Tuesday, May 02, 2006


A Good May Day

Yesterday was inspiring. In five years of W, we've had lies, invasions, gulags, poverty, and none of the "natives" could muster more than a few pissed off hippies. But when the GOP went after immigrants, they showed what democracy is all about. Numbers vary, but somewhere between a quarter and half million marched in Chicago and LA; another 75,000 in Denver and 55,000 in San Francisco. Protesters took to the streets of most major US cities and to a hell of a lot of minor ones. In Oregon, they marched in Portland, Salem, Eugene, and Hood River.

We have a little Mexican restaurant around the corner that took yesterday off, and I noticed their tip jar on Sunday was bulging with neighborly support. I don't know what the feeling was in other cities, but I got a pretty positive vibe here in mostly-white Portland. There was something universal in the marches and boycotts--I think we all felt our immigrant roots yesterday. All in all, I have to say yesterday was the most hopeful moment I've seen in many years.

No one really has any idea how this will play out, but I have a few thoughts.

1. Power of the people.
During the war, I recall a collective sense of ennui. In Portland and in a few cities, we mustered some decent-sized crowds, but there was never any sense that we were anything but a listless, powerless minority. Yesterday's marches should remind everyone that it is possible to take to the streets and exercise your power. I've always admired Emma Goldman for her ability in rousing the masses.

2. Immigrants as the font of democracy.
Speaking of Emma Goldman, it's no surprise she was an immigrant, nor that the crowds she raised were immigrants. Once our families have been in the country for awhile, Americans lose their sense of responsibility to keep the democracy alive. We exercise our citizenship by going to Wal-Mart. Every generation has had its despised immigrants--from the various European immigrants to the Chinese and now to the great Latino migration. And every generation is riven with racist violence until the immigrants rise up and refresh democracy. This generation's Emma Goldman is going to be named Ortiz.

3. Power of the dollar.
Yesterday's marchers took a page out of an old playbook: the general strike. It requires a lot of organization, but the effect is far stronger than a simple rally, no matter how large the crowd. There's a reason Bush told us it was our patriotic duty to buy; two-thirds of the economy depends on consumer shopping. By shutting down part of the economy, the protesters didn't just make a symbolic gesture, they made sure our leaders felt it. Savvy.

4. The cost of immigration.
I was surprised some leaders were against the boycott portion of the protest. That was the element that drove home the issue and brought it into such sharp focus: America has been living off the sweat of exploited workers, workers now targeted by racist (mostly) Republicans as criminals. I think the undocumented workers were willing to live with the bargain--they'd do very hard labor if they were allowed relatively unfettered access to jobs. But it was too much to make them run the risk of hard time to do hard labor for peanuts. By incorporating a boycott into the protest, they highlighted the brutal double standard. The labor undocumented workers do may be invisible, but it's far from cheap. It's critical to the economy. The boycott brought that home.

I expect the usual idiots to scream about how impertinent it is that "these people" are marching on our streets. But I think that rhetoric is going to be pretty useless. The balance of power has shifted, and to the unlikeliest of places. Very cool.

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