We present reports from Marxist-Humanist participants on the 2013 May Day celebrations.
Los Angeles, California
The May Day march drew about 10,000 people, young and old, with an overwhelmingly Latino/a and working class composition. The key demand put forward by this spirited march was immigration reform now.
The clear result of the 2012 elections, with the nation’s rapidly growing Latino/a and Asian American communities turning overwhelmingly against the Republicans and thus guaranteeing Obama’s victory, has created an opening for serious immigration reform for the first time in a generation. (See “U.S. Voters Repudiate Far Right, But Still Face Austerity Capitalism under Obama — by Kevin Anderson” 11/16/12.)
Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering a measure that would grant legal status to the more than 10 million undocumented in the U.S. However, pressures from the Right have added on many onerous conditions along the pathway to legalization. The Right is also seeking to block any provision that might allow partner or familial unification involving same-sex partners.
For their part, the marchers in Los Angeles chanted, “Listen up, Obama: We are in the fight,” thus laying down a clear challenge, not only to the Right, but also to the conciliationist Obama administration. Slogans called for citizenship now, not, as is being proposed, a legalized but second-class status, with citizenship ten or more years down the road.
The presence of a substantial LGBT contingent, marching with rainbow flags, also constituted a challenge both to the Right and to the liberal power brokers in Washington, who seem all too ready to concede to Republican demands to exclude same-sex partners from immigration reform.
A number of young people came out of the shadows for the march, wearing T-shirts that read, “I am undocumented.” Others carried signs opposing imperialism and war, with one reading, “Trabajos si, guerras no” [Yes to jobs, no to war].
As one Marxist-Humanist participant, Mansoor M., noted, these issues are also connected to the whole history of Marxism and revolution, with all its contradictions, from Russia to Iran. This is something that the Right always brings up, and to which the Left needs a better response than just “let’s just talk about Western capitalism and imperialism”: “During the May Day rally as I was passing our flyers, I got a few comments about my red Che t-shirt. Many of them were supportive, except in the case of two bystanders from the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. They were saying that Che killed people like Stalin, were very much supportive of US capitalism, and said that ‘these’ Latino immigrants are going to ruin the country! They represented the challenge we face in this century restoring revolutionary ideals first coined by 19th century Marxists.”
A Chicana feminist friend of Marxist-Humanism described the closing rally at the La Placita on Olvera Street, the small plaza outside a historic church whose history includes serving as a sanctuary for those threatened with deportation to El Salvador during the 1980s: “As the May Day Marches wind down, I arrive at a simmered down crowd and feel an immediate sense of a culture bound community tied to a passionate cause to ‘Legalize LA.’ Here is an immigrant rights protest where women, men, children and families rally outside of La Placita Church. A sensuous pleasure of faith, hope and endurance fills the crowd as musical performers, speakers and the audience assert their human rights. Workers, students, and other contributing members of our society continue the tradition of acting as catalysts for socio-economic and political change.”
Many of the speeches at the closing rally – by trade unionists, Filipino/a, Latino/a, Korean, African American and other community activists, LGBT activists, and liberal politicians – emphasized the notion that immigrant labor had built both the city of Los Angeles and the USA more generally, thus giving the event a decidedly working class flavor.
At the same time, even though the demonstration took place on May Day, international workers day, and even though labor was at the center of much of the event’s discourse, anti-capitalist politics was present mainly as an absence. While the millions strong and nationwide pro-immigrant May Day demonstrations of 2006, and the smaller ones since then like this one have brought May Day back to popular consciousness in the U.S., this has not been without limitations.
Nonetheless, for Los Angeles, May Day 2013 offered a glimpse of what is possible in this large and varied metropolis, one that has often experienced difficulty in uniting forces of opposition to the system across the lines of geographic dispersal, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
– by Kevin Anderson
We had a modest May Day March in Denver, Colorado because of a snow storm. Our march consisted of about 100 folks. My job was to carry a Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) flag. The theme of the march was “May Day Call for Path to Citizenship.” Supporters from labor, immigrant, faith, youth and community groups participated. There were several banners and flags carried by different groups, one of my favorites were “No Human is Illegal” — “Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal”. What I appreciated most about the march was the emphasis on regarding immigrant rights of part of the labor movement, a necessary development if we are to overcome the divide and conquer strategy of the oligarchy.
– by Dale Parsons
There was a lot of anticipation (or apprehension depending on your perspective) about May Day in Seattle this year. Fresh in everyone’s minds were the events of last May Day (2012) when black bloc activists broke windows of major corporations in downtown Seattle and were subject to arrests and tear gassing by police (link). A discussion of last year’s events is necessary to convey the all-important context in which this year’s May Day demonstrations took place.
Last year’s demonstrations began in the evening at Seattle Community College. A large group marched from the college, down the hill to downtown Seattle, less than a mile away. A black bloc broke off from this protest, breaking windows of the store fronts of Bank of America, Nike and others and clashing with police. In hindsight, it’s become clear that Seattle police were unprepared and confused about how to respond to these actions (link). As a result, the SPD was subject to considerable scrutiny by the media and general public in the days leading up to May Day 2013, and invested a lot of time and energy in preparing for the demonstrations that were expected to take place this year.
In the wake of last year’s events, media, police, and federal institutions fed a public discourse that simplified the ideology and actions of May Day 2012, labelling them “anarchist.” In mainstream news stories and private conversations, I have observed that members of the black bloc that committed the property damage, and even demonstrators in general are referred to as “anarchists,” and the property damage that they perpetrated is always described as “violence.”
One of the most important and most overlooked result of the May Day protests was the backlash by state police, the FBI and the federal justice system against activists and anarchist groups in both Washington and Oregon allegedly involved in the “violence.” In July of last year, the FBI conducted home raids in search of “anarchist materials” among other fairly benign accoutrements of demonstrators (link). Activists were also subpoenaed to testify in federal grand juries in Seattle regarding the May Day “violence.” When Kteeo Olejnik, Matthew Duran, and Leah Lynn Plante publicly refused to honor the court’s subpoena, they were held in contempt of court and detained for months in solitary confinement in federal detention facilities known as Special Handling Units (SHU). Only by February were all three finally released (link).
This was the context for May Day 2013. There were two main demonstrations that were planned for the day. The first was the March For Immigrants and Workers Rights, which began at 3pm with a rally in a park outside of down town, followed by a march through downtown ending at City Hall. This demonstration was moderately well attended and no black bloc tactics were used (see this local news site for photos). However, another demonstration which began at the same location and time as the May Day 2012 action, resulted in a march through downtown with an unplanned route. In an attempt to prevent property damage in the downtown area, police made a total of 17 arrests and fired flash-bang grenades into the crowd of marchers after they refused to obey police orders to disperse.
While police were able guard the downtown area effectively, they did not prevent property damage, but merely displaced it from the corporate center to small businesses nearby. When police succeeded in herding protesters out of downtown and back into the adjoining neighbourhood of Capitol Hill, the windows of three locally-owned business were broken. Demonstrators latter expressed great regret that this occurred and have apparently tried to remedy the situation, with a group that calls itself Puget Sound Anarchists offering to pay for the broken windows (link).
The Stranger, one of the two major weekly publications in Seattle, was also of note for its show of support for the message of May Day and the protestors themselves. The Stranger is published every Wednesday, which was the day of May Day this year. For it’s may 1st issue, the Stranger published this anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian image on their cover (link) as well as a thoughtful article by Brendan Kiley that debunked negative public perceptions of anarchists and the property damage that occurred on May Day 2012 while relying heavily on David Graeber’s book The Democracy Project to make the argument (link). For me it was heartening to see such an article distributed in print given the widespread outpouring of negative sentiment towards anarchists, equation of all disruptive demonstrations and property damage with anarchist ideology, and the unquestioning equation of property damage with violence.
While I would never describe my political views as anarchist, the discourse that has been created, at least in Seattle, labels all radical, anti-capitalist and even anti-corporate viewpoints as anarchist. As a Marxist, I am forced to recognize that even though I don’t identify myself as an anarchist, I would probably be identified as such by both lay people and the federal and state law enforcement entities that persecuted activists in the wake of May Day 2012. This discourse is an obvious method of control that forces people to choose between the capitalist establishment (whatever its flaws may be) and the barbarians at the gates. It also serves to polarize activist communities into the same diametric understanding, hindering discussions of the wide variety of radical viewpoints on what it means to be anti-capitalist and what a post-capitalist society could look like. Further public discussions into the true nature of anarchism is a first step to help people understand the diversity, complexity of radical viewpoints including Marxism and the humanist basis of many of these. Similarly, as Marxist-Humanists, allying and engaging in discussions with anarchists in recognition of a shared anti-capitalist sentiment while emphasizing the clear distinctions between these two viewpoints is essential to create a more complex discussion in radical communities. If this is the legacy of May Day 2013, it will be remembered as a great success.
– by Eric
Unlike previous May Days, which have seen large and lively mobilizations of anti-capitalist youth on the streets of central London, 2013 saw only the “traditional” march of a thousand or so from Clerkenwell Green to a rally in Trafalgar Square. In truth, because this event tends to be an annual outing of Stalinists (with pictures of the Uncle Joe and Chairman Mao on several of the banners), genuine leftists find it embarrassing and tend to avoid it.
In Scotland, where there is a protest movement growing against the “Bedroom Tax” on benefit claimants, there was more activity, with sizeable marches and rallies taking place in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.
The local election results on May 2 saw a massive increase in support of the anti-immigration, anti-European Union, UK Independence Party to 23 per cent of the vote at the expense of the parties of the ruling Coalition Government (Conservative and Liberal Democrat). The Labour Party vote went up to 29 per cent, but votes for candidates to the left of Labour were derisory.
There are more signs of life on the Left across the Channel. In Paris on May 5 a huge protest of at least 30,000 people (organizers claimed over 100,000) gathered at the Bastille to mark the first anniversary of the election of Socialist President François Hollande. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s candidate in last year’s election, told the protestors, “We do not want the world of finance in power! We do not accept the politics of austerity!” With unemployment rising in a recession-hit economy, his government hit by a corruption scandal and his tax-the-rich legislation blocked by the Constitutional Court, polls show Hollande as the most unpopular president in modern French history.
– by Dave Black