Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day 2011: If They Tell You You Can't, Then You Can

Today, I got a chance to momentarily leave my armchair and rise up with my fellow discontents. May Day 2011 saw a motley crew of 300-500 core Richmond leftists hit the streets. There was much ado about the police this time around: namely, the police claimed that protection had to be purchased, and the organizers had to foot the bill. The ACLU even got involved, ineffectively. By the time the rally came about, it seemed like we were already fighting for a lost cause, despite how little the permit meant.
 "I couldn't help but wonder: would we have gotten better turnout if we had been campaigning for fly-fishing somehow?"
It was the same message, the same tactics, the same speakers. A few things were new, but they were scant in today's message. The open-source speaking program policy looks good on paper (and is probably the best way to keep from pissing people off when their pet group doesn't get 5 minutes). But just about everybody seemed ready to skip most of the speakers and hit the streets.

But that didn't happen. First, we had to hear the popular marxism of about 14 speakers, including the local Unitarian Universalist ministry, a lady who was recently arrested for refusing to leave the paved-over African Burial Grounds during a protest, Adria Scharf of RPEC, Nick, the partisan, and a few technocrats who offered some poignant, if somewhat inappropriate analysis. For most of the time, I hung back, talked with a few older people about unemployment, homelessness and the rest. They always seem the most level-headed: older people who have had significant un-luck. They know the system doesn't work for them, and they don't want to hear the same rhetoric from the past 30 years. They want to see something happen; barring that, they want to get through to the next day. More than any of the speeches, I could relate to that.

Labor groups such as the IWW, IBEW 666, and IATSE 285 attended, along with the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Socialist Worker's Party. A queer workers group was in attendance with a deceptive "UNITE!" banner which does not seem related to the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. One person even had an Isocracy shirt, and punk emblems like Bad Religion were represented.

By the time all 14 or so speakers had gone, it was like the rally had already lost steam. We lined up and set off west. According to the police, we were to stay on the sidewalks at all times, or face arrest. In the end, the police proved themselves hypocrites and the sanctions impotent. Almost immediately upon leaving the park, protesters were in the forbidden streets on N. Harrison St. And officers made no attempt to curtail the venture. Police stood by the entire time with a skeleton crew: apparently, they felt it necessary to provide police presence. At this point, the permit ordeal came off as nothing more than extortion. It felt good to dismiss it, then.

Not long into the march, of course, I noticed that my chosen sign had been the victim of bird waste. Addressing the sheer embarrassment of proudly displaying and promoting a message laden with bird feces, I used the opposite side, which had the same message: "SOLIDARITY / WORKERS RIGHTS / UNITE!". But it seemed fitting.

A band played a rendition of Bella Ciao which was quite heartwarming. As we approached Broad St, I thought: "I'll be in prison, or on the TV, I'll say 'the sunlight dragged me here.'" Indeed, one senior organizer, Lauren, had made us well aware that we were not allowed on the streets - but to do "what our hearts told us." Seems like my heart was fairly consistent with the rest of them, because I went with a crowd into the street as soon as the mass was there. The eastbound half of W. Broad was totally taken over, and the westbound lanes enjoyed brief, thin occupation until oncoming traffic scared the foolhardy stragglers. By the time we reached pine, organizers or officers had pushed the march into the right two lanes only.

Onlookers were mixed in their responses. My wife recognized an onlooker as a social work adviser. Some onlookers joined the march, as they had last year at the VPA march. On the 200 block of Pine St, a lady even climbed out of her window to join the parade. But some shook their heads, as a trio of college "men" in a truck with a fly-fishing-themed license plate had. I couldn't help but wonder: would we have gotten better turnout if we had been campaigning for fly-fishing somehow?

But again, we weren't. And the rally was winding down: not much chance for market-based restructuring when your product has nearly run its course. And I wasn't so sure I would fall for the fly-fishing gimmick: I'm of the opinion that fish, like people, are best tempted by nutrients rather than shiny things - perhaps in spite of the facts. I tried to scrape the bird poo off of my sign on the curb. The last speaker was able to engage the crowd, and probably should have rapped near the beginning: with impeccable rhythm, he mused about the exploitative violent state, and listed the unfortunate targets of western campaigns: "Nagasaki, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Phillipines."

Aside from the Unitarian Universalist speaker, I hadn't been convinced. And that's pretty bad, because moral arguments are usually hard for me to stomach; the material ones, easier. This wasn't the first act of the revolution, 2011. The fire from Wisconsin and Middle Eastern / N. African protests seemed far off, ancient history, glories we could never expect to rise to in fragmented Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps more disappointing was the lack of doomsday-revolutionary analysis: it was easy for me to criticize it as idealist, shaky in its relationship to the real world. But perhaps that facade is better than the mindset of a crowd that really doesn't see anything good around the corner.

Or perhaps it is just that kind of desperation that could critically change our tactics.

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