IRLE Voices: The Historic Power of May Day in Los Angeles
UCLA Labor Center Project Director and labor studies lecturer Victor Narro reflects on 23 years of participation in Los Angeles-based May Day marches
On May 1, 2006, hundreds of thousands marched in Los Angeles in support of immigrant rights. Called by many “A Day without an Immigrant,” the May Day protests were the culmination of months of planning in response to a punitive immigration bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 4437), Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
By Victor Narro | May 1, 2023
Last October, I celebrated my 30th year of living — and fighting for justice — in Los Angeles. May Day in LA has always been a day of marches, rallies and educational events to celebrate workers and bring attention to their struggles.
For the past 23 years, May Day has been a special part of my activist life. For many of these marches, I have served as the legal observer lead coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, a lead coordinator and even a participant, taking it all in. It would fill the pages of a book to share all my experiences of every May Day march.
The following is a patchwork of reflections that weave together what May Day in LA has meant for me and my activist life journey.
May Day 2000
The beginning of every journey is always a memorable occasion. It was the year 2000 and I was the Workers Rights Project Director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). CHIRLA worked together with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), the Pilipino Worker Center (PWC) and the Institute for Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) in a march in Koreatown against the restaurant Elephant Snack Corner, where worker leaders from KIWA were involved in a major campaign to address workplace violations.
This coalition mobilized hundreds of Latino, Korean and Pilipino workers from different industries alongside community allies to be in solidarity with the workers of Elephant Snack Corner. It was powerful to witness how workers from different ethnicities and industries marched together in strong solidarity to support the workers at Elephant Snack restaurant. This May Day march, and subsequent actions on the part of KIWA, aided in their ultimate victory, with the employer eventually paying back wages and other compensation to the workers. This success in turn led to KIWA, PWC, IDEPSCA and CHIRLA formalizing their coalition into the Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON) as a result of this collaborative process.
MIWON would go on to become the anchor coalition for the May Day marches. MIWON organizations and advocates brought creativity to May Day. I vividly remember marching to the rhythm of the Korean drummers and Aztec dancers, listening and dancing to the music of different cultural performers and the use of artwork and puppets.
May Day 2002
I will never forget the resilience and courage of immigrant communities on May Day 2002. Immediately after 9/11, communities were feeling even more hostility from the federal government due to an increase in immigration enforcement and surveillance. This was also a time of worsening criminalization of immigrants. In spite of this hostile climate, MIWON decided to move forward with the May Day march. Close to 15,000 people participated in this march which not only called for legalization, but also for a stop to immigrant bashing as well as an end to U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Video of May 1, 2006 massive mobilization across downtown Los Angeles. Called by many “A Day without an Immigrant,” the May Day protests were the culmination of months of planning in response to a punitive immigration bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 4437). Video Courtesy: Los Angeles Independent Media Center and IRLE’s Memory Work L.A.
Emily Jo Wharry
May Day 2006
Then there were the unforgettable mega May Day marches in May 2006. For almost three months between March 10 and May 1, 5-6 million largely Latino immigrants and their supporters filled the streets in more than 100 cities throughout the United States. The massive mobilizations during this three-month period created a perfect storm that connected local immigrant rights campaigns to a national surge of anger and fear among immigrants in response to draconian anti-immigrant proposals before Congress. The most notable was the Sensenbrenner Bill, passed by the House of Representatives, which would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and those organizations that provide them with assistance. The March 25 mobilization in LA was one of the largest in the history of the immigrant rights movement, and the marches that followed were the largest May Day mobilizations ever.
At the March 25 coalition’s mid-day event, 300,000 protestors took to the streets in Downtown LA in a march to city hall in support of the boycott. By 3 p.m., there were close to 70,000 protestors waiting for the march to begin, with another 150,000 on the way from the first march. Because they were no longer able to maintain such a large group, the coordinators made the decision to begin the march one hour ahead of time. The march was led by a contingent of South Asian taxi drivers who were followed by the MIWON truck that carried with it a day laborer band called, “Los Jornaleros del Norte.” More than 400,000 immigrants and activists participated in the afternoon march. Overall, 4 million persons took to the streets across all of the nation’s marches. May Day 2006 deepened the level of involvement and commitment of the LA labor movement.
May Day 2007
The following year, on May Day 2007, we were reminded about the reality and threat of police violence. In what came to be known worldwide as the “May Day Melee,” when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) commanders sent more than 200 officers in riot gear to break up the peaceful assembly of protestors and the rally at MacArthur Park. They used batons and shot rubber bullets into the fleeing crowds, causing injuries to many, including women, children and media reporters. MIWON became the organizational plaintiff of a lawsuit filed by the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of hundreds of community residents who suffered many injuries, including one pregnant woman who had a miscarriage after being struck by batons. The lawsuit resulted in a historic $13 million settlement and the creation of new policies for the LAPD on First Amendment activities.
May Day 2009
Among the most creative May Day events that I will always remember was the one in 2009. This May Day march started at Echo Park and ended at Olvera Street. This march came to be known as the human billboard message to President Obama, who had just started his first term. MIWON organizers coordinated a 2,500 human billboard action to give a message to the president: “Workers First.” The billboard image was shot from news helicopters flying overhead.
During recent years, CHIRLA has brought together many labor, community and immigrant rights groups to work as a coalition on the May Day event. This effort has helped to create a more diverse and intersectional process for May Day. For example, the focus of this year’s event is “the right to obtain citizenship, the right to unionize at the workplace without retaliation, the right to strike for better wages and benefits and the right to housing.”
Humanity flows in the streets on May Day within us and among us. We embrace it to create a deep sense of solidarity and interconnectedness with one another. From this flow comes the love and compassion that we have for one another in our communities and as activists. The “aliveness” of our work for justice happens on May Day. I hope to see you in the streets of LA on May Day!
Later today, join the May Day Coalition for the 2023 Los Angeles May Day March! This year’s theme is “Solidarity is Power: Right to Unionize, Right to Strike, Right to Housing, & Right to Citizenship.” Meeting location, Southwest corner of Olympic & Broadway, Downtown Los Angeles, at 4 p.m. March begins at 5 p.m. Learn more here.