I wake up to the sound of helicopters. Living in Oakland, the city of beautiful rebellion and tragic violence, I’ve long since learned to recognize the distant buzz of police choppers, but I usually don’t hear it before 8 am. Then I remember: Today is May Day! The revolution is starting early today!

Okay, maybe not the revolution, but like activists across the country, I looked forward to this May Day as a chance to re-energize and unite the diverse working-class movement now called the 99%.

I spend the day on the streets of Oakland, marching with over 5,000 people – from Salvadoran immigrants to striking nurses, from white-haired professors to black-clad anarchists, some of whom did attempt to storm the barricades and received a dose of tear gas in response. For the most part, though, May Day in Oakland is less an insurrection and more a festival of solidarity, full of music, street theater, and an immigrant-led march that reminded everyone that border walls and racial profiling have no place on International Workers Day — or any day.

Despite the hype promised by the helicopters, the events in Oakland get off to a quiet start. Occupy Oakland has put out a call for a general strike, but unlike the 30,000-person strike of last November that shut down much of the city, the early May Day crowd is noticeably smaller, as is its impact. Throughout the morning, several hundred masked activists march through downtown Oakland, at times blockading various banks and government agencies but mostly drifting around aimlessly, unsure where to direct their anger.

By noon, 500 demonstrators converge on Frank Ogawa / Oscar Grant plaza in front of City Hall. They soon move into the streets, where they are met by over 100 cops in full riot gear and – surprise, surprise – we have our first clash of the day. The cops attempt to clear the streets, using flash grenades and arresting the first of what will be 25 people throughout the day. Meanwhile, a group of militants throw paint and small objects at the police lines. As more cops storm in, an Occupy activist on a bullhorn gives loud, contradictory instructions to the crowd: “Stay calm! Fuck the police!”

May Day

While the black bloc and the riot cops play cat and mouse downtown, I head to Alta Bates hospital two miles away and join the day’s one actual workplace strike. Nurses at eight Bay Area hospitals have gone on a one-day walkout, protesting corporate chain Sutter Health’s attacks on worker benefits and patient care.

Here in Oakland, 150 members of the progressive California Nurses Association (CNA) picket the hospital, as several speak to the connection between their struggle and the larger fight against Wall Street power.

“We support Occupy, we believe solidarity is what makes us strong,” says Lucy Riley, a nurse for over 20 years. “Nurses have a white-collar brain and a blue-collar backbone, but we’re all workers. And we need to work and fight together to take this country back.”

The spirit of unity is strong, but there is little Occupy presence on the picket line, nor do the nurses join any of the major demonstrations downtown. Later at the main immigrant rights march, other unions do participate: SEIU janitors, American Postal Workers fighting the privatization of the Post Office, and to much crowd applause, the ILWU Local 10 longshoremen, who hold a “stop-work meeting” for the day, effectively shutting down the Port of Oakland.

Meanwhile, the most hyped action in the weeks leading up to May Day, a possible shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge, is called off by the unions in negotiations with the bridge district.

As I make my way to the Fruitvale District for the major march of the day, I remember how May Day was born in the U.S. labor movement in the late 1800′s, but is now celebrated by workers in almost every country around the world – except here in America.

The federal government created Labor Day as a way to distance the U.S. working class from its international counterparts, not to mention its own radical roots. And it many ways it worked: many poor and working people internalize American exceptionalism and individualism so much that we identify more with Donald Trump than our own neighbors. Luckily for us, and for May Day, not everyone was born here in America.

May Day

Fruitvale is the Latino heart of Oakland, and has been the site of May Day protests since the immigrant rights movement revived the day’s protest tradition in 2006. This year, the March for Dignity and Resistance is organized by a coalition of immigrant rights groups, unions, and activists from Decolonize/Occupy Oakland (not the black bloc crowd). Although it receives little media coverage, for me and everyone I speak with, it is the highlight of the day.

Stepping to the sounds of Aztec drummers and the Brass Liberation Orchestra, over 5,000 people march joyously through the streets of East Oakland. I hear songs in Spanish, English, Arabic, and Tagalog. At the front of the march, Latino youth are proudly waving a banner for “Education not Deportation.” At the back, a Million Hoodie & Hijab contingent is marching in honor of Trayvon Martin, Shaima Alwadi, and all those brutalized by racial profiling. In between, thousands of immigrants, queer activists, librarians, and law students stretch over five blocks of human resistance. The march is black and brown and white and rainbow in a way that Jesse Jackson’s coalition can only dream of. This is Oakland! This is the city I love, the movement we need!

My eyes are drawn to a massive tapestry of over 30 flags sewn together, representing every nation of the Americas. Haydee Martinez, born in El Salvador fifty years ago this week, tells me she spent over a month patching the flags together herself.

“This is for the unity of all Latin Americans, for the legalization of immigrants, for President Obama to stop deporting our families,” Martinez says. “Somos el 99% del mundo – we are the 99% across the world.”

After nearly four hours of marching, we arrive back at City Hall around 7pm, exhilarated and exhausted. We have lost some marchers along the way, some to fatigue and some to fears of what might happen downtown. As opposed to the May Day march in New York, where the immigrant groups, unions, and Occupy Wall Street joined together for a united march, the relationship between Occupy Oakland and the Dignity and Resistance coalition is uneasy. Questions over tactics, march permits, and identity politics have all been sticking points along the way, but the main fear is violence.

The notoriously brutal Oakland Police Department has been picking for a fight all day, and a good amount of the black-mask crowd is happy to provide one. After the final permitted rally and one last dance around the improvised May Pole, most protesters call it a night, heading home with the setting sun. The black bloc-ers step into the streets, and soon I see the signs of what will make the corporate media smile and regular folks turn away: a smashed window. A cloud of tear gas. A garbage can on fire.

And then, I can’t believe it…is that a tank? Yes, that is a full military-style tank advancing down the middle of Broadway. Forget a few broken windows, this is some police-state type craziness, and I’m not ready for Tiananmen Square. I head home, text my friends to make sure they are safe, and go to bed to the sound of helicopters still circling downtown.

The next day I wake up: it is now May 2. The streets are quiet, the media propaganda is deafening against us, and the question is: What are we going to say today? What next to make this movement as beautiful as we know it can be?

May Day


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