“Today is a day to relinquish hopelessness.” This is what my friend Anna told me as we drove to Oakland for May Day this Tuesday. I cannot imagine a better way to characterize the meaning of International Workers’ Day at this critical moment in our global history. It is an international holiday that honors the legacy of workers defending their dignity as human beings and resisting oppression. I think a lot of people also had the sense that this first day in May had the potential to revive the Occupy Movement, which lost some visibility in the winter, and to connect it with other justice movements. Many of us needed a reminder that in spite of the many signs that the world is becoming more violent and unequal, we have the power to tear down the structures that perpetuate those injustices. For me, the day was an opportunity to be in solidarity with workers and revolutionaries whose commitment to justice and equality were already transforming the world.
We arrived in the city of Oakland, where direct actions had been going on at various locations all morning. We joined protesters at the Fruitvale BART station, where Oscar Grant was murdered in January 2009. Just outside the station was a gathering of hundreds of people from an array of organizations as diverse as the International Socialist Organization, Queers for Open Borders, and the Brass Liberation Orchestra. People were handing out flyers, meeting up with old and new friends, and talking about why we were here. I was thrilled to see a lot of print art by Dignidad Rebelde, and to run into Jesus Barraza, who was handing out the pro-migrant posters that we later saw throughout the city. The energy was both joyful and defiant, and it was gaining intensity. People were ready to move.
So we left the station and began marching downtown like a parade. Not being affiliated with any particular organization, Anna and I moved freely between groups. It was like floating between blocs of sound, as each group surrounded us with their particular rhythms and chants. Drummers and dancers made the march feel like a mobile party. I had to smile at the sight of a little girl sitting on her porch, waving a fist, and shouting “We! Are! The 99%!” as the march passed her house. I wonder about the extent to which she understands those words. And I wonder what we must have looked like to her, a human stream gushing through the streets below her home.
When we stopped to rally all of the marchers before making the final move downtown, people dancing around a May Pole reminded me that May 1 was not just a protest, but a holiday. And we really did have so much to celebrate. That we were together, that despite our many critical differences we really did share a lot of common ground, and that all of the hypocrisy and injustice that inspired us to hit the streets had not silenced us. We were celebrating the strikers all over the world who were agitating for their dignity at the same time that we were. And we were celebrating the many generations of workers before us whose courage and imagination, demonstrated throughout the course of history, made our hopes practicable.
After the beautiful day we spent in Oakland, it was disappointing to see the news media focusing almost exclusively on the most disturbing things that happened in the city on Tuesday. It seemed that people were more interested in hearing about arrests, tear gas, and vandalism than about coalition-building and small but visible steps toward the destruction of systems of oppression. It is necessary to fully acknowledge instances of violence, but I do not think they represent the experiences of most people who were on the streets that day. We were there to give voice to our visions, not engage in violence. I hope the rest of us won’t be too distracted by negativity to remember the beauty that was defiantly sprouting up all over the place this May Day.
Image by Joe Sciarrillo, found here