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may day 2015

May 1, 2015

May Day has been an important day to me ever since participating in my first May Day rally back in 2009, an experience that truly helped to ignite the sparks of my political consciousness. It’s a day that unifies the struggles and celebrates the victories of all working people, as well as highlighting the specific struggles of those who are victims of additional forms of discrimination and oppression within our socio-economic system, e.g., immigrants, people of colour, women, the LGBT community, low-wage workers, etc.

I met up with my friend Molly at PSU around 3pm, and together we walked to the South Park blocks to join the May Day rally. I ran into a number of people I knew, including my friend Joe, activist extraordinaire Cameron Whitten, Rebecca, one of my co-workers, and AFSCME Council 75 president, Jeff Klatke. While we were milling about and listening to the speakers, Molly, who volunteers with VOZ, a workers’ rights education centre, had me write a short letter to the city council encouraging the allocation of much needed funds for local Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) programs in Portland.

At about 4:30pm, the march began with the addition of hundred from the Don’t Shoot PDX that began at PSU, and we set off towards our first stop, the Justice Centre. We stopped there for a long time, and there were a number of speakers, although I was too far away to hear what they were saying. I’m sure that immigration issues and the death of Freddie Gray were at the forefront. From there, we set off again, but there seemed to be some confusion as the throng of protesters decided which way to go. As it turns out, a smaller group was trying, and eventually succeeding, to divert the march away from its planned route.

When I realized what was happening, I followed the lead of those who wanted to blaze their own trail through the city, disrupting traffic, including Max lines, because I saw it as a powerful message — that the city is our city; that our strength is in our numbers and our solidarity; that these issues are important and people need to take notice; that we, the working people of the world, have the power to shut shit down in simple yet powerful acts of defiance — the rationale being that the inconvenience to a few commuters for one day pales in comparison to things like the struggles of immigrants or the lives of people of colour (as well as the homeless and mentally ill) routinely taken away by law enforcement. A popular chant was, “All night, all day, shut it down for Freddie Gray!” A black lady on one of the stopped buses was hanging out the door, high-fiving passing marchers.

The march eventually made its way towards the Burnside Bridge, with many of a mind to take the bridge. The police were ready, however, and lined up in the protesters’ way while firetrucks were used as blockades. Most of the protesters held back and watched, unwilling to challenge the line of police. Riot cops quickly converged and used pepper spray on a small group that may have tried to break through. I was near the front right, and I saw the riot cops charge in and spray some of the marchers, which sent others running, but couldn’t quite see what, if anything, instigated it. I did see a group wearing ski masks near the front, though, who may have played a role in that.

I retreated into a bar to use the restroom and down a quick shot of whiskey before returning and finding Molly. I saw one of the protesters, a young girl, having her eyes flushed with water, a victim of the pepper spray. After a somewhat tense and lengthy standoff, marchers started heading north, making their way to Naito Parkway and up Morrison before finally converging in front of the Wells Fargo across from Pioneer Square. On the way, I ran into Hyung, a local high school teacher, activist, and all-around incredible person, who was unhappy with the unplanned route and confrontations with police. He made a great point, which was that it not only endangered the large number of illegal immigrants participating in the march, but it’ll possibly discourage them from participating in future actions and rallies.

In front of the Wells Fargo, a frequent target of ire during May Day protests, a group led chants and songs blasting the lack of justice for people of colour and the need to fight social and economic inequality. I ran into my union local’s VP, and we chatted a bit before both he and Molly left as things seemed to be dying down. I stuck around as a separate group of marchers converged on Pioneer Square, joining up with ours. I left a little before police used flash grenades on protesters to, in the words of @PortlandPolice on Twitter, “allow police to safely withdraw from violent #MayDayPDX crowd.”

In many ways, I think this May Day was a success. There was a great turnout, a lot of support from passersby and people stuck in traffic, and I think that it was a much-needed outlet for the frustrations of many, particularly people of colour. But because of several encounters with police and the inconvenience it caused some people, it may potentially scare away immigrants and others from future protests because they may feel unsafe, not to mention that it’ll almost certainly generate a fair amount of negative press and sentiment among those who fail to understand why worker solidarity and direct action is so important.

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