Tuesday, May 02, 2006


In celebration of Mayday, I managed to make it to three separate protests yesterday: the massive immigrants rights march, the Mayday celebration in Haymarket Square and the Save Darfur Rally. This involved a lot of quality time spent on the Green Line to and from Hyde Park. Here are my reflections; sorry if they're a bit lengthy.

Immigrants Rights March

The mainstream papers are reporting that in Chicago alone, nearly half a million people turned out for the immigrant rights march, so the total number was at least that many. When I arrived at Union Park at around 11:30, people were already heading down Randolph towards downtown. I never personally saw the beginning or the end of the sea of marchers. The crush of people was already threatening to swamp the CTA's capacity. My train was packed solid, almost entirely Latino families: strollers, little kids waving homemade "No on 4437" signs, teenagers wearing Mexican and American flags like capes, a constant hum of Spanish. Just getting out of the Ashland El stop took 10 minutes.

The day is grey and threatening rain, but thankfully, the promised thunderstorms hold their distance. Union Park is awash in people. Since the march started on the West Side, the Latino turnout was understandably enormous -- probably more than 90% of those marching. But this being Chicago, there is a substantial Polish contingent as well, many of whom are 'sin papeles' and come here to work in the construction trade or as janitors. There are certainly a good fraction of Mexican and Polish flags, but mostly it's the Stars and Stripes. Street vendors are selling a combo-pack of U.S. and Mexican flags for $4. I think this may be the most American flags I've ever seen at one time. Everytime the news helicopters do a flyby the crowd cheers and starts waving like crazy.

The cops funnelled the march out of the park through a very narrow gate, and then only let us march on one side of Randolph, even though the other lanes were closed to traffic. This meant that for the first hour the mass of people I was with moved about 500 yards. Not so much marching for immigration justice, as shuffling slowly forward. Once we got past the bottleneck, it sped up a bit.

At this point, a feeder march of anarchist youth joined the column to great cheering. The Black Bloc kids brought a lot of energy with homemade drums and loud chants of 'Si Se Puede', and, because they've never seen a police line not worth crossing, they streamed over into the unused lanes, overturned the blue barricades and encouraged everyone else to cross over as well.

Some of the older marchers seemed uncertain and a little annoyed about this confrontation, but large numbers of high school and college aged kids crossed the median onto the other side. The cops made a panicked show of blocking these lanes with their bikes and trying to force us back into line, but the pressure of so many people was too great and after a few minutes they surrendered the right side of the street and the people flowed into it. I can understand the annoyance towards a group of mostly (but not entirely) white kids provoking a confrontation with the cops during a peaceful, family oriented march, but the police-lines were ridiculous and anyway, it ended well.

There were a lot of great signs. The one in the picture above says "My Brother is in Iraq fighting for his country." Other favorites:
"Today I March, Tomorrow I Vote"
"Somos America"
"Las luchas de los obreros no tienen fronteras"
"Sacar corriendo el gobierno de Bush"
"All religions believe in Justice"
"Queremos Legalizacion"
"Immigrants and Workers Forged America"

Part of the UNITE-HERE contingent.

This is the view from the top of the Kennedy overpass, looking back on the throngs of people. For myself, I have to say that it was incredibly moving to be a part of this march. Everything about it had the feel of an organic, grassroots uprising for justice. There were undoubtedly tireless organizers who threw themselves into making this march a success, but the impetus for half-a-mil to leave work and come out into the streets could only have come from a deep, visceral understanding that their very existence in this country is under attack. There are too few times in history when such a mass mobilization happens. The trick now is to focus all this energy on getting specific legislation pushed through.

For the record, we've been told for so long that corporations and gobs of capital should be stateless and free to go wherever they want in the world, so to me it seems only fair to allow the same for humans. But since an 'open border' policy isn't going to be passed anytime soon, I hope for an immigration policy that strongly rejects criminalization of people already here, that allows a path toward permanent legal status and citizenship, and that gives immigrants equal rights and access to services. I know that amnesty is not the most popular proposal right now, but it is the goal we need to work for. Call your reps, go to a rally and sign this petition.

Mayday Celebration in Haymarket Square

I had to drop out of the immigration march before it finished at Grant Park, but I headed back downtown later in the afternoon for the Mayday rally. Most of the rest of the world celebrates May 1 as International Workers Day, except the US, even though the history of the date started here in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, during a rally of unionists protesting the killing of two strikers by the Chicago police the day before, a bomb was thrown by someone at the watching police (killing several) and the police retaliated by firing upon the crowd killing several and injuring many more. The state convicted eight anarchists for inciting the crowd to riot (even though no evidence linked any of them to the bomb-thrower). Four anarchists, August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer and George Engel, were executed on November 11, 1887. Since then, Mayday has been a cause celebre for labor unions and left-wing political parties in most countries, except here, where its celebration was stamped out by the Red Scare. Good histories of the riots can be found here and here.

These days Haymarket Square is a completely non-descript strip of sidewalk, west of the downtown, and perched above the Kennedy Expressway. For years, a statue of a police officer stood here commemorating the incident, until it was bombed by the Weather Underground in the late 60's. After years of antagonism between the police and the labor unions about the history of the incident, the city agreed two years ago to put up a new memorial statue as part of a proposed Labor Park. Chicago labor unions have been trying to reclaim this bit of history as theirs, and so staged a worker's rights rally there this year. It was cool to be at Haymarket for Mayday and to support the local unions, but the rally was small and fairly tepid in comparison with the immigration march.

Save Darfur Rally

Our final stop of the day was Federal Plaza for the Save Darfur rally. I was struck first off by the tremendous diversity of the participants. White folks, black folks, awesome suburban high school kids, a huge Jewish presence. A singer ran through a medley of freedom songs from Bob Marley to the Beatles. It definitely felt like a movement growing beyond the usual activisty suspects. The message was a little unfocused ("We need action! Now!", but what?), but the passion was tangible.

There were a bunch of speakers, but two really stood out. The first was Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Faith Community. If you ever get a chance to check out the worship service at St. Sabina, it really has to be seen to be believed. Father Pfleger is a true fire-breathing, truth-telling, social-justice preacher, and he set the place on fire, issuing a strong condemnation of any church, synagogue or mosque that remains silent or apathetic about genocide. The second speaker was the Imam Senad Agic, of the Northbrook Mosque (a Bosnian Muslim, with first-hand experience of genocide), who put the issue in plain words: the Quran says, anyone who kills an innocent person, it is as if they are killing the entire world, and anyone who saves someone from death, it is as if they have saved the entire world.


Anonymous said...

there was a quite large Immigrants' Rights rally in Boulder that day, too. actually, it was the largest turnout for any march/rally I've seen in Boulder. i was impressed.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this up tim, and for linking to the Heads Up Petition!

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