May Day 2017

by Kirk Shepard, Sarah Wolfarth, & Karen Hixson

If you’ve spent a few minutes on the internet in the last couple days or watched the news Monday night, surely you have seen headlines about 2017 Portland May Day riots and the police shutting down the march “because of anarchists.” Have you seen stories or headlines documenting the experiences of the hundreds of others present at the May Day festivities?  Have you considered why this march specifically spiraled into violence?

Sometimes solidarity means giving up your privileged perspective to see behind mainstream media.  

The three of us arrived at Shemanski Park and posted up in the back next to a tree. The park started to fill with students, teachers, immigrants, organizers, workers, and yes, even anarchists. It was International Workers Day 2017, which commemorates the Haymarket affair, which took place in Chicago, in 1886, it’s also known as May Day.   


Within five minutes of arriving to the park the police approached our small group regarding our Mental Healthcare Providers Unite! Sign, which was on a large pole to create ample visibility and spread the message that “we are in this together.”  Our sign was dismantled and the pole confiscated by PPB based on concern that it would somehow “be used as a weapon.” The march had not even started. As you know or have experienced firsthand, signs of protest on large sticks or poles have been allowed at the Women's March, The Climate March,The Science March and many other protests in the city, however, on International Workers Day, May Day- a day without Immigrants, an officer reported to us that the city had “created an ordinance” that inevitably made it difficult for our signs to be carried and our message heard.   Police presence was heavy as the family oriented rally began at noon. They took other signposts, circled the park on motorcycles and in full riot gear.   

The celebration prior to the march included native song and dance, speakers from various POC lead organizations, and music celebrating worker solidarity. The child station had arts and crafts and the park filled with balloons, bubbles, and creative signs of resistance. The police presence and intrusiveness created very real anxieties.

The march began with the following lineup leading in the front: Youth & Family Zone Contingent, Glitter Bloc (disability contingent for self-identified disabled folks), and the Anti-colonial and anti-imperialist contingent - PCHRP, Anakbayan, Gabriela Portland, AAPRP Oregon, Brown Berets, Voz Workers Rights Education Project, and Immigrant Rights Groups. Among those in the back of the protest was ForWARD, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Black Block, Rose City Antifa Portland and the Anarchist Student Union. We, Mental Health Providers Unite!, marched smack in the middle with many community members out showing solidarity.

The media coverage would love for you to see a riot. It would be all too easy to chalk this up to a small group of anarchists who started a fire and ruined local business property. As humans, we are neurobiologically wired for story. The media knows how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. Stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. This makes it incredibly important for all of us to slow our roll and ask what story is being told? What angle is it being told from? Who benefits from dominating the narrative?

We realize that there is a new wave of activism happening post- 2016 election. So many are just now showing up and witnessing the realities of injustice that others have been experiencing for decades.  We don’t always agree on the tactics taken in order to disrupt injustice. We will never all agree on every approach to creating change, but we can be supportive and show solidarity across tactics. For some of us, it means we will resist by any means necessary. We need to defend our communities, specifically those most marginalized and disempowered by our current power structures. We must educate ourselves and others about what solidarity actually means. Solidarity does not necessitate being in the streets or at city hall meetings.

Solidarity requires that we take the time to understand the importance of various tactics historically as avenues for change. 

It is all too tempting and simplistic to subscribe to the narrative that the “march turned violent.”  If you have been to protests, you must know that marches don’t just turn violent. You don’t prepare for a peaceful protest by showing up in riot gear. Yes, protesters chanted about police brutality and yelled to officers “take off your riot gear, we don’t see a riot here.” However, chanting at officers does not justify interference, intimidation tactics and the use of teargas and threats. It appeared intentional that the PPB antagonized the back of the permitted march to escalate rear marchers.  

It is important to note that the street fire and much of the destruction of property highlighted in the media happened AFTER the Portland police announced that the march permit had been revoked. The police force created mass confusion and anger. The MayDay march was following its lawfully permitted route as intended, gathering to express solidarity with immigrants, workers, Indigenous sovereignty, and against capitalism. The police moved in quick and with force. Although their warnings began in the back of the march, a large squad of police in full riot gear approached the front of the march as well, sandwiching the crowd and approaching from various angles. There were still elderly folks, children, and people with disabilities trying to figure out how to move fast enough to vacate the area. The PPB gave very little time for the crowd to understand what was going on before they sprayed the crowd with tear gas from a large tank and unleashed sound cannons. These actions activated visceral trauma and stress responses, not to mention an incredible amount of frustration. When hundreds of community members come together to challenge national, state, and local authorities on how their flawed systems continue to systematically oppress people and it gets aggressively shut down by the mayor and his police force (in full-riot gear) a clear message is sent. We have been given the message, yet again, that we will not be allowed to challenge the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal status quos.

As participants in the May Day march yesterday and as a Mental Health professionals, we can wholeheartedly tell you that the mass presence of Portland Police escalated the situation tremendously. We can only conclude that when workers of all races, genders, abilities, and orientations get together....when the workers of the world start to build connection and solidarity across cultures and religions it starts to shake the system. And the system doesn't want you to have a stick to raise your message.  

Below are links to some other perspectives and experiences from the day.

GABRIELA Portland:
Socialist Worker:
Black Rose/Rosa Negra:

Kirk Shepard