OK, I will be honest - this year's May Day march in Chicago was small. Much smaller than the 750,000 to a million who marched in 2006. Smaller even than the tens of thousands who marched last year. After lambasting the mainstream media for their horrible coverage of last years march, I feel the need to be honest about the fact that this years turn-out was the smallest since 2006. And this pattern was repeated around the country, coast-to-coast. That said, this was a surprise to practically no one. Sure there were a few immigrants rights activists that predicated bigger turn outs, more out of the hope that their enthusiasm might encourage more people to show up. But I think everyone pretty much knew that this would not be the best of May Day celebrations.
The reasons are a multitude and quite obvious to anyone who has paid any attention to the political terrain as it relates to both the labor and immigrant rights movements:
1. Barack Obama’s election has diminished rather than encouraged increased activism among members of a number of social movements, including the immigrant rights movement. We saw this with the anti-war movement in previous months. The attitude is, we did our part in November, now let’s let Obama make good on his promises and give him some space and time. Unfortunately history shows that without mass mobilization, Obama will be less likely to remember promises made.
2. A related phenomenon is the belief by many that mass mobilization will hurt the cause; that it may ignite a xenophobic reaction that will make immigration reform less likely. This view is quite strong among many of the leading immigrant rights organizations in the country right now. Many feel “back channel” pressures on the administration are more effective at the moment. While there might be some truth to this view, my warning stated above about forgetting promises made applies here as well and the likely outcome of such an approach is compromise legislation which is barely better (or perhaps worse) than no reform at all.
3. Lack of an obvious threat: The Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006 was ironically in many ways a “gift” to the movement. Nothing mobilizes like an imminent threat. The legislation was so outrageous that people felt compelled to turn-out in the streets. Despite the increase in raids and other draconian measures taken since 2006, the public has not had the same sense of imminent danger since.
4. Continued climate of fear: Turnout has been declining since 2006 partly because of increased fear generated by the massive increase in ICE raids since 2006. There is much more fear on the part of many undocumented immigrants that any public actions will make them easier targets. Sadly (and tellingly), the Obama administration has not used it’s executive authority to stop the raids and has seen fit to let them continue un-abated.
5. Similar to the fears of ICE are fears about the economy. In many cities the 2006 marches were virtual general strikes, with workers taking the day off to join the marches. It is a much bigger gamble given the current state of the economy, to take a day off work.
6. A sense of resignation: For many, the lack of victories after 3 years of marches has lead to a sense of apathy. For some, this attitude has intensified in the face of disappoint that Obama has done so little in the first hundred days to address the concerns of the immigrant community and has provided hints that little is coming in the next year.
7. In Chicago (and I imagine in other cities as well) it must be honestly admitted that in-fighting within the movement has also been a factor. The immigrant’s rights movement is probably at its most fractured currently than at any point since 2006. There is little unity around which way forward at the moment.
8. Organized labor’s support for May Day celebrations and immigrant rights was steadfast, and many local unions were key, once again, to the organizing of yesterday’s marches. But in all honesty, labor’s primary focus is elsewhere at the moment. Labor and immigrant rights groups both emphasized the importance of EFCA at yesterday’s rallies and of the close connection between EFCA and legalization for all, but official mobilization, support and resources was much stronger for the EFCA rallies that have taken place around the country over the past few months than for the May Day marches yesterday.
9. Last but certainly not least was the effect of “flu fear” on yesterday’s turn-out. Here was a real de-mobilizer that no organizers could have predicated. And the effect by all accounts was significant. Based on anecdotal evidence of the amount of family members and friends who admitted to skipping yesterday’s march in Chicago due to flu fears, I would hazard to guess that as many as a quarter to a third of those who planned to turn out, changed their minds sometime over the past week. The city itself tried it’s best to use flu fear to convince the organizers to call of the march entirely.
All that said, I still think it is undeniable that yesterday’s marches and rallies were clear evidence that the May Day tradition has returned to the U.S.A. for good. We have to remember, beyond the occasional gatherings, usually measured in the hundreds at best, of assorted radicals and activist who honored May Day, International Workers Day was largely forgotten in the country for most of the last 120 years. Brought back by immigrant workers in 2006 to the land of its birth, all indications are that it will not be forgotten again.
The mainstream media on the other hand is hard at work making sure it does not contribute to this recovery of memory. This year offered the most perfect of contrasts and the most blatant of examples of media bias. On “Tax Day”, April 15th, FOX News covered the couple hundred, so called “Tea Parties” (anti-tax demonstrations) held around the country as if it were election day (perhaps still smarting from the realities of actual election day last November). With reporters reporting from the scene in dozens of cities, FOX’s right wing speakers bureau pontificated hour after hour about the evils of taxation and the eminent demise of the nation given Obama’s election. FOX spared no expense in turning the Tea Parties into a media spectacle par excellence - the OJ trail for disgruntled right wingers. What is even more outrageous is that the tea parties were largely a creation of FOX in conjunction with a cabal of right wing radio personalities and the Republican Party. Fox publicized and mobilized for the tea parties for weeks, leading up to April 15th. So FOX was in effect first creating a media spectacle and than covering what they had created. Now that’s propaganda at its finest. FOX clearly has the finest marketing team (professional bullsh_ters) in all of broadcasting. Of course all the other mass media outlets, especially CNN, almost begrudgingly (perhaps frustrated they hadn’t thought of it themselves) felt compelled to offer up their own excessive coverage of the rallies. Never mind the confused messages delivered at the rallies (were they protesting the Bush taxes they were paying that day or the Obama tax cuts 90% of them would benefit from next year? – I wasn’t clear on that). Never mind that the views of those at the rallies have been proven repeatedly in recent polls to be minority views. Never mind that the real tax cheats – corporate America – were they primary sponsors of this faux “grassroots” rebellion, which bore almost no relation to the issues addressed by the original Boston Tea Party. Of course its true that many working class people are angry about their current tax burden. I am all for returning to 1950’s era tax rates, when working people paid much less tax and corporations paid much higher taxes. Working people are right to be angry with the increasingly regressive tax structure in this country – but I didn’t see any banners in the Tea Party rallies calling for a return to progressive taxation (or calling for abolition of state provide police and fire protection on the part of the libertarians at the rallies, most of which were held is state funded public parks). What really angers me is the attempt by FOX, the right wing media elite and the Republican Party to spin these events as purely spontaneous, populist rebellions when they spent millions of dollars and untold hours of air time generating the rallies. Imagine the day when FOX sees fit to mobilize for May Day.
So how did the coverage of the Tea Parties compare with coverage of May Day 2009? The media generated spectacle of April 15th turned into a virtual media blackout on May 1st. How many of you saw any coverage on T.V. of yesterday’s rallies? Despite my best efforts I caught zero. In regards to radio I heard one 30 second blurb about the smallness of the rally in Chicago. Searches of Google News yesterday night turned up a handful of short print accounts, mostly back page stuff, that once again emphasized the low turn out. So what gives? The turn out was roughly similar to that on April 15th, despite the decline in numbers from previous years. Chicago’s May Day march seems to have been the largest single event in the country. The Chicago Tribune estimated 2,000 while the New York Times estimated 5,000. Those of us in attendance put the number somewhere between those two. This is roughly the same as the largest Tea Party, held in Dallas April 15th, and estimated to be a little over 4,000. Most of the other Tea Parties around the nation were said to be in the hundreds, rather than the thousands who rallied yesterday in LA, New York, Miami and other locations. Granted in places like LA, because numerous rallies were held in different locations, it was hard to get good estimates of numbers from yesterday’s rallies. Perhaps in the end their were slightly more people involved in the Tea Parties than in yesterday’s May Day marches given that FOX and other news reports claimed rallies had taken place in hundreds of locations around the country (the most fantastic of estimates, almost certainly an exaergation, put the aggregate number at around 1 million across the country). Not surprising given the media hype a mobilization that occurred to prepare for April 15th. Indeed, if anything, it is surprising how few showed up for the Tea Parties given the cajoling of FOX and friends. But it can’t simply be a numbers game. In previous years, even in 2006, when millions (literally and verifiable in that case) took to the streets, the mainstream media coverage was no-where near as extensive as that provided the Tea Parties on April 15th. Even when the protestors were meet with police violence like happened in LA in 2007, the story was pretty much pushed to the back pages. For 3 years running, truly grass roots efforts of the labor and the immigrant rights community have mobilized millions to take part in what is perhaps now the nation’s largest and most significant series of annual protests other than the Iraq war protests held each March. Yet FOX and friends not only did not see fit to provide all day coverage from multiple locations as they did April 15th, but seem loathed to even issue a short sound bite that the marches had happened at all.
So the bias of the media elite to the message of corporate America continues unabated and becomes only more blatant with each passing year.
Pictures and audio from yesterday’s march in Chicago will be posted soon – check back tonight and tomorrow. And tune into Labor Express Radio tomorrow night at 7 PM, on 88.7 FM, WLUW for a May Day report back.