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<nettime> May Day report
Dan S. Wang on Fri, 19 May 2006 10:08:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> May Day report

[This mail, orginally dated May 3, got stuck in a mail queue here  {AT}  nettime.
Sorry for the delay. Felix]

May Day, 2006
Chicago, USA

Dear nettime,

Today I went to the big immigrants' rights march/rally. I had enough to say
about the day even before I received word, just after having returned home
from the event, of an untimely loss for the Chicago art/activist world.
Michael Piazza passed suddenly over the weekend. Michael was an artist and a
local presence for many years, with a memory of radical Chicago that went
back to the Seventies. I cannot speak about May Day in Chicago in 2006
without mentioning the concurrent passing of this colleague beloved by so
many because Michael himself played an important role in keeping the
observance of May Day vital in the city of its politicized birth, including
having coordinated a number of projects that took place on the site of the
Haymarket incident. I could say a lot more about Michael and the way he
lived his life, but I'll keep it short here and simply offer the observation
that much of what happens in this city in the area of cultural activism--the
way our networks operate, the way people so generously support and
collaborate with each other, the way productive exchanges between allies are
made possible--bears the imprint of Michael's innovations and values. I
think with time we will realize that Michael's work, in its own way, left as
long a shadow in this city as did that of the late Carlos Cortez.

Check out this interview with Michael on the colorful struggle over
Haymarket memory, authored by Nicolas Lampert.

To the immigrants' rights rally, then.

It was huge. The New York Times quoted the Chicago police count at 400k
while organizers claimed more than 600k. I tramped around the perimeter of
the concluding rally site, stopping in different places to get a feel for
the local view, observe neighboring clusters of demonstrators, catch
fragments of sound and speech floating by.

The composite impression I took from the experience was one of hope, but in
regard to a very particular problem--what Badiou in _Ethics_ calls 'the
problem of the same.' As opposed to the problem of difference. Because here
difference was not only on display but joyfully announced, with creative
signs, t-shirts, and yes flags doing the work of declaring origins. And yet
the aggregate message was one of unity, of the common, of the shared--of
'the same.' When difference is not only tolerated but celebrated--ie the
presence of more and greater difference literally applauded by the cheering
throng (Organizer: And today the Ghanian community stands with us! Mexican
throng: Yay!!!)--how can it be anything else but making visible the depth of
the common interest, the common cause, the common struggle.

A significant feature of this event (along with the first big one that took
place here back in March) was the notable presence of Polish, Croatian,
Irish, and Ukrainian immigrants, who together probably made up about 15
percent of the crowd. Unlike the actions in LA, this visible minority of
white Euro-immigrants turns the local debate constructively away from racist
undertones. The small but tightly organized block of young Irish immigrants,
especially, echoes the immigrant history associated with the current city
father (Daley junior). You don't want to be too crass about it, but in
Chicago it never pays to err on the side of subtlety, either, so it must be
said: this undeniably multi-racial character of the local movement has
arguably dulled the easiest of the reactionary counterattacks. Seeing
peoples normally (around these parts) thought of as 'white' not only joining
a Mexican-led movement, but happy to do so, and furthermore, pleased and
comfortable to be playing the role of minority...that, I'm guessing, is a
complication of the default white supremacist narrative which immediately
gums up the psychology of xenophobia. Chicago being the North American
center for Polish, Croatian, and Ukrainian immigration, and one of the
centers for the Irish arrivals, perhaps stands to render the local movement
worthy of continued consideration nationally as the xenophobic reaction
inevitably counters in the coming days.

That all said, there were two groups underrepresented in bodies and yet
still represented. The Black American and the Chinese shared this peculiar
status. Neither were very visible as countable bodies, although the black
folks seemed to be out in numbers greater than the media reports would have
you believe. Nevertheless, considering this city is more than 30 percent
black, the numbers seemed pretty small. I have no figures on the numbers of
undocumented Chinese in Chicago, but I do know that a friend who was looking
for a caregiver for an elderly Chinese woman got more than thirty calls in
response to an ad that ran for one week in the lowest circulation local
Chinese paper, and all of the applicants were middle-aged women without work
permits. So they are certainly around, but with the exception of handfuls,
they weren't a notable presence at the march.

But still, to those willing to make the stretch, the black and the Chinese
were represented at the event, maybe predictably, even to the point of
stereotype, by musical forms and manufactured goods, respectively. One of
the first musical acts to perform at the concluding rally was a Latin
hip-hop combo. Such is the reach of this sonic form invented by African
Americans that people who identify primarily with other groups have adopted
the form as their own, and do not necessarily think of it as an African
American form, or for that matter even a particularly cosmopolitan form. Of
course this is the great pattern of inventive black music--forms borne from
dense environments of incubator-like intensity (sometimes from one section
of a single city) end up traveling the globe, answering the aesthetic needs
of listeners and musicians worlds away. But what interests me here is the
coupling of presence (the hip hop performance) with absence (small numbers
of black people in the demonstration). How to explain it, and what does it

There are at least two ways to look at it and as is usual, one could be
termed regressive and the other progressive. The regressive theory is this:
that black people in the US do not support the immigrants' cause for the
brute reason of lost economic opportunity. That is to say, black Americans
view the immigrants as competitors for low-wage, low-skills entry level
laborer jobs. In this analysis, immigrants, especially the Mexicans,
Chinese, and Southeast Asians, get blamed for helping to maintain the
conditions of high unemployment in inner-city black communities by their
very presence as available cheap labor. In my view it is an unfortunate fact
that the regressive tendency has gained media prominence. For example:


The theory offering a more progressive reading, and possibly the basis for a
sense of solidarity, begins with an analysis of the dominant dynamic of
contemporary black disenfranchisement, ie oppression by an entrenched and
multi-pronged prison-industrial complex. This dynamic, which through a
combination of built-in inequities (local property taxes for local schools
being the cornerstone arrangement, resulting in unbelieveable spending gaps
for rich and poor areas on education) and prejudicial laws (much harsher
penalties for rock than for powder coke, for example) systematically strips
concentrated populations of blacks of healthy opportunity, and furthermore
channels youth into a corrections system which brands them for life (felony
convictions that take away an individual's right to vote for the rest of
their life), contains little role for the immigrants. When the challenges
facing black America are viewed in this way, the immigrants are best
considered a parallel population whose marginal position is in danger of
being exposed to a similarly harsh punitive treatment, in which case black
Americans can and should claim a role in the debate as the people furthest
along--NOT simply as the most marginal economically (although in some places
that may be true), but as, instead, the population most fully exploited by a
prison-industrial complex that is now verging on expansion by assimilating
another population into its punitive and market-driven claws.

Around here the disappointing fact is, most of the black leadership are
preoccupied with the petty bourgeois concerns of neighborhood development,
and have dropped the ball on their own prophetic tradition. Even our beloved
neo-progressive Senator Obama (who spoke at the rally) can't bring the moral
thunder, and instead reduces his own arguments to platitudes ('we have a
better future together than we do separately'). Now would be a really good
time to recall the raging internationalism of the Black Panther Party for
Self-Defense, beginning with honoring the memory of Fred Hampton.


The appropriation and elaboration on black cultural forms like hip hop by
some within the immigrants' cause signals a trace of friendliness and
welcome from the immigrants' side of the movement, should the progressive
analysis gain a stronger voice within black establishment. It's a lot to
expect from a lame leadership, but working in its favor of gaining a voice
is the reality of crisis in black America, paid in a backdoor draft and an
ever-increasing incarcerated and ex-inmate class of black men.

So much for that. What about the Chinese? As I've already noted, I didn't
see that many there at the event. Which says little...there were so many
people dispersed over so great an area that I might easily have missed any
clusters or groupings. But I did see a lot of flags. Little ones being
passed out for free, massive ones waving in the lakefront breeze,
person-sized ones draped over the shoulders of day laborers from I don't
know where...Oaxaca? Jalisco? It was Flag Day in a major way, and, just for
the record, probably at least 75 percent of them were the good old Stars and
Stripes--it was better than the Fourth of July, not even a contest. But the
thing is, I'm guessing that the vast majority of all the flags out there
today, no matter the nation represented, were manufactured and shipped from
China. Handing out little flags for free, by the hundred? Waving flags that,
betrayed by their still visible creases, had just been released from their
folded-up packages at the dollar store? Those had to been made in China. As
were probably 75% of the shoes worn by everybody attending the event, and
80% of the socks. The forces driving the economic migrations of people all
over the world need to be analyzed with consideration of China's internal
migration of surplus rural labor to cities and/or urbanized 'manufacturing
zones,' which in terms of numbers is as large as that of all the rest of the
world's economic migrations put together. Read that sentence again. Dwell on
it for a while. If you're an elected American politician, fear it. When it
comes to the erosion of American economic strength--and for the ordinary
American--the increasing insecurity of one's livelihood and economic future,
the issue at hand is NOT Mexico. There should be no mistake about it. True,
the unfair trade agreements have much to do with the deruralization of
Mexico and Central America, which pushes people towards the US. But there
again China plays a role. A good number of maquiladoras, only a few years
ago held up as the evil instrument of a global capital paying workers
$3/day, have been shuttered because the per unit cost is half again as cheap
in China. I cannot believe those unemployed workers are going back to their
farms. Some of them were probably at the rally.

Where this leaves the analysis of the event is difficult to say. For all its
exhilaration and positive impact, the lack of sufficient attention given to
the web of forces in play is somewhat distressing. As has been observed (and
sometimes critiqued) there were at this event a few echoes of past activist
forms at work--most notably some appropriations of Civil Rights Movement
rhetoric. But the one form I'm beginning to miss, the one I'd like to see
revived, is the one that stands in answer to issues and circumstances that
baffle and overwhelm by their complexity. I think the so-called immigration
debate is one such issue that could stand to benefit from a revival of this
form, updated for our needs, of course, but in essential purpose faithful to
the original: the teach-in.

Dan w.

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