May Day March has small turn-out, overbearing police
one observer's thoughts about the may day march last sunday, in detail.
The May Day Rally and March were like a lot of protests lately, in that the turn out was low and there was little sense of community and cohesion. The entire day was colored by the sense of the different forces turning out that day—several different unions, of course, the Northwest Anarchist Federation, the Freedom Socialist Party, and countless different sorts of people from all walks of life—from young anarchists with dreadlocks to elderly activists with faded tattoos—merely tolerating each others' presence, as opposed to being energized by the spirit of collective action.
My first clue was the group of middle-aged men in sandwich boards lined up at the back of the crowd sporting messages like "SINNERS GO TO HELL" and "FEAR GOD, LOVE JESUS." Their ringleader was a bright-eyed young Ralph Reed look-alike who stood at the very front of the crowd and helped spark the most unified statement of the day: the Left wing is angry, self-righteous, hateful, and extremely easily distracted from its purpose by anyone with the courage prod its emotions as opposed to encouraging its mind. Wearing a dime-store suit and ragged boots, the preacher stood on Couch St right in front f the flat bed truck decorated with union banners that served as a make-shift stage. A band called General Strike was strumming tired Union songs, the type that maybe, perhaps, could overcome the fact they were relics of a previous era if they weren't so lazily delivered, as if the performers were convinced that the songs' very existence insured that their message would be understood and celebrated. "Bring In the Union," "This Land is Your Land"—when divorced of the immediacy given to them by the vibrant movement that created them—or even the passion that David Carradine pretended to have when he played Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory"—they might as well be playing to preschool children, seeing as I have memories of singing "This Land is Your Land" in elementary school music class anyway.
And most of the speakers fell into that trap—inspiring nostalgia instead of action. This rally was not about activism today, was not living in the world where the forces of today's economy are causing worse conditions than ever for working people all over the world. Not that all that many people listened to the speakers. The preacher created such a cleavage in the energy of the protest, constantly surrounded by at least two people in a drawn-out and incoherent debate, involving mostly hot-under-the-collar name-calling. The Bible activists, even in their small numbers, did a lot to distract from the celebration of worker solidarity that was supposed to highlight the day. One union organizer fought a running verbal battle with the preacher throughout the event, asking him to move aside. He naturally refused, and continued to relish each outburst of anger and frustration coming from the obviously fragile and sensitive members of the left wing. "This is great!" he even said at one point.
And what was accomplished? Well even the tiny shreds of solidarity, even the smallest resin of unity that may have been achieved that day was nearly ruined. The organizer lined up three of the Union security volunteers, dressed in bright orange shirts and ballcaps, who stood stone-faced in front of the preacher as everyone took their turns trying to be the one that broke his resolve (nobody did). On several occasions, circles were formed around the preacher in an attempt to "hide" him, when in reality they simply drew more attention to him than they would have if they'd simply ignore him. He couldn't have been happier with himself, seeing as he'd so skillfully manipulated activists' emotions and sensitivities. You can't waste your time trying to convert somebody like that—he is a brick wall against your emotion you will run smack into, and he will suck all of your energy away with statements like "Homosexuality directly causes AIDS." That's what he's for, and that's what he wants to accomplish. And I must say—he did a fine job.
The speakers did their best to distract from the Bible thumpers, though, with differing levels of effectiveness. By far the two most inspiring of the speakers, possessing the most charisma and the purest desire to bring people together, were Jamie Billig of the Northwest Anarchist Federation and Laura Mannon of the Freedom Socialist Party. While most other speakers revisited the past, Billig and Mannon actually discussed things that could be learned from the past and applied to the future.
Billig spoke mainly on the "uneasy alliance" that has existed between anarchists and the labor movement for decades, and how anarchists have provided the passion and the drive to keep the labor movement going whenever it stalled. He also spoke of the need for anarchism to no longer be seen as a social group comprised of the people sitting on the sidewalk around Pioneer Square and demanding hand-outs and getting belligerent when they don't get what they want. "Dammit," Billig said, "people involved in anarchy need the labor movement just as much as the labor movement needs anarchists." May Day is, after all, observed in recognition of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, in which a labor demonstrationw as interrupted by an explosion that resulted, through a great deal of maneuvering from the police and the courts, in the trial of the famous "Anarchist Eight," and the suicide and/or execution of all but two. Whenever anarchists and the labor movement have worked together the best—such as the period at the beginning of the twentieth century before World War I, the labor movement has been strong, working from the core anarchist principles Billig described as "direct democracy, direct action, freedom, and equality." Of the four major forms of government seen in the twentieth century—fascism, capitalism, communism, and anarchism—Billig argued that only anarchism encouraged freedom and equality all the time. He even had an answer to the Bible activists, referring to the legendary anarchist leader Prudhon, who based his anarchist principles on the society of Jesus and the Apostles. A fine speech, espousing values that were tried during the march itself.
Mannon echoed Billig's cry for solidarity. "General strikes shut this country down in the past, and we'll do it again," she said. "Why the hell shouldn't we take control of the system?" her voice boomed over the crowd, inspiring one of the few moments when cheers broke out, and people paid more attention to the stage than to the Bible activists.
Jason Wallach put the day in perspective, stating the numbers of people turning out for May Day protests around the world—200,000 (!) in San Salvador. Mexico, 150,000. In Brazil, 11,000 people set off on a 25-day march. Looking around the thin and un-united crowd, I couldn't help but feel ashamed. Yes, yes, we're all just so liberal and anarchist here in Portland, aren't we now? We all have our pretty tattoos and our collections of punk vinyl but it's all style, isn't it? When it comes time for people to actually turn out, very little happens. There's the whole problem with Portland, the American "liberal utopia"—it's all style and no substance. It's a pose. It shows little more than just how comfortable and pampered Americans are, where everyone in this supposedly liberal city can't be bothered to turn out for an event, when in the Third World—the place where people are actually experiencing the conditions that the majority of Portlanders only hear about here and there—the real "liberal utopia" is being created out of ther crumbling infrastructure of countries that are collapsing under the capitalist system, where their workers are languishing under the working conditions at outsourced factories from American corporations, like Portland's own Nike. Liberal city, huh? Hmmmm.
But the march happened in any case, small and dislocated as it was. The police told me they thought the police and the march organizers were on the same page. "We feel it's our duty to protect everyone's rights equally," I was told by Officer Larry O'Dea.
Sure enough, the police were there, enforcing those "freedoms," which apparently meant bearing down on the small march with a level of man-power absolutely ridiculous considering the size and attitude of the march. A police car began by leading everyone down NW Park, with bike police on all sides. Each group carried its signs and chanted its chants, and a right was taken at NW Hoyt.
It was when the march got to the downtown Post Office that things got interesting. As the Union leaders were occupied up front as a postal worker spoke to the crowd, a group of anarchists at the back—none over eighteen, all wearing raggedy clothing—began spilling lighter fluid onto a flag. One of the Union Cops grabbed the flag and held onto it tightly and refused to let it go. The sound of yelling from the anarchists could be heard, although the Union cop never yelled back, he just held onto the flag (I would learn later that he'd said it was "arson," which isn't true) as the group surrounded him, attempting to address him: "You're not supposed to be hierarchical" one person said, but he wasn't going to listen, grasping that flag as if it were his only child, with a seeming need to cling to it that overcame any desire to talk the situation out. People were pulling on him from all sides, and finally somebody got the flag from him. John Svob, the chairman of the May Day Committee and one of the march's organizers, came over and settled down the Union men.
"Let 'em do it," Svob said, in an authoritative male voice that the Union cop would understand, "It's their civil right." Only at that point did he stand down.
The march continued up Broadway. I was disturbed with what I'd seen. It seemed to be a reminder of the inherent problem with the union system in America—it becomes too much of a part of what it was founded to be a fight against, and ends up dictating workers' values to them from above, as opposed to allowing the workers to create their own opinions. The march continued up NW Broadway, where, finally, there were some people to watch us. There is absolutely no discernable difference between the response of your average bourgeois bystander to a march. As people walked out of the cafes and bars and hotels to watch, I saw over and over again the repetition of the same expression, on after another... sure, they see you... uh... they're not sure what's going on, uh... they, uh... they—they don't have the time—that's it!—they don't have the time to find out anymore, and they just stare for a little while longer, and then, once the march passes by, once there's no direct stimulation of their senses, it's onto the next little ceramic castle in the fishbowl they live in.
At one of the intersections along Broadway, I figured something out, though, something that had been bothering me since the post office. I saw a motorcycle cop standing at the intersection, stopping traffic, and I saw the look on his face, the steely Clint Eastwood squint and the perfect manly posture... and I saw the Union cop in my mind again... they could have been the same person, having dashed behind one of the buildings and changed clothes, playing multiple roles in the march that day. Was there anything in the heart and soul of that Union cop back there, throwing his body atop the American flag, that would stop him, inherently, from being that traffic cop? Was there any difference in values at all? Was there a vague dislike of hierarchical authority, a vague dislike of the concept of the boss, who did none of the actual work, reaping the benefits of the work he did? An idea like maybe what those from above tell you should not be taken at face value? I'd tried talking to that same Union cop at the rally, when he'd been one of the ones standing in front of the preacher on Couch St, and he'd just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, and that's what he'd done after the flag incident, and I wondered if there were anyting more going on than that, with both him and the movement he was supposed to be a representative of.
The march turned eat on Madison. The bike police revolved around the crowd like Christmas lights on tracking, ringing all around. They were like a cell wall—keeping the protoplasm and the nucleus and the mitochondrians inside by its ability to remain rigid yet flexible, mobile and versatile. (Hmmm... wonder where they got idea from?) When the marchers passed Police Headquarters, the contrast of worldviews between the members of the march became pronounced once again. Several police officers were blocking the door that opened onto SW 2nd Ave, and several of the march's younger members were stopped to check what was happening, skirted by members of the independent media and legal obervers. The door was chained shut, and four or five officers were standing in front of it. A few of the protestors began asking some questions about why the door was blocked, why there was a chain and a padlock on the handles, with a human wall in front of it. The police became quickly agitated. They weren't folling the rules! The march turned around the block, and one protestor, Mike Dee, walked straight up to the line of cops and began attempting to get the officers' names, and apparently violated the officers' authority-figure personal space, as he made a call on his cellphone to 911 to "report" the obstruction of the doors. One of the Union cops showed up after a while to help the police out.
"If you're in the parade," said the Union guy, a big man with a shaved head and a goattee, "keep moving, otherwise you're not in the parade."
Several of the people around the door argued with the Union man on the way to the march proper, which was now stationed at the World Trade Center, but it was useless. The march was going to work this way, and that was the way the march was going to work.
What had actually happened was almost nothing at all. Dee had this to say: "I saw an unsafe situation, where the police were blocking access, and it was worthy of concern, and I made a call to 911 to inform them there was an unsafe situation." Innocuous as it gets—ineffectual, even. I'd go so far as to call it a waste of time. But the fact that such a small deviation from the plan—from the controlled structure of what this "protest," this "demonstration" was going to be—riled the police and the union establishment to such a degree shows one thing: fear. They are afraid, and a rearing for a fight, are dying to turn any subversive element into something they can aggressively attack. They must completely wipe out any sign that they are not in complete control. All they want is the slightest, smallest excuse.
Once the march continued past the World Trade Center, I saw the clearest sign of police nervousness/bloodlust: the Morrison Bridge had, from all appearances, been occupied. I couldn't believe the number of police that covered the bridge, in full riot gear, in a line, stopping all traffic. I couldn't see what the police were trying to accomplish by shutting the bridge down. O'Dea tells me that the police were there to protect everyone's freedoms equally, yet by lining up riot cops on the Morrison Bridge, where nobody from the march ever came close, they are protecting nobody's freedoms, and are in fact taking everyone's freedoms away. I don't get it. Oh—yeah! "War is peace." "Occupation is freedom." Right.
And the cops on bikes continued hemming the protest in. There was never more than six feet between each bike. Were those Union cops talking to the PPD on those cell phones they kept speaking into? This march was not a protest, not a demonstration. It was a simulation. A performance along the lines of a Ratdog or Wailers concert, where that Bob Marley sound-alike sings "Redemption Song" and everyone thinks vaguely about how nice the fight for freedom must have been back then and waves their arms but keeps all that thinking back there, because isn't that where it belongs? Things like that don't happen these days. There are too many cops, and we might get hurt.
Besides, there was the Marketplace. Who could be bothered? There were duct-tape wallets and curly fries and bluegrass to watch. Only a small fringe of the people could be bothered to even come wtach the march, and they all had those same faces, presenting only a dim realization that yes, something was happening, yes, May Day was some sort of labor holiday or something, right?—and yes, something was happening right—but no, the Morrsion Bridge hadn't been shut down and public access to Police Headquarters had not been restricted or anything.
But the march did grow as it went on, and spirits within the march, beyond these couple of extremely minor occurrences (at least for Portland) were high as we turned onto Burnside and headed towards the park blocks again. Passing cars honked in support, and people waved back, and everyone who was there was at least happy they'd decided to come, and do the little they as individuals could do.
General Strike began playing again once the march ended. A flag was indeed burned right in front of the stage, and "THIS COUNTRY WAS FOUNDED ON SLAVE LABOR" was drawn on the ground in chalk next to it, so the anarchists got their chance to express their statement.
John Svob, the chairman of the May Day coalition, was generally optimistic.
"I see people who... essentially support one another and understand that even though our civilization is not facing obvious erosion, is not crumbling before our eyes... we [still] don't see the pain that other people see first hand."
Well, obviously not. Obviously most of Portland can't see the need for solidarity and the vacuum in today's protest movements, featuring police presence so overbearing that the chance of anything besides constituting a mere annoyance is impossible. It seems that for everyone there that day, it was about their experience, their opportunity to go up to the preacher in the sandwich boards and bark at him, their group or organization, which is mildly better than the people along the street who don't have any opinion at all, are downtown shopping and don't want to think of anything else, especially not the platoon-sized forced occupying one of their city's major traffic thoroughfares. Sure, marching and stuff, yeah, that's great.
Svob also said he was disturbed by the altercation over the flag. "It was reallt minor, and we worked it out. And we've got to come to the table to talk to one another so that we don't destroy the coalition we made."
Jim Cook, another organizer, summed the day up well from the point of view of the march organizers: "We're trying to capture the spirit of so many who have been fighting since the 1st May Day. It's a celebration of our power to promote International Solidarity and workers' culture."
Well and good. And General Strike played some more union songs and the crowd slowly dispersed. Ultimately, leaving the march I felt as if I'd just driven home through rush hour—sure, I'd done what Is et out to do, but I felt congested, frustrated, and stifled. And uncomfortable with what seemed to be only a hint of solidarity. There was overall a tenuous "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of feeling—the union didn't trust the anarchists, the anarchists didn't trust the union, but neither of them liked the cops of the preacher. The Union doesn't want the anarchists to ruin what they've accomplished, because they're still dwelling on archaic victories. The anarchists are distrustful of the union's often belligerent and authoritarian attitude, counter to the values upon which all the unions were founded so long ago.
Overall, I see a lot of one-upsmanship in the white man's liberal utopia. Somehow, down in the Third World, everyone can get together and work together and care about one another and support one another, but up here we can barely get together enough to do one tiny little march, and nobody even cares enough to show up anyway, caught up in the haze of consumption. I don't know what the solution is, but obviously some sort of wake-up call in necessary here, some sort of realization that this is no time for the folks on the left to be adversarial with one another, nor to get caught up in ridiculous badgering from the religious right. Something big needs to happen, and big people will be required to make it happen, and a whole lot of big people just don't seem to exist here in Portland, OR. I hope that changes.
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