Spring dresses or police barricades? Maypole dance or march? In school, May Day was all about making some type of paper cone receptacle for flowers to be anonymously left on neighbor’s doorsteps. There was a schoolyard-appropriate dance involving a pole. As students grow out of seasonal craft projects in their curriculum, the day fades back into obscurity.
Many countries celebrate May 1 as a public holiday focused not on spring, but on workers’ rights. The U.S., which is not one of those countries, put significant effort into rebranding International Workers Day throughout the 20th century with efforts including Americanization Day, Loyalty Day and Law Day, while redirecting the focus on labor issues to September’s Labor Day. Despite those efforts, workers have kept the origins of May Day — which is placed at the beginning of the month to mark the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886 — in mind when planning observance through general strikes, public demonstrations and other collective actions in defense of workers’ rights.
In 2006, the focus of activists and workers shifted to highlight the struggle of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, in the U.S. Among low-wage workers in this country, Latino immigrants face all of the hardship visited on other workers, plus the threat of deportation and the racist and xenophobic fears of their neighbors, pushed hard by the corporate-owned conservative mass media. That year, immigrant activists promoted the Great American Boycott, also known as “A Day Without An Immigrant,” to highlight the value of the work done by people coming here from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin and South America.
Demonstrations cropped up all over the country, concentrated in California and other agricultural areas that most heavily depend on migrant workers, including Eastern Washington. That year, MEChA de EWU organized a march in downtown Spokane to bring the issue of immigration reform and its intersection with workers’ rights to light. This video shows some of the ignorant attacks they faced and shares the message of human rights and dignity that the marchers wished to express.
This year, student leaders with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) de EWU partnered with organizations throughout the community to march, as they have in years since 2006, to continue spreading their message. To my knowledge, there were no attacks on the marchers, verbal or otherwise, like the ones shown in the videos. There was no counter-protest and bystanders on the sidewalk were overwhelmingly supportive, lending cheers and applause, raising fists and peace signs, and in at least one case, joining in the march. Perhaps in this case, common sense is beginning to triumph over fear-driven nationalism among the general public. I hope it is true.
One group of people who can help undo the damage done by the aggressive, racist rhetoric around Mexican immigration is the media. The only media mention of this event was a story the day before on KREM, which repeatedly referenced the “worry that violence could come to the Lilac City,” based on police attacks and vandalism at May Day demonstrations throughout the Northwest in the past. Fears were allayed by citing the number of police officers who would be present at the march. This sensational focus takes the story back to the realm of fear and overshadows the message of peace and equality. While it’s good to shed light on a story like this, and to interview organizer Jackie Vaughn about the reasons for marching, it is also unhelpful to continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant.”
How can a person be “illegal”? Seeing the vitriol of the Spokanites in the video from 2006 coupled with the nonsense on cable news focused on the danger of “illegals,” we can at least conclude that the phrase resonates with some. As a nation built by European immigrants, it’s ridiculous to restrict further movement of people into it, particularly the movement of those who are actually indigenous to the continent. Free trade only worked out for the employing class in the U.S. and for global capital as a whole. The fine print in the concept of free trade is that only the money gets to move around freely; the people, the labor force that generates the profit, still get borders and harsh penalties for crossing them.
But when the economic policy creates a situation in which you can’t work in your own country, and extraction industries and cities have made it impossible to survive the way your ancestors did, what other option do you have? A simple definition is that an “illegal” is one who breaks a law. At last Thursday’s rally, SEIU organizer Isaiah Day invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas, saying, “A person has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Unjust laws are out of harmony with moral laws. What is a just law? Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
It is certainly degrading to human personality to detain and deport half of the members of a family. It is degrading to be forced to work in a privately run holding facility for immigrants while you await deportation. It is degrading to be separated arbitrarily from your family by borders for years — or forever. People degrade themselves when they invest energy into believing a border is real, especially when they strive to make it more physically real with militarized walls. Talking to the young activists at this rally, I believe that their long-term goals are compatible with mine: equality, restoration of the Earth, real self-governance and freedom. In the short term, many are working to protect their family members who are undocumented. While President Obama granted permanent residence to young people in school under the DREAM Act, that doesn’t go far enough, and rings hollow when his administration’s deportation record is also considered.
Amy Núñez, a leader of MEChA who danced and spoke at the march, shared the story of her parents’ struggle to work in the U.S. and raise her and her siblings here, providing them with education and food on the table while being separated from their parents, her grandparents, who were still in Mexico unable to get visas to visit. She asked at the end of her speech, “It is because of my parents that I am here, so why not offer them a path to citizenship as well?”
A “path to citizenship” immigration reform approach can be one part of a path forward for a more sane humanity. The more that workers in the U.S. who claim the benefits of citizenship by geographical lottery can have solidarity with our sisters and brothers who ended up on the wrong side of the line when the elite classes decided a little more freedom might line their pockets, the more effective we can be at breaking down systems of inequality. ♦
Taylor Weech, who hosts the weekly public affairs program Praxis on KYRS-FM, is a Spokane writer and activist. She's advocated, among other things, for environmental sustainability and all-ages access to the arts.