Text by Nick Pinto. All photos by Jessica Lehrman, except where noted.
Because May Day holds special significance for labor unions, the immigrant rights movement, and socialists, communists, and anarchists of all stripes, it is tempting to treat its observation in New York City as an annual glimpse of the state of health of the city’s often Balkanized left. Given the upwelling of opposition to President Trump, one might have expected this to be a banner year for May Day’s festival of dissidence, but in most respects, that wasn’t the case; turnout for the day’s march didn’t come close to the tens of thousands who mobilized five years ago, and the coordination between the left’s various splintered factions that marked that year’s parade was largely absent.
The morning’s events included a picket outside B & H Photo on Eighth Avenue near 34th Street to protest the company’s plans to relocate its warehouse operations and some 300 jobs from Brooklyn to South Jersey. The B & H workers have been demonstrating outside the store regularly for months, but yesterday, their ranks were swollen by May Day participants, including United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, CUNY students, and members of the Democratic Socialists of America. As press thronged the picket, Mike McKeen, a spokesman for B & H, tried to buttonhole reporters to get the company’s side out. Workers’ outrage at the move was either disingenuous or misinformed, McKeen said. The company’s warehouse lease in the Navy Yard is up, and can’t be renewed, and the state of New York real estate being what it is, B & H had no choice but to look further afield for warehouse space. The company has given employees generous notice of the move, and every current employee is guaranteed a position at the new location.
Rosanna Rodriguez, co-executive director of the Laundry Workers Center, which helped the warehouse employees unionize, finds this gloss on the situation hard to swallow. “This is union-busting,” she said. “They are definitely moving the warehouse to try to break the union.” Telling the warehouse workers —who already work long hours — that they can keep their jobs if they’re willing to commute two hours each way to work is an empty offer, she said. “This is a dirty tactic.”
Across town, outside the New York Public Library, a group of demonstrators organized into color-coded squads agitating for animal rights, student rights, immigrant rights, indigenous rights, and the movement for black lives found their demonstration quickly interrupted by police, who used an LRAD device to inform them that they were in violation of a state law from 1845 that forbids more than two people in a public place to wear masks at the same time.
The group began a meandering march through Midtown, trailing a robust escort of police, including officers on bicycles and motor-scooters, as well as representatives from the Strategic Response Group, the Technical Assistance Response Unit, the Disorder Control Unit, and the NYPD legal bureau. Police arrested at least three people in the course of the march.
Downtown, in Washington Square Park, immigrant rights and labor groups kicked off a tour of New York businesses where immigrant workers are organizing. A few blocks away, In Union Square, immigrant rights groups, anarchists, and various communist factions enjoyed the good weather. The Revolutionary Communist Party erected a booth touting the published works of Bob Avakian next to the corner generally occupied by Hari Krishnas.
James Lane, a Green Party candidate for congress in Staten Island, noted that the day’s events, which encourage a systematic analysis of social and economic problems, wasn’t drawing the same numbers as the protests that marked the early days of the Trump Presidency. “The system is what brought you Trump,” he said. “But when you have a May Day event, people don’t seem to come out the same way.”
Around 1:30, a group of rightists and Trump supporters, including members of the Proud Boys and Latinos for Trump, arrived in Union Square, decked out in riot helmets and body armor. Anti-fascists in the square promptly moved to eject the provocateurs, leading to a skirmish that culminated with someone discharging a fire-extinguisher, dusting everyone in the area with retardant powder. Police intervened, and eventually persuaded the Trumpists to resettle in a fenced-off area across the street, from which perch they brandished a Gadsden Flag and hurled insults at the leftist. “Speak English! They yelled when a group of Puerto Rican nationalists arrived in the park.
Max Hare, a 25-year-old New Jersey native who works at the Port Authority and recently joined the Proud Boys, “because I wanted more intellectual people in my life,” insisted the group aren’t Nazis, but merely Western chauvinists. “We believe the west is the best, and the free market is more fair than any other system there is,” he said. “
The disparate parties celebrating May Day finally came together late in the afternoon, as immigrant groups and unions mustered in Union Square, joining the far left groups before everybody marched south towards Foley Square in Lower Manhattan.
A conspicuously large portion of the march was made up of members of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose New York chapters have more than doubled in size since Trump’s election, drawing a mix of radicals looking for an organizational vehicle and liberals disenchanted with the Democratic Party.
When the anarchist bloc chanted “This! Is! Class! War! Eat the rich! Feed the poor!”, the chant was taken up by the adjacent DSA marchers. When the anarchists chanted “Fuck the police!”, nearby DSA members laughed nervously.
Police held the march up near 8th street, and many of the anarchist marchers, already skeptical of joining such a tightly regimented march formation, spontaneously veered out of the march, pursued by members of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group through Washington Square. Police repeatedly used a portable LRAD to broadcast an announcement that the wearing of masks while part of a group is against the law, and ordering the demonstrators to remove any masks they were making. Officers tackled and arrested at least five people before the group left the park and turned south to rejoin the main march.
By the time the protesters made it through the cattle chutes of police barricades and into Foley Square, it was beginning to get dark. A giant sound system blasted the performances of musicians on a permitted stage, but most participants appeared to have had their fill, and the crowds soon dissipated.