Saturday, June 4, 2011

Working class celebrates May Day

Has environmental movement lost its connections with other social struggles?

It was a hell of a May Day in Seattle. More than 4,000 of us marched: teachers, social justice advocates, labor unionists, churchgoers and atheists, young and old, physically challenged and robust athletic types.

The same theme resounded here and around the world, in Istanbul, where 250,000 protested, or in Germany, where more than 430,000 came out to bring lawmakers a clear, resounding message: keep teachers and social workers, keep workers alive and happy.

Maybe environmentalists were participating elsewhere, but in Spokane – with no May Day rally – and in Seattle, they were few and far between. The message was clear – environmentalists have lost the last 30 years with their ‘greenie weenie’ tactics and overemphasis on wonky messaging while allowing the working class and poor to struggle with everything from refineries redefining compact, sustainable neighborhoods as cancer alleys.

Low wages, poor working conditions, classism and racism, exploitation, food deserts and swamps throughout urban communities are the bane of the environmental movement. When people are facing the Walmartization of their lives, coughing up the particulates of diesel engines and factories, and no rights to health care, they become the pawns of a rich class ready to divide and conquer us all.

Worrying about a gray wolf in the sights of an Idaho pick-up hunter or saving salmon runs just can’t fit into these people’s lives when their struggle has been forgotten by the environmental movement.

Many I talked with here said the environment was high on their list, since gas pipelines run through their ‘hoods and freeways bisect their lives. They also emphasized that this moment in time is a flashpoint where not only environmental justice might pass them by, but the whole concept of participatory and community-based governance could be sunk.

Teachers, health care, libraries, and union participation were high on lists of topics needed to keep the struggle going.

Plenty know the value of clean water, why kids are struggling with obesity and inattentiveness, why closing a neighborhood library is like killing memory. They see connections between asthma and plastics and the constant tailpipe respiration of our auto nation.

“If we end up with no schools – or for-profit schools – we will end democracy as we know it and envision it,” said Fred Hyde as he staffed a table with various militant and workers’ rights literature. “I want smart democrats, smart socialists and smart anarchists in my neighborhood, and schools are one place that can happen.”

Community gardeners were at this May Day march. So were socialists, communists and fusion voters. Campaigning for clean elections and for legalization of marijuana, folks with petitions peppered the march. Drumming, Spanish chants of liberation, and brass bands egged on same-sex couples who skipped with families and hordes of young people.

Teachers set up boxes and bullhorn speakers outside Chase Bank, rallying us all to make the bankers pay what they owe. Hotel workers outside the downtown Marriot demanded fair pay and decent conditions. One woman said she worked with three broken toes or risked losing her crappy job.

I doubt those $300,000/year wonders of the environmental movement were there. Or celebrity authors making a killing off of climate change.

Teachers were there, but not highly-compensated college presidents and coaches.

Environmentalists today are peddling an old white male’s game of top-down dictates from conservative-looking organizations like the Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund.

Thousands rallied for this 2.9-mile march, surrounded by a city that’s been dubbed as one of the whitest urban places in the U.S. We were corralled in by a battalion of motorcycle cops and police bicyclists.

On May Day 2008, thousands of dockworkers in Tacoma staged a protest against our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years later, vets and homeless were gathering signatures to keep Nickelsville going.

Nickelsville, named after a former Seattle mayor, is a self-managed community of homeless and formerly homeless men, women, children and pets. It’s moved 16 times, and now some are advocating expanding Nickelsville to hold 1,000 homeless people.

One politician who marched with us was from Ohio. Democrat Dennis Kucinich wrangled me at Memorial Stadium to help with some phrases for the Spanish-speaking throng.

He was famished from a heavy speaking and town meeting schedule, but still gracious (and calm) to pose for photos. He was handed a plate of Guatemalan food and his second word after “thanks” was “vegan.”

I didn’t see Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn there, nor Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin – but he says he’s “into” studying and protracting the homeless Eco-Village plans while pain, suffering, violence and murder still plague street people.

The march was full of energy from the Latinos/-as, field workers. I was thinking of a righteous environmentalist, 29-year-old Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist and founder of Peaceful Uprising, who faces a decade in prison after being convicted for his direct action to protect the environment.

Tim had just finished his graduate degree at the University of Utah, in economics. He then registered for a U.S. Bureau of Land Management auction in Salt Lake City with the plan of peacefully derailing the Bush administration decision to open public lands to oil and gas drilling.

He drove up the price in order to make it difficult for others to bid on this country’s most beautiful arid landscape. He was arrested and charged with two felonies.

An environmentalist facing jail time should be given an award. Take note that not one hedge fund liar, corrupt banker, or Wall Street cheat has been convicted or imprisoned for this current economic tsunami, yet this active, smart student faces 10 years in federal prison.

He spoke at the April 22, 2011, Earth Day Powershift event, with 10,000 people, and his words sting the complacent and what I call the weenies in the green community.

“Mountaintop removal, climate change and other injustices we are experiencing are not being driven solely by the coal industry, lobbyists, or failure of our politicians. They’re also happening because of the cowardice of the environmental movement. We hold the power right here to create our vision of a healthy, just world, if we are willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen.

Where is the point where our movement is going to say that stopping this injustice is more important than my career plans, or my comfort and convenience? Now is our time to take a stand. We’re done making statements. Let this be the last time that we come together to make statements. Our movement needs to take a stand.”

His words relate to the underpinning of May Day in Seattle and in other cities. This activist should be invited to every pompous school board hearing and every pedantic administrative council. His words strike fear in the upper echelon as they covet hyper-salaries while they cut faculty and staff. They could even penetrate those under-imaginative chancellors and presidents.

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