By GARY BILLS
PORTLAND, Ore.-“Reclaim May Day” was the theme of a rally, march, and picnic planned here by an ad-hoc coalition of environmentalists, immigrants’ rights advocates, unionists, anarchists, and socialists for May 1.
The Portland activists were inspired by the success of the anti-WTO demonstrations that were organized by a similar coalition in Seattle last fall. They decided that it was time again to grab public attention and to accelerate public debate about issues such as immigrants’ rights, low-cost housing, and clear-cutting the forests. They also wanted to help the organizing drive for a union contract at Powell’s Books, a world-famous bookstore in Portland.
The event was organized by the May Day Coalition. Many of the core activists were members of the DAN (Direct Action Network). It was the DAN that played a major role in civil disobedience actions last fall in Seattle.
In the morning of May 1, about 80 protesters, characterized by the local media as “anti-capitalist,” gathered in Northeast Portland. They then marched through largely Black and minority neighborhoods, flanked by an equal number of police dressed in riot gear, to a park in downtown Portland, where they had a permit for a rally.
By 3 p.m. about 350 demonstrators, mostly young, and 150 cops had assembled. Again, the May Day demonstrators wanted to march, without a permit, to several downtown locations. A deal seemed to be struck between the cops and demonstration organizers that the march could go on if contained to one lane of traffic. The march began to wind peacefully around downtown to City Hall, where some street theater was performed.
But at the intersection of 3rd and Salmon, five cops on horseback rode their horses into the crowd-supposedly because of a dispute with a few protesters. This provocative assault scared and outraged the crowd. Cops emerged from squad cars at the rear of the march and began pushing people down the street.
The second stop on the march was the so-called World Trade Center, a building with an all-glass exterior. This appeared to make the cops especially nervous. As a series of speakers and a musician addressed the crowd, the police prepared for the next provocation.
Shortly thereafter, the head cop used a squad car PA system and said that a state of emergency was being declared. Protesters were given three minutes to disperse. A numbers of cops began to push the crowd with their nightsticks toward Waterfront Park, which runs along the Willamette River.
The cops kept telling people to disperse while at the same time penning them in on all sides. Complicating things was a chain link fence set up for a Cinco de Mayo celebration that prevented anyone from moving through the park to the north.
One cop, who was carrying a so-called “less-than-lethal beanbag gun” that looks like a shotgun, fired on a young man at the rear of the march for no reason that anyone could identify, hitting him twice in the leg.
The police evidently made the decision that the best they could do was to split the demonstration into smaller groups. They began doing this by using the cops on the horses again. When a couple of marshals for the march approached these cops to ask what they were trying to do, their answer was a face full of pepper spray.
Marchers wanted to go back to the park where the original assembly point had been for a picnic but the cops wouldn’t allow it. So, by dozens of different routes, most of the marchers headed for Powell’s Books-which was already surrounded by a union picket line.
Longshoremen join in
But before the cops could redeploy their forces, reinforcements for the demonstrators came from an unexpected quarter.
Powell’s workers are organizing under the umbrella of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union with their own local, Local 5. It just so happened that the ILWU was having a weeklong convention at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland at the time of this demonstration. As a new confrontation with the police was shaping up near Powell’s, the ILWU members broke from their convention and marched to join the rally-500 strong and wearing their union jackets.
The cops were not happy to see this new development and at first moved to block the Longshoremen. The street was filled with people chanting “ILWU! ILWU! ILWU!” and “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” After expedited negotiations with the ILWU, the cops had to pull back and watch from a distance as the Longshoremen joined the rally at Powell’s.
It’s one thing to take on young people with little experience who work at non-union, low-paying jobs or are students, and another thing to take on organized unionists who can stand up to cops and bosses and are part of a larger labor movement.
After a short while, demonstrators moved onto a side street and held a triumphant labor rally for about 30 minutes. Towards the end of the rally, a spokesperson for the ILWU said the following:
“We’re returning to our convention now and you’re welcome to march with us. You will be under our protection. When you march with the ILWU, there won’t be any breaking of windows or property damage. If someone does this in our march, we’ll deal with them. But we are going to take the streets and we’re going to march right up Broadway to our hotel. When we get there, you can disperse or whatever.”
We did take the streets back-almost a thousand strong. We marched right up Broadway while the cops trailed behind. At the Hilton, the Longshoremen went inside while a substantial number of demonstrators hung around on the sidewalks outside the hotel.
After about an hour, the cops got restless and started to maneuver to scatter these last demonstrators. A representative from the ILWU came out, however, and talked to the cops, telling them that if they moved on the demonstrators, the Longshoremen would empty out into the streets again. The cops backed off.
As night fell, the demonstrators finally went home. Nineteen had been arrested; 18 were released quickly on trumped-up charges of disorderly conduct and vandalism. Activists knew of at least eight protesters taken to emergency rooms for injuries, including the man shot with the “beanbag” gun.
Debates among social activists
The main city paper, the Oregonian, did its best to apologize for the cops and falsify the facts. The paper claimed that there had been no injuries except to a couple of cops, that protesters had caused the clash with police, and that the “bristling presence” of the police had prevented potential mayhem. The Oregonian also said that police had prevented “another Seattle” and they had the support of the public.
The police chief, Mark Kroeker, is newly recruited from the scandal-ridden L.A. police force, where 30 cops were fired for corruption, mostly involving the framing up of innocent people on false charges. He proudly claims credit for the militaristic tactics now used by Portland police and says it is something “Portlanders must get accustomed to.”
In the aftermath of the May Day events, debates are raging about the conduct of the cops and, among social activists, how to be more effective. Matching cop violence with demonstrators’ violence and property destruction might be the conclusion of a small minority but that would be playing into police hands.
The more extreme forms of violence always come from the cops. Their job is to protect the status quo and the repressive capitalist system that created them. As powerful as are the corporations and the rich who own them, their power is meager compared to the potential power of those who labor. The role of the ILWU in the May Day events demonstrated this clearly. Labor-when organized, democratic, and aligned with its allies among the oppressed-has a power second to none.
The May Day protest, characterized by the cops after it was over as “essentially nonviolent,” exposed the soft underbelly of minority rule by capitalists and landlords-that violence, police, courts, and prisons are the bedrock upon which the status quo rests.
Proof that the majority is carefully watching was confirmed on May 4 when another rally and march was organized to protest the police actions of May Day and the cover-up of their actions. By that time, criticism of the cops and city government was so intense that the march went unmolested.
It appears that a great start has been made towards reclaiming May Day in Portland. Next, we need to spread the lessons we’ve learned about how to neutralize the cops, challenge corporate power, and reclaim our society!