May Day: Solidarity in Free Fall

Yesterday I went to two different May Day actions in my city. Both were organized by Cosecha, who has been trying to build momentum for a general strike shutting down the economy to demand permanent protection and dignity for all immigrants. I listened to many powerful speeches, and marched through the streets with the others who came.

I left despondent.

I left despondent because of who showed up, who didn’t, how we showed up, and why more of us didn’t show up in a more meaningful way. In April, I was watching archival footage of May Day parades from the 30s and 40s. Tenant associations, unions, religious groups, and neighborhood voluntary societies showed up in force as blocs and marched with banners prominently proclaiming themselves and the organization they came as a part of as a social unit throwing its full support behind the message of workers liberation. Yesterday, we had no blocs. The unions didn’t show up en masse or in force. Some people who happened to be union members were there. Some people who worked for unions were there. Some unions got really involved and even sent official representatives, some even sent ten people in matching union shirts! Disability Rights did not show up for immigrants, for labor, or for liberation yesterday. Again, there were people (like me) who work in disability rights, who were there. There were disabled people there. We didn’t even send representatives. The big LGBTQ organizations and Queer/Trans Liberation organizations were not out in force as blocs to show that the full force of our community is behind immigrant and labor liberation, though many many participants were LGBTQ and/or affiliated with those organizations. Radical and progressive Jewish organizations didn’t show up, though I know there were many radical and progressive Jews, myself again included, who participated. But there was no column behind a JVP banner marching uncomfortably next to columns behind If Not Now, Moishe Kavod, Temple Israel, and Workman’s Circle banners, all chanting for immigrant rights. This despite the fact that many local shuls have become sanctuary congregations, and many have been deliberately and directly partnering with Cosecha. We just had two separate rallies for environmental groups, one “for science” and one for “climate,” but it’s the same group. Environmental groups and “organized” science did not show up to throw their weight behind immigration justice yesterday, though I’m sure there were individuals there from those organizations… I could go on with this list, but I think the point’s been made.

The solidarity between different affected groups yesterday was nonexistent. Part of this, I think, stems from the administration moving against so many different issues at once. We’re overwhelmed. Labor has to throw all its weight against Right to Work and health care repeal. Disability Rights can barely manage the fight against ACA repeal, ADA gutting, and our state governor trying to take away accessible transportation. Environmental groups are looking at a boss match, Latinx groups have to deal with the deportations and the wall, Muslim groups have to deal with the deportations and the ban… all of our houses are on fire all at once, and we are each struggling to save our own house, to not burn. Meanwhile, the entire block is going to burn down. I know my own organization has taken the position that, unless it is a direct disability issue, we can’t take it up. If it’s something we support, we can sign on to a letter, we can send a representative to an action, but we can’t take it on ourselves, because we simply don’t have the capacity. I don’t have a solution to this, but I can’t believe it’s a legitimate excuse for the way we all failed to show up yesterday.

We have also let individualism get the better of our activism. We need to stop thinking about whether or not we are going to a protest, and start thinking about what organizations we belong to that should be at that protest. We need to show up as individual allies, yes. But it’s more powerful and more meaningful if we bring all our coworkers, our entire union chapter, our entire congregation, etc, and, as a group, proclaim to both those we are there to support and the public, that our workplace, our lab, our shul, our resource center, our community organization, our union chapter, stands with immigrants, stands against deportation, stands against bans and walls. That is what lets bigots know that they are not welcome in our spaces, that is what lets politicians know that to secure the voting blocs that are congregations, unions, ILCs, LGBTQ groups, etc (and yes, they do see us as voting blocs and, when we act, fear us accordingly), they must support full dignity and protection for ALL immigrants, and that is what lets vulnerable people know that this union, this church, this rights organization, this community center, is where they can go for support. Showing up as an individual does nothing to broadcast which places are safe. When our organization don’t show up as organizations or just send representatives, the message we send is that this is not a key issue for us, and that we, our union, our ILC, our collective, will not take major risks or lay out major resources to protect immigrants. We are sending the message that we won’t, when it comes to it, really fight.

Overall, as a strike day, yesterday was, sadly, a failure. Those of us who had the privilege of taking off from work did. Everyone else went to work. This has been a consistent problem in the various “day without a ___” actions this year. In my opinion, it’s because the concept is fundamentally flawed. A strike, traditionally, has had a specific, concrete demand that, if achieved, would significantly materially improve the lives of the strikers or, if not achieved, would be a disaster to the lives of the strikers. The organization planning and leading the strike (usually a union) provides a measure of protection to the strikers in the form of a strike fund to help them pay their rent and pay for food while on strike. It’s high-risk, high-reward, but with some protection. In contrast, the “day without a ___” protests are extremely high-risk with no reward. They’re about making a statement which is usually fairly vague so that it can appeal to a broader base. The closest any of them have gotten to specific demands are “stop the deportations” and “full dignity and protection for all immigrants.” Both of those would be great things. However, there is not a specific provision that would bring those about for which the organizations are fighting. Whatever your opinion on our political process, pragmatically we’re more likely to get what we want if we can spoonfeed the politicians a solution. These pushes offer no protection to those participating. “Day Without a Woman” didn’t have any way to compensate participants for lost wages. As far as I know, neither did yesterday. What wage worker in a major urban area in this country can afford to lose an entire day’s pay to make a statement? On top of that, some jobs will just fire you if you don’t show up, and reactionaries have been assuming that any immigrant (or, really, any POC) who participated yesterday or in Day Without Immigrants must be undocumented and I wouldn’t put it past them to call in anonymous tips. Who can risk their employment or, G-D forbid, a visit from ICE, just to make a statement? In the cost benefit analysis, for the overwhelming majority of people, it’s just not worth it. These make-a-statement-days are easy to say you’ll support, easy to put a star next to on social media, easy to spread, but nearly impossible to commit to. We need, and I believe we are capable of, a better strategy.

Speaking of solidarity, May Day, and Jewish organizations showing up as Jewish organizations, a word about Antisemitism. The history of western Leftist movements are decidedly, undeniably, Jewish. The early history of the labor movement in this country is indubitably Jewish. Yet the only speaker who mentioned either Jewish contributions to this movement, Jewish connection to May Day, or Jewish oppression was a young man with Jewish ancestry who was not invited up to the podium as a Jew. We heard from anarchists and communists about the great “european” leftist martyrs. Many of the names they listed were certainly Jewish names, and I’d be shocked if none of them would have been insulted by being called european. A gentile union organizer even had the gall to claim that the main reason Nazism is dangerous is the threat it poses to organized labor. Meanwhile, many of the city’s Jewish organizations are working very closely with immigrant and refugee organizations on their goals. Erasure of Jews from the history of the left, and erasure of our current work on the left, is Antisemitism. Not only that, it allows antisemitic beliefs to run unchecked in leftist movements. It keeps us and our organizations out of the movement. In no way are American Jews doing enough to combat capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, or militarized nationalism. We can and should always do more, and we are lucky this time in that we are not the first name on the target list. But that is no excuse for those who march in a tradition created largely by us to pretend that we never existed.

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