May Day, May Day: Crashing Foley Square’s Union Rally with the Immigrant Rights Coalition

05/03/2011 3:01 PM |

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In an aerial view of downtown Manhattan, the immigrant rights and labor May Day rally starting in Union Square and stretching down Broadway must have resembled one very skinny, Very Hungry Caterpillar eating its way down to Foley Square. In drum-beating, color-coordinated segments, unions, churches, student and political organizations marched south to meet Foley Square’s main union rally. For some of those marching, the fact that the Union Square immigrant rights marchers would be joining the main union demonstration was a message of solidarity. For others, the opposite: the split rallies spoke to the labor and immigrant rights movements’ disunity. To pedestrians intent on shopping it was a brief spectacle, and for those unfamiliar with May Day, who stepped out of the Union Square subway in search of iced coffee and stumbled onto the scene, it was “Wow, holy shit.”

“Wow, holy shit,” Jason Walgren said as he watched the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a jolly coalition of green-striped, gender-bent, “radical street brass band” players march by.

But while colorful, May Day in Union Square is a setting of serious historical significance. The May Day labor rallies are originally an American invention, despite the fact that that they are oftentimes celebrated with more gusto and more acceptance abroad. After Chicago’s disastrous Haymarket Riot of 1886, May 1 was designated as the day to honor the workers killed and to fight for the eight-hour workday. And during the Great Depression, Union Square became the site of some the largest, most resounding demonstrations of all time. In 2006, the Union Square May Day rally served as one of the central sites for widespread immigration law protest, and the struggle, though diminished according to the veterans of 2006, continued on May 1, 2011.

Charlie Moran, a graduate student and member of the CUNY Internationalist club, has been coming to May Day marches in New York since 1994. Even without a megaphone amid the cacophony of impassioned chants, Moran’s shouting voice nearly creates its own sonic boom.

“I think it was the immigrant workers who gave life again back to May Day in 2006,” Moran explains in his regular speaking voice, now hoarse and shaking from exhaustion. But Moran also feels that rally’s relatively small size (20,000 people) is due to the division between the coalition in Union Square and Foley. “I think it’s totally wrong to divide the working class in this way,” he says.

Joe Lombardo, 52 and co-chair of the United National Anti-War Committee, thinks that the fact that the two movements are present and gathering together in Foley is still important—the only way to win, he says, is to join forces.

“It’s a very crucial time for the American people with all the attacks that are coming down on social services, on education, on union rights and increased attacks on immigrant rights,” Lombardo said. “And one of the important things about this year’s demonstration in New York is the union movement and the immigrant movement are joining.”

At the same time, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the vast array of acronyms in the crowd, by the individual elements that at first don’t seem like they relate at all to workers’ rights or immigration. After all, the Green Party’s here, and they’re marching for solar panels. But this May Day parade is also a time where the marginalized get a voice, and even the tiny organizations get to participate in the larger call for systemic change.

Yuko Tonohira, an illustrator from Bed-Stuy, is the only person in Union Square dressed in a white jumpsuit—to bring awareness to the nuclear workers at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan. A small number of congregants from the Church of San Romero in Washington Heights has chosen to bring awareness to their patron saint. A tireless Mexica dance group is also here, kicking, heel-toeing and praising the earth around burning copal (a tree resin).

If anything, the people of the May Day rallies are defined by the change they want to see. No one here is a fan of neoliberal policies that favor the rich at expense of the middle-class or the poor, nor of the attacks on public employees right to bargain collectively throughout the Midwest and elsewhere. And down on Broadway, you can see the reflection of the march in the window displays—the beating, breathing, sweaty, snaking mass of people cast like a flickering projection onto the smooth, white sheen of featureless mannequins and glass. Each passing group gets their snapshot in a storefront—single, framed tableaux that together made up a continuous strip of film.

The question left is this: in the theater of public consciousness, what sticks? 20,000 people marched in downtown Manhattan on Sunday, all of them asking for change. And despite the disruption to normal traffic and shopping flows, the march was still buffeted on the sidewalks by some shoppers more in awe of window displays than the people shouting and dancing in the street.

“Everybody’s feeling the cutbacks, everybody’s feeling the attacks that are coming down against all of us,” Lombardo said. “But people don’t know what to do about it.”

That’s why for Lombardo, and many, many more, May Day isn’t just a single event. It’s an attempt to create, or rather, rejuvenate a movement.

“We need the common people in this country to understand that they have to get out and do something to make a change,” Lombardo said.