost my strong voice, Ben. It’s gone.” Shortly after he wrote to friends that his legs were like rubber, his feet like lead. No one wants to be confined to the home, but for a man whose life was most happily lived loud and in public, these were crushing losses. Not long after he told Ferguson: “I’m ready to die – I’ve lived hard, partied hard, and I’ve fought hard.”  All of those things were true. He died as he lived: with loved ones, in peace.

In 1984, May wrote lyrics to a Vex song called “You Talk Against the System,” (“You Talk Against The System” by Vex) a classic call out of community members who lived the lifestyle more than the politics of punk. Over fevered guitar he sings, “Thrashing to false answers / Fortify their lies / How can you change the system / When you never try?” What is striking about the performance of these lyrics is the way May manages to sound more hurt than angry.

“What other thing could be worth time besides the cause of peace,” is a challenge that we answer in thousand different ways. May was a rare person who tried lived his whole life from that song on as if the answer was “nothing.”

“I’d like to think that some Staten Island cronies popped a bottle of champagne after hearing the news that Mike was finally dead. He would have loved that,” said Ferguson. But May’s enemies probably never knew his name, because he wasn’t the kind of guy who put his name out there and he wasn’t the kind of guy to be in charge.  To quote from his favorite band Stiff Little Fingers, he “didn’t want to be nobody’s hero.” He didn’t want to be a martyr. He just wanted to be there, always. And that’s a tough role to fill.


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