By Tyler Crawford, Director of Mass Defense
On the first May Day 130 years ago, the world’s largest cities brimmed with cries for an eight hour work day. The first May Day, dedicated to the 1887 Chicago Haymarket Affair, took place on its anniversary on May 1st, 1890. Since then, May Day, also known as International Workers Day, has become a rallying cry for progressive activists and organizers throughout the world, its fame skyrocketing it to its status as an official holiday in 66 countries. But in 2020, we face the very real threat of an unprecedented event: a May 1st without the chants of activists, in which May Day is shouted not as a call in celebration, but in distress.
Since the now well-documented 1999 Seattle WTO protests, social movements have faced an escalating barrage of tactics aggressively targeting activists, including police violence, felony charges, and anti-protest legislation.With the spread of COVID-19, protesters are facing a new challenge, one which is invisible and threatens to undermine the ability of social activists to engage in crucially important street actions. But instead of letting circumstances dictate the moment, activists around the country are using new tactics, such as car caravans, to continue to center the streets as the focal point of mass movements.
These “roving” protests have been seen throughout major cities, like in Washington DC, where Black Lives Matter and Shutdown DC hosted a caravan of cars and bikes on April 28th to call for the release of incarcerated people who are highly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. The caravan wound its way past government offices, correctional facilities, and through communities, stopping along the way for speeches and musical performances.
In Vermont, the National Lawyers Guild is working with a broad coalition of organizations to launch a May Day ‘quarantine caravan’ in coalition with labor organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), Vermont Workers Center, as well as community and political groups like RISE Upper Valley and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The caravan will start with a labor protest led by immigrant workers calling for living wages and safe working conditions, before finding its way to correctional facilities where it will call on New Hampshire and Vermont to protect public health by releasing all inmates immediately.
“The car caravan is crucial,” said NLG Vermont President Kira Kelly, “because the people who bear the brunt of harm from both COVID-19 spreading and the state’s response to COVID-19 are Black people, non-Black people of color, incarcerated people, poor people, and people with disabilities, and we need to fight this oppression without adding to it.” [See here for NLG VT & NH open letter to Governors.]
Car caravans have created a new space for activists to inhabit in communities. In Los Angeles, the Sunrise Movement has led a series of caravans beginning in late March demanding that the city freeze rent, fill vacancies, and ban all evictions. The visuals are particularly important, said Sunrise Movement organizer Ricci Sergienko, because the actions are composed of in-person protesters who can attend actions and participate in the caravan, and also composed of those who are under quarantine and participate by sharing images and videos on social media.
“Activists just need to be aware of social distancing, and have safe practices with our actions,” said Sergienko. “Anyone that doesn’t have a specific role in the action, we tell them to stay in the car. If you see people on foot, they have a role to play. We have 6 feet picket lines and try to keep everyone away from each other. We want everyone to see us managing our protests and activism in a way that is socially responsible.”
The Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has played a central role in these actions, working with the Sunrise Movement to help develop the safest possible approaches for political demonstrations during the COVID-19 pandemic. NLG LA has hosted “ask an attorney” hours, know-your-rights training for activists, and dispatched legal observers to protests. NLG LO’s have been an important support mechanism at the caravans, where the LAPD has started ticketing driver-activists under amplified sound ordinances and in some cases, making arrests.
“Workers, immigrants, and tenants are finding new forms of resistance and activism that are safe and socially distant, from vehicle caravan protests to virtual town halls,” said Kath Rogers, Executive Director of NLG-Los Angeles. “We want to make sure people’s right to organize, build collective power, and express themselves is respected because that is our best hope of creating a more just and equitable future out of this time of great suffering.”
In New York City, the Sunset Park General Assembly is organizing a May Day car caravan calling for living wages, decarceration, and housing. The caravan, while being an innovative tactic, still builds upon the fundamental elements of effective movement organizing that rely on solidarity and community. “We are getting creative with our tactics by doing socially distanced actions,” said Sunset Park General assembly organizer Eve Mitchell. “But relationship building is key. Many people are working less or not at all, due to layoffs. We should use this time to find one another virtually, via phone, or through notes and flyers in our buildings and communities.”
Beyond socially innovative protests, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a resurgence of tried-and-true protest methods with the widespread emergence of strikes. Workers at Amazon, Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, FedEx, and Instacart have planned an unprecedented May Day strike. Workers’ demands include hazard pay, an end to retaliation against workers who speak out about unsafe conditions, better safety procedures, and personal protective gear. According to a recent Intercept article, these strikes are the latest in a rising tide of organizing in the form of sick outs, wildcat strikes and walkouts, as workers have become increasingly frustrated over their working conditions and low pay.
Once largely the domain of labor unions, strike activity has become a central tactic adopted by tenant and student organizers, a trend that is likely to be enlarged as a result of the pandemic. Since early March, over 30 million people in the US have filed for unemployment. Tenant and student strikes have largely emerged as activists are increasingly alarmed by ever rising levels of economic inequality which, even before the pandemic, have more than doubled since 1989.
“There is a housing crisis throughout the country,” said Yosuke Araki, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU). “There was one before the pandemic, and now one that has only been exacerbated.” Since landlords make mortgage payments to banks, tenant organizing is a way to leverage community power on large financial institutions that rely on a constant flow of profits. “But the rent strikes are often a last resort,” Araki adds, “and a way of saying that we can’t afford this because this situation is out of our control.” The strikes in Philadelphia are being called in chorus with a broader movement calling for better wages and safer working conditions, and demands to give relief to working and poor people rather than handouts to corporations.
“There is an irony,” said Araki, “We are all so physically removed from each other at this time, but a lot of buildings and tenants are being connected and working together to demand respect. Although there is a lot of collective desperation, when people connect through the rent strike, it is emotionally relieving and has helped build a sense of community.”
The rise of tenant strikes and organizing is largely mirrored on university campuses throughout the US where students, increasingly frustrated by rising tuition, mounting student loan debt, and high textbook costs, have started to call for strikes. Many students who have been relegated to virtual learning for the remainder of their spring semester feel that the value of their education has decreased. If schools can save money by moving to virtual classes, they feel that tuition should be reduced to reflect the changing circumstances of higher education where current social distancing measures may need to be kept in place for the rest of the year, or beyond. At universities throughout the country, these concerns are rapidly escalating to student strikes at schools like Pomona, Vassar, and the University of Chicago.
“We are fighting for a tuition reduction and financial transparency during the crisis,” said Julia Attie, an organizer with UChicago Student Action. “We’ve had around 2,000 students sign a petition in support. Since the university has not negotiated, hundreds of students are striking by withholding tuition payments.” Their work also includes email and call-in campaigns, a socially distant demonstration, and a car caravan. “COVID-19 is exposing the cracks in our system. At the University of Chicago, it is exposing how the university, a multibillion-dollar institution, cries broke while hoarding tax-exempt wealth in their endowment, with low payout rates,” said Attie. “What is the purpose of this wealth if not to support students and staff in times of crisis?”
The student strikers at the University of Chicago have endorsed strikes being led by graduate student workers who are also on strike for better wages and working conditions. This trend is reflected at universities throughout the country like the University of California, where graduate student workers have gone on wildcat strikes, and at Columbia University, where they voted to authorize a strike supported by 96 percent of its members. There, almost 300 graduate workers are going on strike. “Students know our strike is in solidarity with them,” said one organizer, “because it is a refusal to continue the fiction that this is a normal semester that just went online.”
“The overarching theme of activists at the moment should be pushing back against myths of scarcity that lead to austerity measures,” said Attie. “We have resources to help all of those struggling in this crisis. The problem is a matter of priorities and will.”
Since its founding as the first racially integrated bar association in 1937, the National Lawyers Guild has worked with grassroots social movements as they re-imagined ways in which society could be reorganized to support the most marginalized. Many of its founders worked to author New Deal legislation like the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act. Lawyers like Maurice Sugar, a founding NLG member, also served as the general counsel for the United Auto Workers during some of its most active years, helping it organize strikes in the 1930s. The NLG has continued to play a central role in assisting social movements during times of crisis.
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