The afternoon of May 1, 2019, hundreds gathered in Judkins Park for the slow procession from the central Seattle area that was once a rare haven for people of color to downtown, organized by El Comité and the May 1 Action Coalition.
The crowd incrementally flowed into the street, swirling into eddies at junctures to hear speakers call for worker rights and protections. A sprinkling of rightwing provocateurs dressed in black with a paintball gun and two maga hats wandered on the outside of the march trying — and largely failing — to catch protesters for inflammatory interactions to play on their YouTube channel.
Such a sight is unimaginable in 2020 while the coronavirus continues to lurk in the community, largely undetected by dint of inadequate testing. Gatherings of more than a handful of people have been banned since March, making traditional displays of solidarity — like the March for Workers and Immigrant Rights — impossible.
But organizers at El Comité and in other communities are not ready to cede their calls for justice, solidarity and inclusion to stay-at-home orders at a time when the virus has laid bare the inadequacies in systems that they have been calling out for decades.
Instead, they are employing new tactics to rally, to protect and to provide support.
The coronavirus shut down economic activity in Washington and throughout the country, as government officials made various attempts to slow the spread by limiting how and where people could interact with each other. Millions of Americans were laid off as a result, causing a spike in unemployment insurance claims like nothing seen since the Great Depression.
Congress plumped unemployment insurance by $600 per week and approved individual stimulus payments of up to $1,200. Undocumented workers saw none of that, said Juan Jose Bocanegra, executive director of All in For Washington, an effort to right the state’s inequitable tax system.
“A lot of the workers have been unemployed for three to four weeks now,” Bocanegra said. “They don’t have a way of paying their rent. They don’t have access to the paycheck programs.”
It’s a slap in the face to undocumented workers, many of whom have been deemed “essential” by state, local and federal governments because of their work in agricultural fields. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates as many as half of people hired to pick crops are undocumented, a category which does not include workers in the country temporarily on an H-2A visa, which allows them to stay in the country for certain agricultural work for a period of 10 months.
Even as President Donald Trump announced plans to use the crisis to shut down immigration, his administration made exceptions for workers who ensure there is food available to be stocked on grocery store shelves. Reports indicate that some workers received paperwork deeming them essential.
But it goes past the coronavirus: Undocumented workers pay taxes, feeding into programs and services to which they do not have legal access.
“There’s a historical, underlying ability in this country to have no sentiment for workers and no solidarity with workers, especially workers of color,” Bocanegra said.
California created a $125 million fund to provide direct cash payments to undocumented workers, and advocates want the same type of relief here in Washington.
Rather than march in the streets of Seattle, they plan to drive to Olympia en masse to deliver their ask to Gov. Jay Inslee.
“What we are requesting, along with other major coalitions like the Washington Immigration Solidarity Network, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, One America and a slew of other organizations, is that the governor put $100 million to support undocumented workers and their families during this period of time,” Bocanegra said. “We know it would be a small amount given the number of folks in the state, but we would also like to look at this money as a bridge for a more permanent solution.”
Even that amount wouldn’t cover the estimated 75,000 workers with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN), a form of tax ID for people without Social Security numbers, much less every undocumented person, said Carlos Marentes of El Comité.
“Just for the city of Seattle to support all of these people, including ITIN, people with no Social Security number or people who do not qualify for supports, you need an amount over $25 million a month,” Marentes said.
Other interventions such as the moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent or freezes on utility shutoffs are a form of triage — they don’t get at the underlying problems that allowed the virus to take millions of workers already on the edge and shove them off.
“The freeze on rent, many of us see that as a good thing, but when we say that, we’re accepting the status quo about how rents are set,” Marentes said. “That’s the other part of the issue. It’s not just about how we apply triage right now, but how do we solve the structural problem.”
Internationally, May Day is about worker solidarity and the fight to improve the lives of the people who produce the economic gains that continue to enrich a small sliver of society.
It’s also the day rent is due for millions of Americans, many of whom will not be paying.
Calls for a rent strike have been growing, championed by elected officials like Councilmember Kshama Sawant and pushed by organizers. Groups have papered the city with posters encouraging renters to organize with their neighbors and giving advice on how to present a united front to their landlords.
It’s also a cause for @MayDaySea, a “loose collective of folks organizing in different areas” that has been using their Twitter account to amplify the message and strategies.
“We want to recognize the fact that, organized collectively or not, millions of people will not be paying rent on May 1,” the group said in an email. “Our calls for a rent strike take this into account, while also suggesting that in this crisis we can get the best results for each other by working together.”
Some people simply won’t be able to make rent. Even if a person has access to enhanced unemployment benefits, rents in Seattle are notoriously unaffordable.
But if those who can afford to pay refuse to as well, it will make it harder for landlords to take action against the poorest.
The revolution will be Zoomed?
The proponents of the rent striker are saying that this is an opportunity to combat longstanding issues that existed long before the virus.
“So, while not paying rent (or deliberately paying less rent) is a core part of what makes a ‘Rent Strike,’ the collective act, of withholding rent and building solidarity and support with others unable to pay, is really what makes the ‘Strike’ part as opposed to simply a lot of people happening not to pay rent,” they wrote.
Organizing without physically gathering has posed challenges, but also spurred work to make such organizing accessible to people who may not make it to meetings due to disabilities, family responsibilities or work.
“With the usual idea of ‘everyone get together at this time in this particular physical space’ now more or less being entirely off the table, it has forced people to really do the dirty work of making sure that everyone is able to participate and have their needs met,” the group wrote.
How to meet the needs of her community without flouting public health officials’ orders has been top of mind for Elayne Wylie, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League (GJL), an organization that supports transgender people in Seattle and beyond.
Members of the transgender community are disproportionately low-income workers, are overrepresented in homelessness statistics and have barriers to appropriate medical care — circumstances that coronavirus has exacerbated.
GJL opened its doors to community members to provide shelter even as it and other groups began working together to map out how they would approach Pride this year, the 50th anniversary of the first, formal Pride celebration.
Pride isn’t just about marches and performances, Wylie said. It’s a celebration of togetherness and acceptance — a critical sentiment for vulnerable people trapped at home alone, cut off from their community and gender-affirming health care, which has been delayed in an effort to free up medical resources.
“We are all struggling to find peace; we’re all struggling to find happiness; we’re all struggling to find the thing that gets us through the day. Whatever that looks like,” Wylie said. “For me, and for the community I serve, Pride is a big part of that. Pride has saved lives.”
Organizers are working to capture Pride’s essence and translate it online by broadcasting acts and speeches or holding an online conference of sorts. Pride events are typically in June, but organizers are considering in-person possibilities for later in the summer.
Even if stay-at-home orders end before or during summer, it may not be safe for everyone to congregate in large groups. Until a vaccine is widely available, the virus will be there, threatening to erupt.
That new equilibrium will touch most workers in most industries, and what it looks like is a mystery. But our daily lives are unlikely to revert to the pre-coronavirus “normal,” and that’s a good thing, organizers say.
“We don’t want a simple ‘return to normal,’” according to @MayDaySea. “We want to see a world where housing is a human right, where workers have power, where no one has to be locked up. And at its heart, May Day has always been about those sorts of ideals.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 29 - May 5, 2020 issue.