The Bumpy Road to May Day

Posted on April 9, 2012


ImagePart 1:

Yesterday was the first contentious General Assembly in a long while for Occupy Oakland. In the camp days, months ago, heated discourse was the norm for GA’s. The on-going need of sharing the camp, and the simmering stew of perspectives, experiences and ideologies that went into that process, created a vibrant, often antagonistic, and always informative, and unique political discourse not matched since.

Those days are over now, killed by an antagonistic mayor, violent and extra-legal police force and somnambulant, when not corrupt, city council. Occupy Oakland’s last ‘big’ action—the J28 building occupation—ended with a big bang of police brutality and missteps, which surprisingly created an environment and context of unification for those who were left standing in the rubble. Since then, the focus has been on repairing lines of communication, reflection, and expanding the role of Occupy Oakland as a amplifier of existing struggles—for prisoners, for local schools, for labor and the like. The reflection that emerged from J28 also created—in my opinion—Occupy Oakland’s single most spiritually gratifying experiences in the N.E.W Oakland barbecues. Working along side a community of organizers whose main previous link was contentiously struggling with each other for the political narrative of this nascent movement, was awesome and beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously; to the contrary, its been welcome and rewarding work.

At the same time, as the weather improves, and Occupation again becomes a realistic possibility, its also time to recall what spawned the idea of Occupation. Though confining the wildfire of resistance to 99 and 1 percent terrain has been a convenient discursive entry point, the field of antagonism towards government/corporate collusion is really much too small to describe the many paths that converged at Zucotti Park. Everyone knows by now that a large share of the usual suspects in the form of anarchists, socialists, communists and more generic “leftists” certainly heard the call. But many came to Occupy via the anti-war movement, after over a decade of humbling failures to influence the political process, and Democratic so-called allies. Some came after two decades of staggering anti-globalization and environmental movement losses, that saw one Democrat after another sing the praises of capital’s depleting strangle-hold throughout the planet. Others were life-long anti-poverty crusaders; fair housing advocates; feminists, racial justice advocates, class warriors.

Disparate actors though they were, they all had one thing in common; they had lost faith in the two pillars of hope in changing the system. The first, the Democratic party, which after a short period of clarity and relevance to the lives of the poor and middle-class in the 20th century had revealed itself firmly aligned with the vilest and richest interests in the world. The second was “permitted” resistance, and the legalization of the right to assemble and speak. The contradictions manifest in allowed popular resistance for the goal of influencing electoral politics have never been as clear as in the first decade of the new millennium, as one movement after another has been lured into its embrace, only to be dashed to pieces by endless, arrogant Democratic party betrayals.

No set of groups, perhaps, has experienced these contradictions more than organized labor and the undocumented and immigrant’s rights communities. In fact, the years ending the last century and beginning the new, were near-unprecedented periods of mobilization for both labor and immigrant’s rights organizers. Short-term victories of low-wage workers in health care, government workplaces and other service areas created a renewed and decidedly grass roots and working class labor movement by the early 2000’s. The reality that immigrants made up large portions of these low-paid and newly empowered union sectors, was not lost on political actors, who began to direct more and more of their rhetoric in that direction. The beneficiaries, at least in the area of the public sphere, were unions and immigrants.

A manufactured two party spectacle in the spring of 2006, brought immigrant’s rights activists and undocumented immigrants in unprecedented numbers throughout the US, leading some to believe that a new era of immigration reform was on the horizon. And the victory of Barack Obama with copious labor help, brought the renewed expectation of expanded support for unions.

But in both cases, those dreams, predicated on faith in the electoral system generally, and in the Democratic party specifically, have faded in the minds of those movements’ foot soldiers, if not their leaders and establishment. There was no Democratic plan to promote just immigration policies, and to consolidate the status of those already living in this country. In this context, the 2006 immigration battle, on which the massive assemblies of undocumented workers struggling for dignity and respect from the country they’ve helped build for over a century, is revealed to be just another vaudeville hoax, of the kind Obama was happy to perform anew last year during the HALT act silliness with Republicans. In language too precise to discount as mere metaphor, Obama claimed to lack “a dance partner” for immigration reform in the Republican party. Despite “dancing” with himself on the immigration stage, the Obama administration will still go down in history as the uncontested champion of deportation, with over 1 million deportations and several months in his first term left to go.

Establishment union rank and file have followed a similar road to this Occupation season. After years of mindless devotion to the Democratic party, unions have conceded one political loss after another in the last decade, overseen by Democrats and Republicans with equal vigor, and especially pronounced and humiliating in the Obama years. Card check, health care reform, the auto industry bailout–and most recently and telling–the Obama administration’s threat to use the paramilitary Coast Guard on the side of bosses to break up an ILWU strike.

In both cases, despite leadership structures that continue to voice some level of hope in electoral politics and the Democratic party, the rank and file have begun to lose hope. While in the case of rank and file and local unions, that loss has been transferred to Occupy, that shift has not produced a similar outsider movement for undocumented workers. There are obvious reasons. Undocumented people in this country are a poor population struggling to maintain hard-earned gains and they lack civil rights and labor beneath a precarious and undefined legal status.

But some reasons are not quite as obvious. After all, undocumented immigrants came out in droves all over the country in 2006, when their faith in the possibility of change through legislation gave them the confidence to march—and its important to remember that not all of those actions were permitted demonstrations, nor were some actions permitted during the demonstrations.

Indeed, immigrant’s live an “illegal” existence in all facets of their lives. Every undocumented parent, especially in the days of S-Com, faces the reality of never returning to their families at the end of their work day. As many have observed, those people who move to the US outside of the legal process, are the risk-takers of their society, much more motivated and less afraid than their counterparts to resist authoritarian structures and demand a share of justice in the world for themselves, their families and even their communities, in the mother country. These communities do take risks, and they even take risks for political goals.

In this context, there are many things worth noting when we consider some of the tension that emerged at Sunday’s GA, as we talked anew for the first time in long months about how to share our home—this time not the camp, but the city of Oakland itself, on May Day. In the first place, the renewed vigor and excitement around May Day in the United States after decades of disinterest and antagonism among the working class, has much to do with the claiming by immigrant’s groups of the day as the symbolic wedding of their two greatest, and inextricably linked issues: labor and residency. In the second, the transference of that power and interest from immigrant’s groups in May Day to other working people and sectors in the US, is a product of the hope and excitement of the Occupy movement. Glimmering previews of an invigorated May Day have been appearing throughout the nation, most notably in New York’s transit fare strike and an apparent and growing interest in a work stoppage by Golden Gate bridge workers.

That initial boost from undocumented activists, coupled with the consistent and principled rejection by Occupy of permission to march and blockade city streets and private 1% property, has motivated rank and file union members and workers for the first time in long decades to regain use of May Day as their own, non-permitted “Labor Day”. And its what has motivated thousands of allies and activists in the US and around the world to join them in filling the city streets with people clamoring for justice. In other words, despite some of the rhetoric from Sunday, these two groups arrived at May Day together, rather than separately.


Part 2:

Thus, we come back to our contentious GA, and two apparently distinct groups which nevertheless have far more goals and frames of struggle in common than immediately visible. On one side, activists from the May Day Coalition, a loosely knit group of organizers, including some from Occupy Oakland, attempting to re-empower the Latino community’s May Day; seemingly on the other, Occupy Oakland, which, with a proposal passed months ago, seeks to reclaim May Day as a universal day of struggle and public occupation.

At the heart of the struggle is the Coalition’s claim that undocumented immigrants will only come out for the day if the tentative terminus of their march at Oscar Grant Plaza is permitted—which seems at cross-currents with many Occupiers and their supporters who wish to use the energy and turn-out to re-occupy the plaza, and more generally, for a day of non-permitted actions throughout the city.

Yesterday’s proposal was an attempt to bridge these two seemingly disparate goals; much of the negative discussion and speechifying around it, and that still continues today, was a product of a total misunderstanding of its intent. By reformulating the May Day Coalition’s initial goal of having an end-point in a permitted space in OGP, to having one in the general area—and most likely, an adjacent site—many in the coalition sought to recognize the centrality of the two goals, by keeping both groups close enough to join together at a moment’s notice if the conditions in the form of large numbers allowed.

Much of the misunderstanding is based on false perceptions; Occupy Oakland is perceived to be the parlor of young, affluent and empowered white activists, who can afford the consequences of their actions. The undocumented community is seen as fragile and frightened, and psychologically addicted to the fig-leaf of legality for their political demonstrations. Like all stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth in each. But both are largely unproductive ways of looking at this moment in history.

The reality is that undocumented groups have only been allowed reasonable access to the city’s streets, because, like the rest of us, their attempts to wring changes from this bankrupt system are ultimately useless. Latinos and undocumented workers are no doubt aware of this, after several years of S-Com, increasing “soft raids”–like those experienced by Pacific Steel workers—and an increasingly ravenous and inhuman for-profit detention system.

This is why six years after 2006, there has yet to be another similar outpouring of the masses; the reality is that undocumented residents of this country, like everyone else, have been told to direct all of their aspirations at a legislative system controlled by elites and the wealthy. That strategy has failed and undocumented people and activists have not yet found another place to put their aspirations. Thus, I have many doubts that a permitted march will bring any more undocumented workers out this year, than the same possibility brought them out last year.

The problem for groups like undocumented workers is real, but the solution is elusive. The Occupy movement is based on antagonism towards law; it acts most powerfully with actions outside of those allowed. And there, are, of course, many problems with this strategy for a diverse Oakland community. Many Occupiers for example, are still in prison today, because, though not undocumented, they live similar lives of precarious legal status due to minor infractions of unjust and senseless laws. Some of these Occupiers like Truth, who spent the last 5 months in jail, were arrested at non-permitted events, such as November’s General Strike, where his presence was a de facto probation violation. Others, like Kali, who remains in jail for similar reasons as of this writing, were arrested at permitted actions.

There is no clear answer for Truth, Kali, or the tens of thousands of others like them—documented and undocumented—whose legal status puts serious barriers in the way of their participation in this unprecedented movement. Nor should the rest of us who have fewer barriers discount the dire consequences they face when joining hands across our sectors of society in this last ditch battle against the exploitative forces that run the city and country we call home.

But the reality is that the way back is a mirage; there is no hope in permitted marches, there is no struggle on the terms of the one percent bosses. The solution is Occupation, or something like it—extended actions that contest authorities’ power to “allow” dissent, and don’t go away at the end of a sunny day not to be seen again for months or years. We’re all going to have to get there together. Our current struggle is in the figuring out how.



* Shortly after I wrote this, the ILWU voted to shut down the Port of Oakland, and the coalition of unions that work on the Golden Gate Bridge are very close to making a final decision on a shut down of some kind of the bridge on May Day.

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