A Retrospective of the Portland May Day March

May 2, 2017

Checkout the full selected photos and video from the May Day March →

Yesterday, I participated in my first march. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness. I have—for the past five years—been entrenched in politics. I’ve found a passion in understanding people’s movements, especially in the realm of labor rights. It’s an area that I’ve been very ignorant about and even now feel that my understanding is shallow. Having been brought up in a conservative household and a background of fundamentalist religious education, there was very little concern with the struggles of the working people’s movement, neither in the past nor present. Since I started paying more attention to social issues, I’ve been exposed to the untold histories of working people, labor movements and discovered how deep and tragic they truly are.

I had attended an educational event the day before that I helped organize along with the labor working group of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We learned about the importance of May Day in the labor struggle which got me very excited for the March. I arrived a little after 11am, and helped a bit to move sound equipment at Shemanski Park. There were many tables setup representing various groups from anarchists, socialists, communists, union organizations, immigrant rights advocacy groups and many more. They were eager to talk about their causes and hand out literature. I spent the next 3 hours walking around and talking to as many people as I could, filling my inner coat pockets with pamphlets, newsletters, and worker-run newspapers. I was eager to hear people’s stories; why they were there and what got them involved in labor issues. It was inspiring to see how diverse everyone was in their backgrounds and experiences, all coming together against economic inequality and advocating for worker rights.

All the speakers had finished a bit after three o’clock when people started organizing for the march. I don’t know the exact number of people but there must have been well over a thousand: workers, immigrants, families, children, seniors, folks with disabilities, veterans, etc. Many unveiling their signs and banners, representing the groups, causes and issues they were passionate about. We started marching.

My initial impression was just amazement at the size and diversity of the crowed. I stepped out of the march a few times just to take some photos and video. People were chanting, singing labor songs and talking with one another. We’d walk by buildings with office workers watching our march as we passed by. Construction workers would stop to watch as well. The march felt very united and you could sense the solidarity among the marchers.

It wasn’t until 2nd and Alder that I started to see the first rows of police dressed fully in riot gear. This is something I had never witnessed before in person and I thought it was curious why they were here now after such a peaceful event and march so far. It was also the first time during this even that I personally felt unsafe—their presence was very intimidating. I had seen police throughout the entire day but they were in normal uniforms, a few with their bicycles lining the march. I tried not to let the military-style presents of the riot police affect me and continued along with my fellow marchers, singing and chanting. It wasn’t until a few blocks later that I heard over police loudspeakers that the May Day March’s permit had been pulled and the march was cancelled. Everyone was confused, wondering what had happened.

Shortly after this announcement I heard loud bangs towards the rear of the march and looking back I could see clouds of yellow and white smoke being blown in our direction. Some were yelling: “they’re using tear gas!”. At this point people didn’t know what to do, pandemonium ensued. The police loudspeakers came on again saying the march was now an illegal gathering and those who remained on the streets were subject to arrest. Many of us moved to the sidewalks and tried to figure out what was going on. I asked a few people who were running down adjacent streets what happened: “police were using tear gas and concussive grenades”, one man said.

I started making my way back to my car—now quit a few blocks away. Every few minutes I’d hear more concussive grenades explode and trucks driving by with loads of armored riot police. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to think or what had happened. All I knew was that what started as a peaceful march had suddenly turned violent. My mind was busy on the entire drive home, trying to organize my thoughts on everything that had happened. That’s when I realized that maybe the police weren’t neutral as I recalled peaceful marchers running away from the threat of police violence. What possibly could have merited such an escalation of state force?

As I got home and started reading the media coverage of the events, my heart sank. I watched a segment on KATU2 where a reporter spent five minutes pointing a camera at a broken Target store window and praising the police response. I couldn’t believe the amount of concern and coverage that was given to property while the violence and threat against people by police was completely dismissed or outright praised. Even worse, the message of the march itself was non-existent in any coverage I could find. Instead of actually talking to people and hearing what brought them to the march, the focus was entirely on the fringe vandals that threw rocks or cans of soda at police. Just as a case-in-point, I want to demonstrate how the May Day event was covered versus what I view as fair coverage of a protest:

Coverage of May Day Portland March

Coverage of protests in Romania over corruption

The coverage of the May Day march was exclusively on the vandalism and destruction of property. It’s important to Keep in mind that these events took place after the police pulled the permit from the May Day Coalition and started escalating the violence. The coverage on the protests in Romania—though the violence and vandalism was mentioned—were focused on the cause of the people and their concerns. Individuals were interviewed about why they were there and the purpose of the protest was at the forefront.

What I Learned from the May Day March

There are three groups that I learned from: the media, police and the fringe vandals. The sad truth is that if it wasn’t for the violent end of the event, the May Day march would have been ignored by the media all together. I’ve heard many times about the bias in reporting corporate media typically has against popular movements but now I’ve experienced it first hand. The police came ready for violence and escalated petty aggression to a level that was unwarranted and in my view led to even wider spread destruction and pandemonium. From my perspective, their actions had nothing to do with public safety, but instead seemed to stem from an eagerness to use their military-style equipment. Lastly the initial acts of aggression that the fringe vandals demonstrated against the police—which allegedly resulted in the permit being pulled for the entire march—was unarguably counter productive.

I’ve committed myself to a set of principles and values; and among these is non-violence. But even setting aside principles for a moment and only focusing on tactics; If you have a message or a cause that you want to draw attention to, you want to pick tactics that are effective. If you look for tactics that might achieve something you don’t accept the ones that your opponent prefers. State power prefers violence. This was evident to me the moment I saw the riot equipped police. They have a monopoly on violence and no matter how much violence protesters use, the state will respond with more. If you respond to police with violence, their counter response will always be more violence and more aggression. It’s a battle protesters are going to lose—not only on the scale of violence—but in propagating whatever cause moves you to protest in the first place. The power in popular movements comes from organizing, education and non-violence.

This is my message to those protesters looking for a confrontation: don’t. You may be rightly justified in your anger, but it’s the exact opposite in terms of tactics for getting your grievances recognized and addressed. To the public eye, those who only hear of these events from the evening news, you associate your movements with violence and lose the very people who’s support you need. We need to take a stand against violence and that starts by making it clear that those acts do not represent our principles and values. States know how to respond to violence and aggression, but they are powerless to non-violence.

“I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.”

— Howard Zinn, 1970 Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press