The thing about a march is: you never know what to wear. There’s a cringing impulse to blend in with the rabble, but you also don’t want to look and feel like the universally scorned poser. Plus whatever you put together has to be able to go the distance, which at this year’s May Day march in Las Vegas was a little over two miles — beginning in the Commercial Center District “World Village” and heading west on Sahara, shifting southward at the Strip and heading down before turning off at Fashion Show Mall. That doesn’t sound very far, but at five o’clock in the afternoon, 30 minutes before the march was set to start, the Outside Temp indicator in my car would register a toasty 90 degrees. Shorts were a must.
I might own one or two subversive articles of clothing, but not enough for an entire antifa outfit. This year I went with cargo shorts, black socks halfway up to my knees, my running shoes, a Team Honduras soccer tee, my douchey sunglasses with neon green temples, and my Cubs fitted cap. The sunglasses (and the shiny Guess watch on my wrist) said I was a douche, the Cubs hat said I was from Chicago (or pretending to be), the soccer shirt said I (or my parents or grandparents) were from Honduras, the black socks touted my anti-conformist streak, while the shorts and shoes betrayed my predilection for maximum comfort. Thinking it a tad unseemly to show up to a leftist event in a 2016 BMW 5 Series, and because it’s free, I parked in the SLS’s garage three-quarters of a mile away.
I like walking. And three-quarters of a mile is nothing, especially for a former Chicago commuter such as myself. Back in the day, in between classes in the Loop, I would walk all around Downtown, craning my head up at the buildings like some tourist, or head down to the river and just people-watch. Mostly I loved watching the city — the cars, the cabs, the buses, the trains, the boats, the pigeons, the wisps of steam. Las Vegas doesn’t have that, not all of it, because Las Vegas isn’t a real city. Las Vegas is the Strip and Fremont surrounded by strip malls and regular malls and look-alike neighborhoods. The whole thing is bordered by baked mountains, and beyond those is the desert and purgatory.
The walk from the SLS to where the march was set to start wasn’t that bad. It even turned entertaining when I came across two gay black 20-somethings bitching each other out in the street. (“Go die somewhere, bitch! Go die! Just like your father! Just like your father!”) If it weren’t for the palm trees lining the street and the desert sierras in the distance, I would’ve felt like I was back in Chicago.
The Commercial Center is a big square parking lot walled in by a line of shops with a two-way opening on the north end for cars to come in and out off Sahara. From the street it looks shuttered and abandoned, and as I approached I thought I might’ve gotten the time or location wrong. But when I turned into the entranceway I saw a small crowd, no more than hundred people, gathered around a beat-up yellow pickup truck. A man standing in the truck bed was speaking to the group through a microphone, but when the mic kept cutting in and out he switched to a bullhorn. A few Vegas Metro Police officers stood by their cars beyond the edge of the circle, watching with tense bemusement as a black millennial calling himself Reverend Slim Sanders made his way to the truck, though he only stood in front of it, and was handed the bullhorn.
Reverend Slim is tall, lanky, young, and is the president of All Shades United, a self-styled “revolutionary, solidarity organization” founded in 2014 that believes in “strong self love.” He wore shades and a green trilby with a feather in it, and a red-green-and-black peace sign the size of one of Flavor Flav’s clocks hung from his neck. “We believe the world is divided into two groups: the oppressed and the non-oppressed,” he boomed. “The oppressed are people of color; the non-oppressed are white people.” Slim regularly referred to the police as “pigs” and put the Mayday-May Day pun to good use. He wanted us to practice chanting a few slogans, but I’m not the chanting type.
When he hammered the point that only the indigenous are native to the Americas, a white Mexican lady with ginger hair and freckles hooted “That’s right! That’s right! Who’s the immigrant now?” The next speaker, local Paiute artist Fawn Douglas, made the same point — “Only the Native peoples and Mexicans are indigenous to these lands!” — to which the same white Mexican lady, wearing a Ayotzinapa shirt, clapped emphatically and said “That’s right!” Interestingly enough, Ms. Douglas chose to focus her speech on the upcoming Drinko De Mayo “fiesta” at the Gold Spike which promises a “donkey show,” a “tequila limbo contest,” and “mucho mas.” Her description of the event fulfilled its purpose, as everybody was riled up.
The crowd was much more lumpen than the crowds back in Chicago, which tend to have more students and professionals among their ranks. Half of the participants were dressed post-apocalyptically. One guy with a scraggily gray beard and his head wrapped in what looked like a dirty rag held a sign which read TRUMP IS ONLY A SYMPTOM on one side and WHITE SUPREMACY IS THE DISEASE on the other. A dark potbellied Mexican man held a sign which read HITLER IS IN THE W. HOUSE. The other signs were more or less the usual leftist/progressive/liberal fare, stuff about no person being illegal and halting deportations and universal equality, et cetera.
A young light-skinned black guy wearing powder blue contacts and an elaborate African ceremonial outfit, complete with a huge feathered headdress, wandered silently through the audience and around where the speakers stood. I never heard Ollin Tonahtiuh of Danza Azteca say anything to anyone, and the expression on his face as he surveyed the crowd was as if someone were forcing him to be there. It was only later that I noticed he was barefoot. Following a few words from a soft-spoken Latino veteran of Desert Storm, Amy Vilela with Healthcare is OUR Right addressed the group. As she told the story of how she lost her 22-year-old biracial daughter, Shalynne, in 2015 due to lack of insurance, Ollin walked around her, the feathers of his headdress brushing across her face. Ms. Vilela is white, so I immediately assumed his maneuvers were a message.
Then an older Mexican man whose name and affiliation I didn’t catch spoke, blaming the small size of the gathering on the Culinary Union holding a separate march at the same exact time. “They only want to get the union into the casinos,” he said. “They don’t care about the workers, about the immigrants, about the people!”
The May Day March Coalition, of which the Culinary Union is a powerful member, includes Bartenders Union Local 165, NV State AFL-CIO, Nevada State Educators Association, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Service Employees International Union Local 1107, Fight for $15, Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada-Raiz, UndocuNetwork UNLV, Jewish Voice for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America-Las Vegas, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Mi Familia Vota, 96.7FM La Campesina, CHISPA Las Vegas, and the Human Rights Campaign-Las Vegas. Incidentally, they dubbed their demonstration the “Unity March for Immigrants.”
This march, the one I’d shown up to, claims to be the main march that has been taking place annually since the massive pro-immigration marches in 2006. Hosted by the Vote For Nobody Campaign-Nevada, according to Facebook, it was joined this year by the Industrial Workers of the World-Las Vegas, Yo Soy 132, Our Revolution Las Vegas, Food Not Bombs Las Vegas, Clark County Green Party, New Sanctuary Alliance, , the Las Vegas General Defense Committee, UNLV S.O.D.A., LV WORCS-UNLV, The People’s Empowerment Union, The Bee People, Occupy Las Vegas, Nevada Cop Block, Las Vegas A-Café, Ollin Tonahtiuh — Aztec Dance Group, The Multi-Ethnic Coalition for Democracy, Immigration Reform For Nevada, Hispanos Unidos de Nevada, Brand New Cities Nevada, TRANStrong, as well as the aforementioned groups. There was a large share of Asians, or at least more than you’ll see at a Chicago march, and even though no less than one in four marchers were white, I got the sense that everybody considered this march to be the non-white, anti-establishment march, as opposed to other one, which began at Treasure Island and paraded past Caesars.
As our march made its way out of the lot, with those carrying large banners leading the herd, organizers handed out free bottles of water and offered white t-shirts with a black fist decal on the chest, only asking for a $5 donation for the shirts. The procession turned onto Sahara, and having been in more than a few marches myself I assumed we’d have the entire street, or at least the westbound lanes, all to ourselves. But an officer came on the horn and began corralling everyone onto the sidewalk, explaining that the permit didn’t allow us to march in the street. As the crowd filed onto the sidewalk, a chant was raised: “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Nearly everyone followed the officers’ orders, except for a few people in black masks who marched in the gutter along the sidewalk. They were joined by a young trans woman wearing a red IWW flag as a cape and banging on a drum with a drumstick. Later as we passed Circus Circus, with the trans woman marching up and down the gutter in front of the cops and banging her drum as hard as she could, her drumstick snapped, a piece flying through the crowd and smacking the head of a young dark Latina holding her end of a banner. The drummer apologized without skipping a beat and kept banging her drum with what little drumstick was left. (She was later arrested.)
The cops kept trying to get the masked agitators onto the sidewalk but eventually resigned themselves to simply keeping the unruly few close to the sidewalk. It’s the tense little game of tug-o-war between protesters and cops that’s present at every rally or march I’ve ever attended. A few officers are dying to smack somebody, and a few protesters are dying to go home with some cuts and bruises, or maybe even spend the night in jail — you know, for the glory. When a pair of McDonald’s security guards warned the procession not to violate private property, a white kid dropped his pants and flashed them his bare ass. One masked kid flew a red-and-black U.S. flag from the back of his BMX bike as he rode down the right-hand lane, weaving his way between cop cars and officers on bikes.
The hottest policewoman I’ve ever seen stood in the street and watched the march flow past from behind her reflective aviator sunglasses. This lady was unbelievable, like something out of a porn video. She had caramel skin, dark features and a tight frame, and as a baldheaded Latino Marine a few steps ahead of me saw her he turned back and said, grinning and loud of enough for the officer to hear, “She’s got the right name — Fox.”
Very few cars honked, even once we were on the Strip. (Not to sound like a broken record on this point, but this isn’t the case in Chicago, where supportive honks often drown out the march itself.) The march stretched maybe a quarter-mile by the time we approached Fashion Show Mall, across from the Wynn. I couldn’t help thinking that ten times as many people march down the Strip in the name of capitalism and the status quo every hour of the day. Those of us who want change, who really want it and are willing to at least march for it, seem to be in the minority.
Because we took up the sidewalk, tourists were forced to stop and watch us march past. Their faces were mostly expressionless, with a hint of dread. Many simply ignored us and just kept walking, especially the douchebags leading their expensive dates by the hand. Always showing enthusiastic support were the black cab and limousine drivers, who shouted with raised fists and took videos of us with their phones. The Chinese tourists eyed our demonstration more nervously.
“March on!” one white passerby said. “Not that it’s gonna matter.” Just as I turned to see the man’s face, a white pickup truck with two huge American flags flying roared past. Scrawled along the side in what looked like black spray paint were the words MINUTEMAN MILITIA.
The march turned down Fashion Show Drive and ended in front of Trump International Hotel, 64 shimmering gold stories in the no-man’s-land between the mall and Circus Circus. Like I tell everybody who visits Vegas, nothing’s ever happening at the Trump. It’s never mentioned on the radio or on TV. I don’t know anybody who’s been there. In fact, I’d bet The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel books more rooms, in winter, than Trump’s phallic monument to himself.
As I made my way back to the car, I thought how fitting it was that there were two, separate May Day marches in Vegas this year. There are, after all, two separate halves of the Left itself — one which wants reform, and the other which demands revolution. The first group is what might be called the Establishment Left, Liberals who almost uniformly voted for Hillary (if they voted at all), who are trying to get more Democrats elected and mostly want to “win” the government. They recite a few talking points on policy because policy is where most of their concerns lie, believing that the changes which need to occur are at the policy level and not the systemic one.
Then there’s the second group, the anti-Establishment Left — much less popular, much less organized — people who either voted third-party or voted “None” (if they voted at all), who are trying to see more third-party candidates elected and mostly focus on actual means of changing the system and society at large. These are the dreaming idealists and radical crackpots, with little to no chance of seeing any part of their revolutionary program put into effect, but with all the hope in the world nonetheless.
This division goes all the way back to the bloody infighting between the Girondists and the Jacobins during the French Revolution, and undoubtedly beyond — whenever and wherever democratic forces have argued over strategy and timing. It was present during most of the upheavals of the 19th century, with the petite bourgeoisie continually trying to bridle the energy of the proletariat, and the communists (who were also seeking to win the government) suppressing anarchism. It was in Mexico during its revolution, when the Magonistas and then the Zapatistas died pulling the fight further to the left. In Puerto Rico, the revolutionary independentistas‘ struggle against the gradualist soberanistas and populares comes to mind. Paine and Jefferson, Blanqui and Clemenceau, Don Pedro and Muñoz Marín, Trotsky and Stalin, Che and Fidel, Malcolm and Martin, Jill and Hill — the list goes on and on.
These two halves of the same side of the same coin will always be at war with each other, despite the temporary alliances they strike up in order to keep a common enemy in check. The battle is a good thing though, allowing each side to reconsider and re-articulate its own beliefs and strategy. A win for either is a loss for the truly reactionary forces
Still, I know which half of the Left I’m rooting for.
Featured image: Paiute artist Fawn Douglas (Megan Marie Ortiz/Facebook)