Tens of thousands of labour and immigrants’ rights activists have taken to the streets to commemorate International Workers’ Day across the US, with reports of arrests and clashes in several locations.
International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, has been commemorated on May 1 since its introduction in the late 19th century. For American leftists and labour rights groups, it symbolises the rich history of the struggle for workers’ rights.
This year, however, the day assumed added significance, with a movement against right-wing US President Donald Trump fuelling the protests, marches and actions.
The Movimiento Cosecha, a movement that campaigns for the rights of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the US, rallied its activists for a nationwide strike and called for a ‘day without immigrants’ on Monday.
In Portland, Oregon, police revoked the demonstrators’ permit mid-protest when anti-fascists, or Antifa, confronted officers, setting a police four-wheel-drive vehicle ablaze and throwing Molotov cocktails and projectiles.
Police fired stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets and made dozens of arrests, local media reported.
— Dave Killen (@killendave) May 2, 2017
Along with several other activist groups, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC) organised a series of protests in New York City. On Monday afternoon, MACC and other anti-authoritarian left-wing groups assembled in an anti-fascist bloc for a large rally in Union Square.
Trump supporters and members of the Alternative Right (alt-right) movement tried to interrupt the protest in Union Square and clashed with Antifa and other protesters. Elsewhere in the city, at least 32 people were arrested during demonstrations and confrontations in the city.
“This May Day, it’s important to not just fight back but to show that this movement cannot be repressed,” Matthew Whitley, a spokesman for MACC, told Al Jazeera. “This May Day has the potential to be a rallying cry for the broader anti-authoritarian left and especially the anarchist movement.”
In the evening, MACC held a solidarity demonstration for prisoners outside the Metropolitan Correctional Centre, making as much noise as possible so that those locked up on the inside could hear them. “This May Day is especially about the most exploited and marginalised of workers, which is immigrants, undocumented immigrants and the incarcerated,” said Whitley.
An estimated 15,000 people participated in May Day rallies throughout Los Angeles, California, while similar protests were staged in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as other cities and towns.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, more than 4,000 people marched, while at least a thousand took to the streets in Homestead, Florida, the New York Times reported.
‘Throwing immigrants under the bus’
The White House press office did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment on Monday’s protests.
Following in the tradition of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and presidents before them, Trump declared May 1 to be “Loyalty Day”. In a proclamation released on Friday, Trump said: “The United States stands as the world’s leader in upholding the ideals of freedom, equality and justice.”
It added: “Together, and with these fundamental concepts enshrined in our Constitution, our Nation perseveres in the face of those who would seek to harm it.”
Maria Svart, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), says the group marks International Workers’ Day each year but this year’s commemorations come at a crucial moment, adding that the DSA’s membership has grown from 5,000 to more than 20,000 since Trump’s election.
“May Day, International Workers’ Day, is the chance to remind ourselves, as well as the bosses, bankers and policymakers of the 1 percent, that we don’t have to take this treatment,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to socioeconomic inequality.
Arguing that Trump’s particular brand of right-wing populism effectively tapped into grievances felt by workers and those living in economically-deprived communities, Svart said: “Unfortunately, he chose to throw one set of working people, immigrants, under the bus to do so, and used longtime stereotypes about people of colour being lazier than white people to attack programmes that support all people when they need it.”
The DSA held rallies in New York City and Washington, DC, among other places.
The Socialist Alternative, a national left-wing party that says it has also experienced a surge in membership since Trump’s election, had called for International Workers’ Day to be marked with a nationwide strike.
Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative leader and city councilor in Seattle, told Al Jazeera that the US is experiencing a “historic opportunity” as anger with Trump grows and foments a broader progressive movement.
Socialist Alternative, which has called for the release of all immigrant detainees and for the plan to build a wall on the Mexican border to be scrapped, also endorsed calls for a strike on Monday.
“The day after Trump was elected virtually everyone was stunned and the Democratic Party establishment … was paralysed,” Sawant added. Alluding to a series of protests since Trump’s inauguration on January 20 – focusing on issues from women’s rights to science – she said: “Who wasn’t paralysed? Ordinary working people.”
‘Ideology laid bare’
Over the weekend, tens of thousands marched to protest against Trump’s environmental policies in the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC.
In February, mass protests against Trump’s choice for labour secretary, Andrew Puzder, eventually led to him withdrawing his nomination from consideration. Among the groups demonstrating was the Fight for $15 campaign, a grassroots movement that demands that the federal minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour.
When Trump introduced what was commonly referred to as the “Muslim ban” – a restriction on immigration and visits for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – protests and civil disobedience at airports across the nation played a crucial role in pushing back.
In recent weeks, violent clashes between Trump supporters, among them members of the far-right and neo-Nazis, and anti-fascists gripped Berkeley, California, and concluded with several arrests and injuries.
Henry Giroux, an American academic and author of America at War with Itself, says that growing anger is partially fuelled by young people who “know they have been written out of the script of democracy”.
“They know they are the zero generation – zero jobs, zero hope, zero future. They know they’re a long-term investment in a country that only believes in short-term investment,” he told Al Jazeera. “The ideology has been laid bare for young people. The other side of it is not all young people think alike, so you do get fascist elements among young people on the right.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s approval ratings are still stacked against him, with 52 percent of the country disapproving of his performance, according to the polling website FiveThirtyEight.
Back in New York City, MACC’s Matthew Whitley said the protests are “a form of self-defence and definitely a gesture against the emboldened far-right, who are pushing a nativist agenda” by targeting immigrants and communities of colour.
“People across the world are perhaps realising that politics are possible again and we don’t have to rely on technocrats,” he concluded. “People see the day-to-day violence and racism of the system much more starkly.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_