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Rights, Not Riots: What Seattle’s May Day Was Really All About

The largest march on May Day in Seattle was about immigrant families and their supporters standing together for human rights. Not to be confused with the rowdiness that took place later in the day.

May Day children

Young people participate in Seattle’s May Day march for immigrant rights. Photo by Brian K.

Despite the ominous speculations that appeared in many media outlets prior to the procession and a spate of conflict-obsessed coverage afterward, the largest May Day march in Seattle was peaceful and decidedly riot-free.

Thousands of workers, demonstrators, and supporters took to the streets of Seattle on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to participate in the 13th annual May Day march and rally for worker and immigrant rights. The conflicts with police being widely reported in the media took place at a separate, later event that proceeded from downtown Seattle to the neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

Two Seattle-based groups led the organizing of the march: the May First Action Coalition and El Comité Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social. “For the first time in decades, the U.S. government is truly addressing immigration reform,” said Nicole Ramirez, secretary general of the Filipino youth organization Anakbayan Seattle, at the afternoon rally. “And it’s due to years of persistent organizing by people like us, working with those in our communities, moving the national debate forward.”

Ramirez laid out the organizers’ specific policy requests: “We need to stop deportation,” she said, citing the 1.5 million undocumented immigrants deported so far under the Obama administration. She also criticized the use of E-Verify—an internet-based background check used by employers to determine workers’ citizenship—as well as the federal “Secure Communities” program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain and deport undocumented individuals based on arrests for any offense, regardless of whether they are convicted.

A strong theme of unity was evident in the signs, chants, and slogans of the marchers gathered near St. Mary’s Church in Seattle’s Central District. “Immigration rights are human rights,” one sign read. “Unafraid, unashamed, united,” read the back of a T-shirt. Another sign declared, “This nation was founded by immigration.”

Dozens of police officers accompanied the march along its two-mile course—officers in vans, patrol cars, on motorcycles, on bicycles, and on foot—but there were no incidents of rowdiness or window-breaking. It was a peaceful gathering, as many demonstrators had hoped for.

“We came here to march peacefully,” said Carmen Miranda, a volunteer “peacekeeper” for the event, trained to diffuse any potential conflict within the crowd. “That’s the only way you get voices heard.”

Voices from the crowd

The events began with a rally near Washington Middle School at 1 p.m. Marchers gathered on a sun-soaked grassy playfield, listened to speakers and musical performers, and waited for the procession to start. At 3:30 p.m. the crowd began marching west toward downtown, a throng of thousands chanting phrases like, “Si, se puede!”—Spanish for “Yes, we can!”— “Education, not deportation,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, deportation’s got to go.”

Many of the marchers expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the current immigration system. “The current state of immigration is inhumane and hypocritical,” said Sakara Remma, a social justice activist who attended the event with her young son, Majestik. “Immigration reform has to have a more holistic approach, one that’s in the best interest of those affected by it.”

“We can’t have justice for all if we don’t have justice for immigrants,” said Nyongo, a social worker, who gave only her first name. “My parents are immigrants, and I’m here in solidarity with them and to show support for immigrants everywhere.”

Elena Dean, another volunteer peacekeeper, said, “Immigration reform needs to include everyone, no matter what. It’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.”

Kids on May Day

Children march with signs demanding immigration reform. Photo by Kristin Hugo.

Another recurring theme was the idea that families, not individuals, are the real victims of deportation. Mothers of infants are sometimes deported while their child is still being breast-fed, said Miranda. “Deportation tears families apart, sons from fathers, brothers from sisters, parents from their children.”

Pedro Gomez, director of the Washington Latino Borders Alliance, which is based in the nearby town of Bellingham, agreed. “We’re marching for our families here,” he said, “Every single person here is somehow and in some way connected to an immigrant, and we’re here to recognize that.”

Scrawled onto a piece of cardboard, one young woman’s sign read, “F--k weed—legalize my mom.”

It was fitting, then, to see so many families in the crowd—mothers marching with their teenaged daughters, couples pushing strollers along the throng’s periphery, and fathers holding infants aloft on shoulders.

Movements in collaboration

The first of May was a holiday in medieval Europe, where it was called Beltane and associated with rebirth and fertility. The modern holiday, however, begins with the nineteenth-century labor movement. That struggle came to a head on May 1, 1886, when more than 100,000 Americans staged a strike to demand an eight-hour working day.

Aztec drumming

A drummer performs at Seattle's May Day march. Photo by Kristin Hugo.

Yesterday’s marchers used May Day to draw connections between immigrant rights and other social justice struggles. “We silo ourselves in issues that directly affect our lives, but this movement isn’t about what’s happening inside our own homes,” said Jeff Hedgepeth, grants program officer at the Pride Foundation, a philanthropic organization supporting Seattle’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. “It’s about what’s happening in our neighbor’s homes, other people’s homes, all over the country. We need to support our allies in this fight for equal rights.”

Sweetwater Nanook of the Idle No More movement spoke at the event’s closing rally, in front of the Federal Building in downtown Seattle. “The work that was done today was not for us, but for our children, and the children of our children,” she said. “Our ancestors, our elders were not idle, and neither are we.”


Peter Pearsall wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Peter is an online reporting intern at YES! and a freelance science writer.

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