Monday, May 5, 2014

On May Day and "Superheroes"

There are reasons to feel hopeful about the small yet important breakthroughs surrounding this year’s May Day in the fight for workers’ rights and, in Spain, the right to protest too. The Catalonian police force, known as Mossos d’Esquadra, are no longer allowed as of May 1 to use rubber bullets for crowd control, a decision that comes too late but is nonetheless welcome in a context in which police brutality in the country has escalated alongside social discontent to tragic degrees. Countless wounded and a death later —the verdict on the death of Iñigo Cabacas at the hands of the Basque riot police after receiving a rubber bullet in the head has been pending for two years— workers could march the streets of Catalonia on International Workers’ Day without fearing to lose an eye, or worse.

Here in Washington State, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s announcement of the proposal to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour seemed like an appropriate backdrop to the May Day march. The proposal, however, will most probably require revising, as Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s response and the 15 Now campaign clearly show. There is certainly nothing that could justify the three to four years phase to the $15 wage for big companies.

After having spent all May Days of my working life at work, this was my first chance to get out there and march, and the hot, sunny day in Seattle was perfect for it. However, the turnout at the main mobilization by El Comité for workers and immigrant rights started off smaller than what one would have expected by the amount of police that escorted it. Led by the traditional Aztec Ce Atl Tonalli dancing group, the march gathered hundreds of people of diverse backgrounds calling for fair labor practices and, especially, for an end to the deportation of undocumented immigrants, which have already exceeded 2 million under the Obama Administration and have resulted in thousands of children being deported alongside their parents or left in foster care. Earlier in the morning, a solidarity rally had been held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, 56 days after detainees had begun a series of hunger strikes to bring attention to the abuse and harsh conditions they must endure.

Image credit: Kelly O, via The Stranger

The march concluded uneventfully and on a hopeful note in a rally at Westlake, while smaller, unofficial anti-capitalist protests took over in the evening and inspired reports from all points of the political and journalistic spectrum. One popular interpretation for the evening’s events is that of superheroes vs anarchists/marchers, which is an undeniably catchy tag, albeit far from the truth. Indeed, Seattle has its own league of vigilantes, even though it never asked for one, and the implications of such individuals’ interfering in situations in which the police is involved may seem more harmless, with what the comic book attires, than they actually are.

The Rain City Superhero Movement is a group of costume-clad individuals who patrol the streets at night with the claim of preventing crime. Founded by Phoenix Jones, who calls himself Guardian of Seattle and whose writing emulates that faintly disturbing sense of entitlement of, say, Batman’s internal monologues, the group seems to overlook the fact that what belongs in comic books may not be sensibly applied to real life, to say the least. Leaving aside the scent of megalomania around Phoenix Jones’ persona, the fact is that a group of people who claim to be protecting the city from anarchists serves no purpose but to create even more misleading images of what the act of protesting actually stands for. On the grounds of defending the city, which in many cases translates into defending property, Jones has been known to pepper-spray protesters (around minute 26).
Phoenix Jones and teammates.
Image via
While the presence of masked "superheroes" meddling between riot police and protesters could seem just a nuisance that makes the officers' job harder, their potential to help justify actions taken by the police can’t be ignored. Phoenix Jones and his team are, after all, civilians, and hence unconstrained by the limits of policies and procedures, free to act and immediately seek refuge behind the police line, often provoking conflict and police response.

This is now, more than ever, a time for collective action. Can we really afford to celebrate or even chuckle at “justice-making” that regards the people, as too many riot police agents do, as their enemy?

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