It Was May Day and I Couldn’t Stop Smiling

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.

May Day 2006
The march ended with a rally in Grant Park. Long before the march arrived, a steady trickle of people began arriving, sometimes alone, sometimes in little groups. It was like watching a dry wash begin to fill. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
ACORN was the avant-guard of the march, coming through separately on the sidewalks about a half hour ahead of the main march. This gave ACORN members premium seating at the Grant Park rally. Come to think of it, it also provided the foreground for camera shots of the rally. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
What got my attention initially was the stream of white balloons in the ACORN contingent. But the couple in the foreground are actually more interesting… Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
…because it makes an almost perfect propaganda pose from 1930s Stalinism: the young couple, gazing off and up into the future, serious and determined with a red banner in the background. Except for the distinctly American twist to it. Instead of some tool or book, the man is holding a soft drink. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
And what were the couple looking at? This! The gentleman from the Grassroots Collaborative (housed with the American Friends Service Committee, but ACORN is one of several participating organizations) had an incredible set of lungs and a great deal of energy. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
The main march finally crosses Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Another shot of the main march arriving at Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
A shot of the front of the march from the rear as they marched over the METRA / South Shore tracks, just east of Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Imagine this passing before you for 3 to 4 hours! Luckily the street light poles provided breaks where spectators could shelter. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Occasionally the march would stop for a “photo op”. Typically, the front ranks would squat for a minute or so while a myriad of cameras would get a shot of the ranks receding into the distance. Then they would leap up with a yell and resume the march. Sometimes they would leap up and leap forward until they caught up with rest of the march, laughing and yelling all the while. Symbolic, I suppose, of breaking free. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
Several unions had significant delegations in the march, such as UNITE HERE. Photo by Roman

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Immigrant Freedom Ride

This was originally published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The Chicago leg of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride hit the road from a rally held at Chicago’s downtown Federal Plaza on Saturday, September 27. Organizers claimed some 3,000 people attended on a beautiful fall afternoon. My guess would have been about half as many, but even the official number was rather less than the organizers’ original ambitions and less than some other rallies held in support of immigrant rights in Chicago in recent years. This diminished turn out seemed fairly consistent across the country though the final rally in New York drew somewhere around 100,000.

counter demonstrators
Counter demonstrators at Immigrant Freedom Ride rally. Photo by Roman.
2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Backup crowd control. Photo by Roman.

There were even some counter demonstrators at the Chicago rally, though they were few indeed and limited to the ideological fringe: some unknown variety of Nazi and Matt Hale’s “World Church of the Creator”. Police insisted they remain across Dearborn and for good reason. Some of the Freedom Ride Rally’s ideological fringe definitely wanted to get it on.

On October 1, in addition to passing a resolution disapproving of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution supporting the Freedom Ride.

I’m not sure what to make of the turnouts because in many other ways the Freedom Ride was a success. In particular, the press coverage was large and sympathetic, a mother load of human interest stories about the immigrant experience today and yesterday, and memories of the Civil Rights movement.

This sympathetic media atmosphere makes it more difficult for rightwing demagogues to set up immigrants as hate objects. Though they keep trying. “Freeloading Free Riders”, “The Attack of the Open Border Elites”, “When Did America Lose the Rule of Law” were some of the typical web headlines on right wing “news” sites.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
The 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally with Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” stabile as a backdrop. Photo by Roman

Some of this vitriol was in connection with one of the victories associated with the Freedom Rides: the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the “DREAM Act” to the full Senate for a vote. This legislation would allow undocumented children who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, have graduated from high school and don’t have a criminal record, to get conditional residency for six years. They have that time to attend colleges at the in-state rate and they become eligible for citizenship if they spend at least two years in college or in the U.S. military.

The bill has broad, bi-partisan support in the Senate with some three dozen and counting cosponsors. It stands a reasonably good chance of passing. The companion bill in the House, “The Student Adjustment Act”, remains bottled up in committee. Likewise, the two more comprehensive immigration reform bills mentioned in New Ground 90, HR 440 and HR 152, have not stirred in any way.

Chicago DSA had supported the Ride and the Rally by doing a 4,300 piece post card mailing urging members and friends to attend. Photos of the Freedom Ride Rally are posted on our web site.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Headdress at 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally. Photo by Roman

 

Get on the Freedom Bus!

Originally published in New Ground 90, September — October, 2003.

by Bob Roman

At the very beginning of the 1960s, the legal foundations of segregation and Jim Crow were crumbling. But if segregation and discrimination were less and less the law of the land, it was still very much the practice of the land. The progress of the Civil Rights movement was, for many, just about as rewarding as waiting for water to boil. Despite two Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation in interstate bus service (the Irene Morgan decision in 1946 and the Boynton decision in 1960), it was still not possible for African – Americans to receive equal services. In the South, regardless of the law, they still had to ride in the back of the bus.

To turn up the heat, activists around the Congress of Racial Equality planned and executed a series of “Freedom Bus Rides” through the South that did nothing more than claim the legal rights then recognized by the Supreme Court. The trail of burning buses and broken bodies may not have seemed encouraging at the time, but it was really old Jim Crow that took a beating. The Freedom Rides have become a part of history and legend, a symbol of speaking truth to fear, hatred and impunity.

The New Freedom Riders
Now a new generation of freedom activists is putting this legend in the service of a fight for freedom and equality for immigrants to the United States. With the campaign to make English the “official” and only language, with the exclusion of immigrants from benefits when welfare was “reformed”, with various and sundry gratuitous acts of hatred and robbery, with an immigration bureaucracy far more interested in exploiting the numerous “gotchas” in the law than in service, with the paranoia generated by a politically motivated “war” on “terrorism”, it is this constituency that has been branded “other”, denied access to government services, imprisoned, exploited and expelled.

Organized by a coalition of community, religious, activist and political groups, but most especially by the union movement, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride envisions several bus caravans from all across the country converging on Washington, DC, for a day of lobbying then proceeding on to New York for a monster rally. Along the way, each caravan will stop for rallies, photo ops and additional participants.

Many of these rallies will not be small. The Chicago leg of the Freedom Ride will depart the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams on Saturday, 10 AM, September 27. The kick off rally is expected to draw more than ten thousand. The final rally in New York is expected to draw hundreds of thousands.

Power Concedes Nothing Without…
Each member of the coalition brings its own agenda to the table, but as a coalition, the Freedom Ride is organized around essentially three basic demands. The first is for a new amnesty program for undocumented, tax paying workers in the U.S. This has become a particularly urgent issue in the context of the current drive for alien registration. This demand also includes an “improved road” to citizenship. The second is for better family unification laws. The current laws are so restrictive that there is an outrageous backlog of family members waiting to come to the States. The third is for improving the rights of undocumented workers to organize. In particular, the coalition has in mind the recent Supreme Court extraordinary “Hoffman” decision that denied back pay to a worker illegally fired for organizing activities protected under the National Labor Relations Act simply because of his immigration status. The AFL-CIO has filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization over this decision as the Supreme Court appears to have violated a number of agreements to which the U.S. is a party.

Legislation
While the Coalition has not promoted any specific legislation, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez has introduced HR440, the “U.S.A. Family Act”, that addresses many of the Coalition’s concerns. At present, the bill has 17 additional cosponsors, including Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The U.S.A. Family Act is much more than just an amnesty program; it seeks to remove many of the “Catch 22” provisions of the current law that make applying for work permits, residency and citizenship a risky business for aliens. As a back up, perhaps, some of the cosponsors, including Gutierrez, have introduced a bill that is more simply an amnesty, HR 152, “The Immigration Adjustment Act of 2003”.

Neither bill addresses labor’s concern over the Hoffman decision. Both bills exploit the conservative fetish of judging people as “deserving” and “not deserving”; HR440, for example, requires applicants to demonstrate they have not “received public cash assistance”. Neither bill addresses the longer-term questions of immigration policy that make such amnesties desirable.