A Day Without White People

On May Day, the masses rose up in New York. But where were the white peaceniks?

A bit of revolution hit the streets on May Day in New York as immigrants left jobs and schools across the five boroughs then converged on Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Folks will debate the size of the crowd that jammed Union Square and beyond yesterday afternoon. People filled sidewalks along side streets, searching for a way into the rally. By 3 p.m. the park was full; by 5 it was bursting—so much so that police pulled back the metal barricades blocking 14th Street and let the throngs spill down Broadway an hour before the rally inside the park was supposed to end.

When the front of the march, led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Transit Workers Union president Roger Toussaint, reached Foley Square downtown, the back of the march was still waiting to step off.

Exuberant organizers put the turnout in the hundreds of thousands, noting that the march, which stretched for about 26 blocks, felt thicker than Saturday’s peace march, and appeared bigger than the 125,000 or so who came out for the union-backed immigration rally at City Hall on April 10.

Forming a human chain in the Bronx
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
Forming a human chain in the Bronx

It’s hard to know for sure, because on Monday the cops segmented the masses to let crosstown traffic through, so that marchers were leaving Foley Square as others were still arriving. The cops seemed taken aback at times by the scale of this spirited, largely nonwhite crowd and were far more controlling than they'd been in dealing with Saturday’s spirited, largely white peace crowd.

The radical part was just how grassroots this "Day Without Immigrants" was. For once, May Day in New York wasn’t just a throwback holiday for black-clad anarchists and preachy sectarians.

Instead, Mexican day laborers and landscapers from New Jersey and Connecticut marched alongside Senegalese street vendors, Chinese waiters, Puerto Rican independistas, Bangladeshis shop owners, Caribbean nannies, Uruguayan musicians, Dominican busboys, and revolutionary Filipinos.

Lefties from the Troops Out Now Coalition (a spin-off of Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center) may have helped pull the event together with immigrant groups on a shoestring budget of $10,000. But the bulk of the crowd was brought in by word of mouth and flyers printed up by neighborhood activists in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, French, Creole, and Urdu.

Whole families marched together, mothers pushing strollers and older kids who skipped school to link up with their parents (attendance was down by about 10 percent in city high schools). The majority of protesters were Mexican, but there were many other Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, Carribbeans, Muslims, Hindus, and a smattering of Europeans.

If there was a demographic slice missing it was the corps of white peaceniks who'd paraded down Broadway on Saturday. That protest felt a bit like a roving street fair with colorful signs and the habitual entertainers--Billionaires for Bush, Missile Dick Chicks, big puppets--along with a group posing as Muslim detainees in prison garb, dragging a guy in a cage.

By contrast, the immigrants marching on Monday were peaceful yet defiant, and loud. All down Broadway they drummed, blew whistles, and chanted, "Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha!" (Bush, listen up, we are in the struggle!) And unlike the costumed anti-warriors who revel in their moral righteousness then go home to their blogosphere, these people really seemed to mean it.

Across the city, hundreds of immigrant owners shuttered their businesses and many thousands more gave up a day’s pay to join the protests. Though many got their employers' blessing, others risked their jobs, and the undocumented braved fears of being detained and deported by authorities, amid pervasive rumors of workplace raids.

"White Americans don’t know what it's like to live every day without papers," said Carlos, an undocumented construction worker from Washington Heights who took the day off to march with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, out of school for the day. (They did not want to give their last name.)

"We've been working here eight years. We've been paying taxes. Our children are going to school. Now we have to pay more to send our other daughter to City College because we are not ‘residents.' We have been applying for papers, but it's impossible. You get a sponsor for work but then they tell you the [Green Card] program is closed, and you can't do anything. You get a lawyer and you never know if they are real or not. They steal your money and then disappear."

"The only right we have is to work hard and not demand anything," Carlos added.

Many of the demonstrators waved signs demanding "full amnesty" that were printed up by the knee-jerk anti-imperialists of ANSWER (who seem to adopt their positions just to oppose whatever the U.S. does). But the marchers on Monday weren't anti-American. There were as many American flags waved as there were Mexican and South American ones.

It's just that many Latino marchers define American patriotism a little differently.

"The way I see it, 500 years ago, they tried to get rid of our people," explained Alvaro Andrade, an Ecuadoran Indian who works as a carpenter in Long Island. "When Columbus and then the pilgrims came, they put us down with disease and made us slaves. Now they're all freaking out because they look at it as the browning of America. But it's not. It's the re-browning of America. Because we are the true Americans. We're the future of America. So now you say you're going to build a wall along the border? So who's gonna build it? "

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