Lessons of Chicago’s May Day

May 10, 2012

Shaun Harkin looks at a debate about tactics taking place among Chicago activists.

THE MAY 1 demonstration in Chicago represented the hope and future of our struggles and movements. But it also raised challenges and questions we need to grapple with for our struggle to move forward. The actions of a small group of protesters could have undermined the success of the demonstration--and put fellow protesters, including many undocumented immigrants, at risk of arrest or worse.

Occupy activists joined with immigrant rights and trade union activists to organize a May Day march and rally for the 99 percent. Organizing meetings held at Occupy Chicago's space discussed and voted on the character of the action, its theme, its demands and many other issues.

For example, the May Day organizing committee voted by a clear majority not to call for a general strike, as other local Occupy groups did--on the basis that this would not be the most effective means to mobilize working-class Chicagoans rights now. Our belief was that putting forward an action so far in advance of where the movement is at would make it harder to mobilize wider layers of people who are sympathetic to the Occupy struggle, but not regularly involved.

Protesters march through the rain in Chicago on May Day 2012
Protesters march through the rain in Chicago on May Day 2012 (Mario Garcia-Baeza | SW)

Activists promoted the march and rally through press conferences, interviews, newspaper articles, phone-banking, postering in neighborhoods, leafleting at union meetings and by connecting the demonstration to existing struggles in the city. Some 70 organizations endorsed and supported the action.

An estimated 2,000 participated in the march and rally, even though it was held during work hours. Among those participating were workers who occupied their workplace, families fighting eviction and foreclosures, immigrant workers unjustly fired because of the E-Verify program, warehouse workers organizing for union recognition, workers who have been on strike, undocumented students and youth who have risked deportation to demand legalization, hotel workers fighting for a just contract, African Americans organizing to demand justice for family members murdered by Chicago police, activists organizing against the NATO/G8 and the attack on civil liberties in Chicago, LGBT activists demanding equality, and Chicago teachers gearing up for a possible showdown with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The rally also featured visiting delegations of Mexican and Japanese trade unionists.

Thus, the organizing for the march and rally successfully brought together diverse working-class struggles to demand an end to austerity and cuts in social services, increased taxes on the 1 percent, an end to deportations and legalization for all the undocumented and an end to the new Jim Crow. The march was led by a banner that read: "Unionize, Organize, Papeles Para Todos [Papers for All]."

The point of the march and rally was to connect working-class struggles of today with the rich traditions of the past, to develop local and international working-class solidarity, to promote key working-class demands and to create an environment where more people feel empowered to organize and committed to offering support for others who are fighting back.

AS THE march progressed from the Near West Side toward Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago, masked Black Bloc activists and others who believed the march was too conservative--ignoring the appeals of march organizers--moved to the front of the demonstration, bypassing the lead banner, a contingent of disabled participants and a security line made up of union, immigrant rights, Occupy and faith-based activists.

Firecrackers thrown by some people landed among the marchers. From chants of "The workers united will never be defeated" and "¡ICE escucha! Estamos en la lucha," the chant at the front of the march became "Fuck the police."

Fortunately, the police didn't attack the demonstration, and no one was injured. But there are a number of issues flowing from this experience that warrant further discussion.

First of all, throwing firecrackers? It's not clear who set these off at the Chicago march, but activists in New York City and Seattle reported them as well. This posed an obvious danger to marchers who suddenly found firecrackers going off among their ranks. But it was an equally obvious provocation aimed at police.

Secondly, moving to the front of the demonstration? Black Bloc activists and others who had not organized or supported the march systematically ignored appeals by organizers to remain behind the lead banner and security line--showing a complete lack of respect for the efforts of those who worked to build the march.

What working-class Chicagoans on a break, out for lunch or coming to see the march first saw and heard was not a banner and chants celebrating workers or immigrant rights--and thus reflecting the actual demands decided on by those who organized the event--but a group of masked "militants" yelling "Fuck the police."

As is often the case, the mainstream media chased after what they considered the most sensational story. So instead of reporting on the mobilization of immigrants and union members, and why they were marching, most coverage focused on expletives directed at the police and pictures of those in masks and wearing black.

More than this, the Chicago Police Department was actually commended by the press for not reacting to provocation. By demonstrating how "restrained" they can be, the police are gaining legitimacy for using violence against later protests, when they can claim they had no other choice.

What's at stake here? Movement democracy; vulnerable members of the working class endangered by stupid provocations; a profound elitism of a small group toward larger numbers of working-class activists; and, potentially, opening up the movement to repression, to name a few issues.

There is also a profoundly wrong view of how working-class people radicalize. A minority on the march wanted to make the demonstration more militant--according to their view of what "militant" means--but they weren't prepared to engage others in a discussion beforehand or during the event, so that there could be a democratic decision on a particular course of action.

What's more, making the action more "militant" in this context could only have meant inviting a police attack on protesters. Enticing cops to attack a demonstration where participants--undocumented immigrants among them--don't expect to be arrested is an utterly reckless strategy.

We don't need to encourage the police to attack us--when our movement threatens the 1 percent and the state, we will undoubtedly see their iron-fist attempt to break us. Millions of African-Americans and immigrants live in neighborhoods that are saturated with police who act like an occupying army, carrying out "stop and frisk" or "driving while brown."

The eagerness to provoke and confront police flows from an old idea in the radical movement: "propaganda of the deed." The idea is that radical acts by a few people will convince others to defy the state. But this is a profoundly elitist point of view. The assumption is that the people on the march are "sheep" and the role of a "militant" minority is to help them advance toward more radicalized attitudes.

But at the Chicago demonstration, marches included immigrant workers who have occupied their workplace, families who have occupied foreclosed homes and undocumented youth who have risked arrest in Arizona and Alabama to fight for legalization. To believe these heroic working-class radicals are "sheep" or "cattle" is completely backward.

Working-class people radicalize through their own struggles, which often happen where they work and live. By talking to some of the workers at the rally, Black Bloc activists might have learned what a strike is like; how a union is organized; how to occupy a workplace, a home or a clinic; how to organize for justice when you or a loved one is in prison; or many other actions that might be totally beyond their experience.

In an article that attempts to provide an intellectual gloss for the Black Bloc's behavior, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that's what they wish to do.

First of all, anyone with any experience of dealing with a Black Bloc presence at demonstrations knows Graeber's claim that it easy to avoid them is dishonest rubbish. The practice of Black Bloc-ers is to operate from within larger demonstrations, but using tactics they refuse to discuss with other participants until they unveil them. Other activists inevitably suffer the consequences of the Black Bloc's provocative actions, whether they want to avoid them or not. And of course, the Black Bloc's behavior provides a justification for police to respond even more brutally in the future.

Graeber's claims about anonymity likewise show the elitism of Black Bloc principles. If the reasoning for wearing masks is to stop authorities from identifying those who might suffer the consequences of police repression, what about undocumented immigrants whose very presence is criminalized and who can't wear a mask to avoid being detained. The same applies to African Americans and to the LGBT community when they come out.

Anonymity for them is impossible. Anonymity for evicted families or striking workers is likewise impossible: the bank and the boss know your name. It's worth noting that almost every one of the Black Bloc activists and those bent on making the Chicago action more "militant" were white.

Graeber's rationale for the Black Bloc vastly overinflates the importance of this small group of activists. Wearing masks, uber-radical rhetoric, smashing windows, fighting the police--this is pseudo-radical posturing that leads nowhere. It is a stark contrast to the mass struggles of workers and the oppressed that changed history in the U.S.--from the general strike on May 1, 1886 for the eight-hour day, to the union organizing of and sit-down strikes of the 1930s, to the mass demonstrations of the civil rights and Black Power movement of the 1960s.

The role of organized radicals should be to participate in movements, to build solidarity for struggles, to raise strategies and ideas from past working-class struggles, and to, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, connect the day-to-day struggles of the working class with the overall class war and the socialist alternative to a world based on profit.

Further Reading

From the archives