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Chicago May Day In The Time Of Trump

The sidewalks on Des Plaines Avenue beside the memorial sculpture in Chicago’s tiny Haymarket Square were already crowded a half-hour ahead of the scheduled annual May Day rally. Plenty of unions were represented in variously uniform bright colored t-shirts along with families, an ethnically diverse population and the regular activist spectrum of radical students, artists, anarcho-syndicalists, communists, immigration-minded church groups and a generally healthy cross-section of the greater metropolitan area.

When the 1885 American Federation of Labor convention passed a resolution calling for an eight-hour day, it set a deadline for negotiations of May 1, 1886. The demand was backed up by the right to strike and a strike there was, as riots at the Haymarket resulted in the death of a police officer on May 4 after days of prolonged demonstrations followed by the execution and martyrdom of eight Chicago anarchists. The martyrs were buried in what was then Waldheim Cemetery in what is now suburban Forest Park. Emma Goldman chose to be buried beside the Haymarket martyrs and her desire was fulfilled on May 14, 1939, in what is now Forest Home Cemetery.

I was delighted to stumble upon a few members of the Workmen’s Circle. Before even saying hello, I tried reading one of their handmade Sharpie-on-cardboard signs. “Zol leiben der…,” I began, stumbling on the Yiddish “Areshter May,” or “first of May.”

They showed some excitement before flipping the sign around to its English side, reading “Long live May Day.” Upon initial greetings in which I boasted about my grandfather having been a member of the Arbeiter Ring, as the Workmen’s Circle is known in di Mama Loschen, they then started telling me about the Yiddish school they run and the classes they offer. “We used to teach English to the Jews who only spoke Yiddish and now we teach Yiddish to the Jews who only speak English.”

It was good to see that the Workmen’s Circle people in their blue and white Yiddish sashes were a hit with the May Day crowd, as more curious celebrants approached. Not far from the unrepentant Yiddishists was a circle of people in light blue shirts representing the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, one of the gems of local Jewish community organizing.

Moving on up the street, exploring the different packs of rank and file union members in a spectrum of colorfully logoed t-shirts, a large purple figure began slowly inflating up to size beside the iron Haymarket monument. After what appeared to be a moderate struggle, as the bent figure awkwardly bounced amid laboring arms and hands, the figure sprang upright and proudly identified by a sash slung over her shoulder and around her waist reading, “Mother Jones Lives!” to smattering howls of approval.

Past more signs, banners, polls and clusters of purple, orange and yellow t-shirts, a small crowd of seriously black-hooded and masked punk rockers congregated in some shade along the sidewalk and parkway between a small office building and a line of bicycle police. I was checking out a sign that included the words “Chicago 8,” which aroused my curiosity in speculation about the infamous conspiracy trial of the leaders from the Yippies, SDS, National Mobilization and a Black Panther (Bobby Rush, who later became a Chicago alderman) over the 1968 Democratic Convention riots. Why not? After all, it is the semi-centennial anniversary of what legendary Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin organized as the Festival of Life in protest of, and alternative to, the convention that smashed the insurgent campaign of Eugene McCarthy and nominated Hubert Humphrey in the angry summer that had already seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

The guy carrying the Chicago 8 sign wore a backpack, carried a cell cam in one hand and a sign on a stick in the other. As he moved closer, I could get a better read on the sign: “I am only here in memory of the Chicago 8.” He seemed to have a lazy eye as I watched him engage with some Antifa guys, and it did not look friendly. Lazy Eye was having his space invaded by a few more masked and hoodied Antifa guys, one of them occasionally swatting at the sign with his hands.

Lazy Eye was complaining to his hasslers and anyone who would listen, like myself, that the Antifa guys had stolen his Iron Cross. Taking the opportunity as he stood next to me, I said, “Symbols can be powerful.”

“There’s no swastika on it,” he answered.

“But you gotta know that an Iron Cross comes with some baggage,” I replied.

“I just want to get my shit back,” he said.

Lazy Eye also had a small, slim paperback book in his shirt pocket about volunteerism, an anarchist-Libertarian hybrid, that drew the attention of the Antifa guys. “No gods, just masters,” an unmasked Antifa guy laughed, in a clever goof on the Anarchist bromide “No Gods, No Masters.”

I asked a nearby masked Antifa guy in a hoodie if he knew Lazy Eye. Hoodie Mask seemed confused. “Have you seen him around these things before?” I said.

“He’s alt-right,” Hoodie Mask explained, without really answering my question.

Nevertheless, I admired the attention to detail by the Antifa people and I admit to a baseline of genuine respect for the decentralized anti-fascist action movement in general. I can get behind the overall lack of ideology and dedication to the simple agenda of “Never let the fascists have the streets” and “Where they go, we go.”

I had not been paying much attention to the speechifying going on. Being a long and thin rally, the setting was more conducive to staging for a march and the clusters were starting to organize for stepping off and marching on to the State of Illinois building, branded the Thompson Center, named for the long serving Republican governor.

Moving up the line, I found my mishpocha from the JCUA. “Where did the Workmen’s Circle people go?” I asked one.

“They moved back by the stage,” she said. “I think one of them was a speaker.”

“You know Jews,” another joked. “We find each other and then we have to go off and save the world.”

I chuckled and admitted to myself that I always feel at home with leftist Jews.

Then, to the polyrhythmic beats of drums, cymbals, whistles and chanting, we stepped off into the sunlight on Randolph Street heading in the general direction of Lake Michigan.

The crowd seemed much larger in the open area in front of the Thompson Center, where we were treated to some music along with more speakers. And after about half an hour we were back on the march, headed south on Clark Street and onward to the Federal building housing the offices of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Much to the chagrin of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Chicago remains a sanctuary city. As such, ICE has targeted Chicago and other sanctuary cities with raids of what it claims on aliens with criminal records. According to a January press release, ICE claimed that six out of 22 seized were “criminal aliens” who had been released back into their communities “after local law enforcement failed to honor an immigration detainer placed on the individuals by ICE.”

A couple hundred of the marchers from the Thompson Center rally sat down in the street in front of the ICE offices, where clergy from immigrants’ rights groups led the crowd in chants, prayer and song. In fact, the diverse crowd of anarchist punk rockers, Latin-American Communists, unrepentant Yiddishists and Union workers together sang a couple of verses from “Kumbaya.”

Eventually, a blue line of bicycle police swept the street in front of the ICE offices to chants from the crowd of “No justice, no peace!” and the call and response “Whose streets? Our streets!” With traffic moving on Clark Street again, a Puerto Rican group stubbornly held the Clark Street sidewalk while some punkers heckled the curbside line of police on bikes and a few Segways. But the police remained disciplined and the crowd slowly dispersed.

Whatever the action accomplished, it felt good to be involved. It felt great to assert our resistance to a firehose of cynical public policies that seem more intent on fulfilling the campaign contributions from narrow private interests than serving the greater public good. Certainly not everyone who rallied and marched related to every chant for Communist revolution. Mostly, the May Day tradition has once again proven itself solid in the historic ground where the seminal workers’ holiday was planted in the calendar.


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