May Day Protest and Street Art: This is What Democracy Looks Like in 2012, 1980 and 1886

On May 1, 2012, at the intersection of Des Plaines and Madison Streets in Chicago, 3,000 protestors of all stripes - undocumented immigrants and allies, labor unions, Occupiers, peace activists, socialists, anti-nuclear energy, anarchists, gay rights activists - knelt and fell silent.  (Please see gallery at the end of this post for captions and full-page views of the Chicago May Day 2012 protest.) [slideshow]

In the day's only moment of quiet, we honored the workers who, in that place in 1886, went on strike for, died for and won the battle for the eight-hour workday, in what is now known as the Haymarket Affair.

While the state of workers' rights have certainly improved in the US since 1886, the Haymarket Affair echoes today's contemporary struggles:

Police brutality against strikers and protesters...


... on May 3, 1886, when Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men.


The City of Chicago has reached a $6.2 million settlement with protesters who were arrested or detained by police during a 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War.

The city is settling lawsuits on behalf of more than 800 protesters who accused Chicago Police officers of arresting people in masse without cause...

In late March 2003, police allowed the anti-war demonstration without a permit to shut down Lake Shore Drive during the height of the evening rush, then trapped demonstrators at Chicago and Michigan avenues and arrested more than 500 of them – and detained 350 others — without giving them a notice to disperse or an opportunity to leave.

Oppression and criminalization of migrants...


Chicago may have risen from North American soil, but this was a city of "foreigners," dragged by the workings of a world system to the very edge of industrial society.

Engels wrote at that time about the "exceptional" and "aristocratic" position occupied by the native-born (white Anglo) workers in the country. However, the vast bulk of the proletariat, especially in such cities as Chicago, were from Germany, Ireland, Bohemia, France, Poland, and Russia. Waves of immigrants were hurled against each other – pressed into ghetto-like slums, unleashed into ethnic warfare, used to drive one another further down.


Politicians and media alike use the word “illegal” to describe human beings without immigration status, sometimes shortening “illegal immigrant” to “illegals.” While this may seem trivial to some, the language of criminality plays an enormous part in moving people along the continuum from language to violent behavior. Calling people “illegal,” describing them in ways that make them less them human, recasts them as members of an undeserving sub-class that are owed less respect than what would otherwise be acceptable for “regular” human beings.


Later that evening, we visited an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. I liked the exhibition because it allowed me to examine as an adult the times I experienced as a child. The first section of This Will Have Been were artworks about  Democracy.

As in the Haymarket Affair, This Will Have Been showed me again that we as a society still struggle with the same issues thirty years later.

In our time, the available spaces for public discourse and democratic debate are as many as ever. What I saw on May Day 2012 was not that one dominant media - then, it was television; today, it's the internet - replaces the others, but that the conversation happens concurrently in multiple media, and importantly, from person to person around the kitchen table and in the street.

While we marched, I waved at many people observing the May Day protest from the sidewalks, from their offices and balconies. Did anyone see me - me as a person - if no one waved back? Does each side hear the others, whether in person or online? Do people, regardless of opinion, see the humanity of others?

Well, at least one person saw me. The policeman holding the line on Dearborn Street near Federal Plaza smiled for my picture.

Please hover your mouse over each thumbnail for captions and click to enjoy full-page views of the Chicago May Day 2012 protest.

Justice is what love looks like in public. - Dr. Cornel West

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