An Open Letter to the May Day Protesters

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An Open Letter to the May Day Protesters

Demonstrators parade down Broadway during a May Day march in New York, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Activists in New York City converged on Union Square before a march downtown towards City Hall as they protested for better working conditions, immigration reform and other social issues. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Demonstrators parade down Broadway during a May Day march in New York, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Activists in New York City converged on Union Square before a march downtown towards City Hall as they protested for better working conditions, immigration reform and other social issues. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Dear friends and allies,

On May 1st, 2013, I had the pleasure of marching with you from Union Square to City Hall in New York City. It was an honor and a privilege to stand with you. The demands for the legalization of all undocumented citizens, education and healthcare for all, a future free of nuclear danger, an end to homelessness and the abolition of poverty were backed by a righteous strength and fearlessness that I have never seen in my life. It is truly admirable. We owe it to ourselves to celebrate. It goes without saying that there are obstacles to the things we hope to achieve: The political process is broken, and without our persistence and patience, we will not win. There is a media that will ignore us or, at best, acknowledge us but without our own passion and enthusiasm. The New York Times’ Colin Moynihan reports with signature vagueness, claiming that the protests were not for any of the above-mentioned issues, but it was simply a “demonstration meant to criticize capitalism.”

Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to sustaining our movement comes from within, namely "sectarianism" or excessive devotion to a particular political sect threatens to splinter our fragile alliance. If we are going to succeed, this must be rectified. I celebrate with you, as someone who believes in the tradition of protest and the wild creativity of our species. We have accomplished something magnificent, simply by coming together and proclaiming that “we are here!” This is only the beginning of a long struggle, as we know, and it is important to ask the obvious question: What now?

The most insightful conversation I had on May Day was with an NYU student. We discussed what will work to expand and unite a movement. I told him I believed that human rights could function as a unifying political platform since they can braid together our varying social, political and economic concerns are braided together and help us reach larger numbers of people. We had a slight disagreement on this. To him, a movement needed to back itself with a more academically sharpened ideology, citing Marxism, Socialism, and Anarchism as having  long traditions that we should pull from. He went on to say how our strength will come from educating all on these ideologies. This is sensible, but I think there is something important missing. My reply is what I’d like to submit for our consideration.

What will reach the most people? What must we do to reach the hearts of the honest people who are disillusioned with politics altogether? After all, the day-to-day life of most of the population doesn’t feel politically entangled, even if it is. Here, our anger does not help. The fierce cry for “LEGALIZATION, NOW” does not resonate with a population that is exhausted and too busy trying to survive. Talking about class warfare so blatantly does nothing; the terms “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” sound like a foreign language to most. Even our hopeful declarations and passionate exclamations about expressive democracy risk being buried by the fast pace of the world. Some other language must be used, some deeper connection between all of us - within and without the protests - must be the unifying theme.

The sanctity of human rights isn’t just about justice and the certainty of what we deserve. It is also about seeing what happens when we are deprived of those rights. Rights deprivations help reveal aspects of our suffering, like the denial of a meanginful place within our political system, as well as the tangible hardships, heartache and loss  of daily life. In order for us to better understand the plight of oppressed, we must ask ourselves what daily life is like for, say, an undocumented citizen. We must bear witness to the families that have been torn apart by the immoral laws in place. We must look at how debt can shatter the dream of a hopeful student, and how a healthcare system that neglects to treat people makes all of society ill. What is it like to lose everything, and become homeless - as a father, as a single mother?

Compassionate, empathetic, and concerned people do not need to read Marx. They do not need a grand theory of society hand-delivered from the sociologists or an encyclopedic knowledge of gender studies. What everyone understands, I think, is suffering. We will reach people if we are able to communicate effectively this: “These are hard times for every person, and it feels hopeless. Every day feels hectic, and every person wants so desperately for more out of life. We are here, too, as people who eat at the same restaurants you do, and go to the same churches, and go to the same schools. It is hard for all of us. We think we have an idea about what we could do about this.”

A movement needs to tell a story. This is the story of a world in which we have not claimed our rights. This is the story of trying to survive, as we all are, in a world where political leaders don’t seem to care at all about us. It is a story that makes us weep and turn to each other for consolation. And it is a story, ultimately, of our victory and commitment to belief in a better world. The story needs to be documented in writing, in video, in our artwork. A people’s movement needs people’s stories. We all have something to say about our hardships. If we are not communicating effectively enough, it is our fault for closing off from others. Isolation prevails, then, and we seek to conquer isolation.

I have great hope for the courageous people I met on Wednesday. I know we are strong and determined. We have studied and read voraciously. We are brave and ready to commit ourselves to march the long road ahead. I am proud to be with you, and I know we can do this.

-- Stephen Wallace

Stephen Wallace

Stephen Wallace is an organizer in Southern Maryland. He is part of the Calvert County chapter of Maryland's Health is a Human Right Campaign. Graduating High School in 2010, he began a vigorous self-study period, frequenting the library. From 2010-12 he attended the College of Southern Maryland, and occasionally attending lectures at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a pupil of theology under a local priest, Ken Phelps, who is also involved in many social justice concerns.