Originally published in New Ground 105.6, email edition 05.08.2006. This was Chicago’s largest May Day demonstration ever, I think, about a half million participants is a reasonably conservative estimate, though the crowd at any one time may have been, at its largest, somewhat less. I didn’t march but was a spectator along the route toward the end, in Grant Park. It really was necessary to shelter behind a lamppost to avoid being swept away.
by Bob Roman
It was May Day, 2006, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Nearly a half million people were in the streets of Chicago. They were demonstrating for immigrant rights and against recent conservative attempts to demonize migrants, true; and unlike many left demonstrations, it was to the point and on message, mostly. But it was also a May Day demonstration and there were an amazing number of red flags.
There were a not a few t-shirts with that classic image of Che Guevara. Sometimes it resulted in interesting juxtapositions, such as a fellow with a Guevara t-shirt carrying a cross emblazoned the name of a saint. It was a sight worthy of a smile though not so incongruous. Che had said that history would absolve him. But history did to him what it did to the saint. It dissolved the fleshy humanity of him, leaving fossilized bone representing not a life but a morality play. A good demonstration does this too.
The red flags were very much an American tradition though in a special way. May Day had its origins in the States, specifically here in Chicago as a result of movement for an eight hour work day, the 1886 Haymarket police riot and the consequent repression. Even though we’ve mostly forgotten this, and May Day celebrations even in Chicago have become a feeble, sentimental imitation of the remembrances elsewhere, this is obvious enough for even some of the mainstream press to have recognized.
But it’s very much an American tradition because migrants often come from countries where more or less ideological labor / social democratic / democratic socialist / communist parties are very much a part of mainstream politics. This was true a hundred years ago; it’s true today. The major difference is that a hundred years ago, migrants may have been more interested in politics in the “old country” but they were largely organized in affiliates to U.S. parties, the foreign language sections of the Socialist Party of America as an example. Today, it’s not uncommon for parties in the “old country” to have chapters here in the States. While it varies from country to country and party to party, many of these chapters are also very much concerned with American politics as it affects their constituencies. Campaign finance laws (here and in the “old country”) plus calculated discretion restrict how the chapters as chapters might participate in organizing demonstrations like the recent immigration rights marches and in electoral politics, but a great deal can be accomplished through informal networks, especially if integrated into grassroots civic organizations.
That “socialism is a foreign import” is an old, old half truth. The untrue half neglects a tradition of home grown radicalism that manifested itself as the agrarian socialism of the wheat growing portions of the Great Plains or as the urban “sewer” socialism of small industrial cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Reading, Pennsylvania (to name a few).
So what can the left expect of this new movement? I think there are reasons to be optimistic, even though the labor movement remains terribly weak and the ideological left here in the States resembles shattered safety glass. Others are much better at political calculation and prognostication than I, so I’ll offer only two observations.
First, there will be a terrible (but typical) belief on the American left that if we can only just get our message across to this constituency, we’ll gain their support. But this movement belongs to the immigrant communities themselves, and to those organizations that are and have been in a position to make a material contribution to improving the lives of the members of those communities. Talking the talk or even being there will not be enough. (Though some marxist leninist sects would consider dozens of new recruits a victory.)
Second, if the mobilization of the immigrant communities, the labor movement, and the left is an outcome, expect a counter-mobilization on the right, especially as migrants are such wonderful and universal fear objects. This counter-mobilization will be hobbled by the need of the business class for low-wage, docile employees.
An example of this split is Beardstown, Illinois. Some miles west, southwest of Springfield, it is the location of a Cargill plant where the workforce is about a third Hispanic. Cargill closed its plants on May 1, but the Mayor of Beardstown, Bob Walters, was singularly ungracious and unhappy. He sent an email to Congressman Ray LaHood “informing him that the packing house is going to close, and that tells me how many ‘illegals’ are working there. Why in the hell isn’t somebody at INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) checking it out?” (As quoted in the Peoria Journal-Star)
The flip side is that the immigrant community is only as strong as its members who are voting citizens. This was powerfully expressed in California, but migrants have been coming to California for many years. Who knows how this will play out in downstate Illinois, or Georgia, or nationally?
Finally, the demonstration in Chicago was probably the most photographed and recorded event in the city in recent history. It may be redundant, therefore, but below is my contribution to the record.