Economic Update: 2020 May Day Protests and Demands

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A special program: interview with Kali Akuno, leader of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. As a leader of national May Day actions, he discusses their size, diversity, motivations and goals (including planned monthly national actions). He analyzes organizational challenges and prospects. Finally, he explains why he believes this May Day was a major strengthening of the US left.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, incomes, debts – those for us, and those for our children coming down the road. And I'm your host, Richard Wolff. 

Well, today we're going to bring you a special program. We're very pleased and honored to be able to do so. My guest for today's program is Kali Akuno. I think you may remember him from an earlier appearance on our program. And I'm talking to him today about the events of May 1st, 2020 – what they were, what they mean, where they point to – because this is a very, very important event, because we are now in the early stages of what we all knew was coming: the response of working people, of social groups, that have been underwhelmingly a part of the decision-making in this society, even though they have been victimized by so much of what has gone on.

But before jumping in, let me introduce Kali Akuno. For those of you who may not know him yet, I am sure you will get to know him well in the months and years ahead. He is the co-founder and director of Cooperation Jackson. He served as director of special projects and external funding in the mayoral administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, and he will be talking with me from Jackson in the course of today's program. Kali Akuno is a human-rights educator, writer, and an organizer, focusing on building organizations and institutions for working-class and oppressed communities. He is also the co-editor of the following volume: Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi.

WOLFF: Welcome Kali, and a good opportunity, I feel, for us to talk again, this time about things that are happening on the ground. So let me start, and for the benefit of both our listeners and viewers, ask you to summarize what happened on May 1st of 2020 – who was involved, what kinds of activities happened across the country – and then we'll get into the specifics.

AKUNO: Well, pleasure to be here, as always, sharing our perspective and our voice. Today I'm going to be speaking relative to May Day – not only about the work of Cooperation Jackson, but the work of the People's Strike, which is a broad coalition that came together following the kind of general call towards moving towards the general strike that Cooperation Jackson put out at the end of March, the beginning of April. 

In terms of what happened, I think it was a historic day. It was not the general strike that we wanted it to be, but we walked into this – you know, Rick, as we know, we talked about, but for everybody to know – that we saw May Day as a launching pad, the beginning of building towards a movement to get us towards a general strike, and that that is going to take time. I think it was a historic day. There were actions that took place, by my reckoning – and we are still learning, quite honestly, about things that occurred, in little nooks and crannies, in small towns, and mid-sized towns all throughout the country – but what we know so far is that there were actions in 48 of the 50 states. They range from workplace actions that were done by postal workers; dock workers; workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe's, Safeway, meat-packaging plants; and sanitary workers in several cities, including the ongoing piece which is now happening in New Orleans, with sanitation workers going on strike there.

It also included tens of thousands, if not perhaps millions, of renters and homeowners all throughout the country, who went on strike, not paying rent or not paying their mortgage, and doing it in an organized manner where they actually worked together, pulled together. One of the greatest examples is right there where you're at, in New York City, or where you're based at in New York City, where in Queens there were over 17 tenement buildings that combined together to actually pull together a rent strike. But these happened in virtually every state, and folks took to calling their banks, and their lenders, and telling them that they were actually on strike, and that they were standing together, and that they could not pay, and would not pay, until certain demands were met. 

So it was very broad in its character. We also are still getting reports on actions that took place in several prisons. We know that, particularly in California, there was a hunger strike organized by several women prisoners, but we've also heard of prison actions in Georgia, here in Mississippi, but also in several other states. And there were also actions that were taken inside several of the detention centers as well. 

So we're still trying to compile a report – this is the People's Strike – compile a report together to really give a broad historical rendition of what happened, and the scale of what happened, which was fairly significant, and, I would argue, dwarfed what we saw – in terms of actual number of participants – dwarfed what we saw of the right-wing open, so-called open, rallies, many of them just open Klan rallies, that I've seen, in all honesty. But I think they dwarfed those in actual size. But you wouldn't know that if you just followed the mainstream media.

So I think it was a very significant date. I think it was a good launching pad for further actions and for a long, protracted struggle. 

WOLFF: All right, let me get into some of the details with you. Can you give us a sense – what was the motivation? How did these people, these tens of thousands that you've just described, how were they motivated? What is it that they want? What brought them to participate?

AKUNO: Good questions. Well, I think we have to start with the wildcat strikes that started in many states in March. And those were very spontaneous. You know, they started happening at sanitation plants, auto plants, some of the slaughterhouses, were some of the first actions that really started to occur in March. I think one of the most noted ones, to me, was one that happened in a chicken factory in Georgia. And that was noted because of where it was at, and the actions that folks took in defense of their own lives. And so, the first immediate kind of responses that you saw, also from Amazon and other places, was that people were being required to work, basically by law at that point – under the force of law, I should say, to be specific – without the personal protective equipment and without a safe working environment. So people were striking, just in basic self-defense, as they were learning more about the actual impact of this virus. 

Remember in early March, you know, if you were listening to the president, this was just a bad flu, you know, that it was nothing more. But people were finding out from folks in their own communities that it was far worse, that it was far deadlier, and that they were not being properly educated nor properly protected. That was the first, I think, major impulse of many to take these wildcat strikes was we need knowledge, we need information, we need to be protected, and the companies have a responsibility to protect their workers and provide them with a safe working environment. That was the initial kind of response.

I think broader responses started to come as we started to understand the real scale of negligence that the federal government, you know, was – I don't want to say executing, because they didn't execute anything – but ignoring facts, ignoring reality, and trying to wish certain things away. But as people started to become, I think, more aware of what was happening, you started to see a broad social demand for, again, information, but also protection, as folks were trying to figure out, is it safe for me to go home? Is it safe for me to work and then go home? Am I taking this virus back to my family? to my community? And we started to find out real quick the answer was yes. And so many people started to just stay away. And then as that, you know, started to increase, you saw more workers really trying to respond with just staying at home and calling on each other for support. 

And we saw very early on with the initial kind of shutdowns, and even prior to that, the response of many working people was first looking towards each other. So there was a massive explosion in March of mutual-aid efforts that were happening all throughout the country. And I don't think we should forget, because I think it points towards, you know, how humans will really respond to each other's needs in time of crisis. And it's not towards competition; it's actually towards collaboration and help, I think, for the vast majority of us. And I think that demonstrated that even in, you know, this very individualized culture and context that we live in.

But then, I think, the critical piece really started to turn, I think, the beginning of – the end of April, beginning of March, where a more political character to this piece started to show up. And that, I think, really in some way was on the heels of these early calls, particularly from forces on the right, to open the economy up, when it became clear, it was starting to become clear by that point, how deadly this was, and that it was spreading rapidly, and that they had very little regard for human life. 

And on the heels of that, you started to see President Trump use the crisis as a means of advancing policies – you know, right-wing policies – which will put us all in detriment and danger in the future. So all the scrapping of the environmental protections that have gone on in the wake of this, the scrapping of workplace protections, putting forth legislation that does not hold companies liable for workers getting sick on the job, and them been bearing no responsibility – that, I think, started to put the political focus on many people's minds, particularly our minds, as we started to look at this and say, they're using this as a form of disaster capitalism, to reshape the rules, policies, and programs of the society, to recreate it, and recraft it. 

And I know for us, as Cooperation Jackson, that really led us to really try to give this not just an immediate kind of relief response, but a political response. So that we really started to articulate a new vision of society in a new direction, as to where we think we should go. Because we were trying to be very clear from the beginning: The circumstances mean that we are not going to go back to the old status quo. I think that's effectively been shattered. And some things were in motion that were weakening that even before the crisis got full-blown on the economic end. 

So we're not going back to the old normal. But more importantly, nor should we. Because the old normal – in all of its exploitation, all of its racism, patriarchy – is what is leading to the types of calamities that we're seeing in who's being impacted and why. And so to say that we should just return to the way things were means you're actually just going to aggravate underlying conditions, which are creating the crisis as it is playing out right before our very eyes. So I know for me, and the community that I represent, there's no interest, no desire, to go back to normal. We're trying to look ahead to the future and what type of changes should be made to make sure that we live in a healthier, safer, more democratic society than what occurred before this all erupted.

WOLFF: All right, Kali, we've come to the end of the first half. Stay with me; we are going to just make a brief announcement, and then, everyone, we will be coming back to go further and look deeper into all of the significance of the May Day events. Please remember, listeners and viewers, to subscribe to our YouTube channel, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Be sure to visit democracyatwork.info to learn more about all of our activities, our union co-op store, and the books we publish: Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism. And, of course, the usual special thanks to our Patreon community for their invaluable support. They make possible special programs like this, as well as all that we do. Stay with us; we'll be right back. 

WOLFF: Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. We're in the midst of an interview for the whole program today with Kali Akuno from Jackson, Mississippi, where he joins us to talk about those events of May Day 2020 – what they were, what they were motivated by, what was bringing people to them – a huge number, as Kali told us. 

I want now to continue that conversation and ask Kali whether he thinks the old problem that the left has had in the United States for so long of being divided among many different groups, going in different directions, but having great difficulty organizing so that they can collaborate, come together, and have the benefit for each of them of the alliance with the other. Kali, can you tell us something about either what organizations already were in place, or what it is that you are able to do and see, maybe, coming down the road? 

AKUNO: Well, let me say that this initially started in a bunch of regional – local and regional – debates for us, Cooperation Jackson, an allegiance to be clear. It started with a bunch of regional and local debates about the impact of the coronavirus. We were trying to do our best from January, in fact, to try to get more local organizations, and groups that we are allied with, and in some relationship with, to know about this and to take it serious. And for us, this comes on the heels of having lost comrades, personally, but also others in the organization, to the H1N1 and to SARS, of which the coronavirus is in the same general, you know, family of viruses. So we knew to take it serious. We had been monitoring developments in China and other parts of Asia going back to November, actually, myself in particular, you know, having that history, having lost a good comrade, whenever these things have been popping up in various ways over the years, have been paying a lot of attention to it. 

So, at first, I would say, it started off for us, just reaching out to our allies in the region, and raising questions, and trying to put this on people's radar screen. And the reason being for that – just so your audience knows – the health infrastructure in Mississippi is terrible. And so as much kind of forewarning and foreplanning that you can provide here with any kind of knowledge is helpful. But, you know, Mississippi is always, you know, annually, perennially, at the bottom of every indicator. You know, we're the worst, one of the worst, in terms of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension – you name it, Mississippi is there. So, for us, there's a public health character to what we're doing to protect our community, to keep it informed. 

And that led to some political conversations, like I was mentioning in the first part, in March. But we were starting to monitor, particularly with some of the environmental groups, some of the things that were being changed. And these are conversations that were happening inside of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, inside of the Climate Justice Alliance, which are two national alliances that we are part of, and particularly key activists there who were monitoring a number of different things. So, one of the first groups that we were in some serious conversations with were Black Socialists in America.

WOLFF: Let me pick up on what you were saying and ask you, what are the plans now, given all that you've told us, going forward? What is the plan? Are you still aiming for some kind of general strike? Are you planning actions building in that direction? How do you see the next phase of what you've been doing? 

AKUNO: Well, thank you for asking that question. Number one, we are definitely planning to keep building towards a general strike. And we know that's going to take some time. The thing that our coalition is committed to doing in the most general sense – and we want everybody to take note of this, because we want as many people as possible to follow us – the idea initially came from one of our coalition partners, CoronaStrike, that, given that we know how long this is going to take, particularly the economic side of it, that we should plan for and execute broad strikes and broad mass actions the first of every month. 

So, we are going to pick this back up again on June 1st, and we're encouraging everybody in earshot of this to join us. And, again, using the same kind of platform, we're asking everybody to take the action that you can, at the level of risk that you believe that you can, and to be involved in a wide variety of actions. There's no one way to be involved, because we're all in different places, but we have to utilize our positionality as best we can to really bring the point home to the forces of capital and the government that things are going to change, and that we are taking it upon ourselves to take the first steps to make the change. 

So we're asking folks, again – in part out of solidarity, but also part recognizing reality – to continue the rent strikes, and make that known on an even larger and grander scale in June than it was in May. We're asking, you know, workers to continue to press for their rights on the job, and continue to take workplace actions. So, we know the vast majority are still not being offered the basic minimum in personal protection, and we want to extend that further. And that's not just with immediate demands, but the broader piece of democratizing all of our workplaces, which is a part of the broader long-term struggle. We're asking folks who have to, you know, work from home – you know, be they teachers, or, you know, working with some private company – to strike in place and to make your strike activity known on that day by sending out broad messages, or making demands to your employers and to the forces of government, to let them know the situation. 

And we're also asking people to not shop, and to not go to school, and basically, just on the first of every month going forward, and as we continue to build and amass our strength and power, to send a clear message home. That's no rent, no work, no shopping. You know, we're aiming to shut it down and send a clear message, but also to build our own organizing capacity towards creating a new society. 

So, we've got long-term plans for this, Rick and everybody. Encourage everybody to stick with us because we're in it for the long haul. And this is going to be a very long struggle, regardless of whether they open it up tomorrow – which would be a disaster, by all accounts. But we know that the virus is going to be here, the lack of a response is going to be here. And the economic dimensions of all of the collective suffering – and now millions of people are involved – that's going to be here, and we have to organize that. You know, we're starting to encourage people to go back and look at some of the lessons from the 1930s, in particular, and encouraging people to start organizing unemployed councils, using some of the models of the 1930s. And we think we have a sound basis in doing that by first starting with the mutual-aid organizations that have cropped up all throughout the country; it's now in the hundreds. 

So we have, I think, some of the preliminary means to get started, but I think the question and the challenge is organizing to scale and connecting politically. That is some of the next focus that we're going to be looking towards, as People's Strike and as Cooperation Jackson, is furthering our links, deepening our connections, and sharpening up our organization to take on the task at hand. 

WOLFF: Kali, if someone watching or listening wants to somehow get involved, and know where or how he or she can connect to what you've been describing, is there someplace or places that you can tell our audience about right now?

AKUNO: Yeah, so to connect with Cooperation Jackson, the best places to look are our website, which is cooperationjackson.org. Or our Facebook page, which is at Cooperation Jackson. Our Twitter handle is @CooperationJXN. And for the People's Strike, which is the broader coalition, look for peoplesstrike.org for our website, and a growing media presence there. But you can also email us to get directly involved in some of the organizing at [email protected]. And also look for People's Strike on Facebook and Twitter, as well. 

WOLFF: Okay, now the biggest question. I wish we had more time, but at least I want a brief response. Is it overly romantic? Is it dreaming? Or is it reasonable to see all of this as the beginning of a new left movement in the United States, both in the workplace, but also in the residents, in the communities – a kind of combining of workplace organizing and community organizing into something that can fundamentally change the direction of American society?

AKUNO: In my view – and this may be subjective, but – absolutely, I do believe so. I think we're planting the seeds. I think many of those that were already coming together from the last crisis that we were dealing with – and these things take time to build – but I think if you look at, you know, many of the dynamic coalitions that already existed, you know, like It Takes Roots, if you look at some of the broader work that the Democratic Socialists of America has been taking on and some of the mass character it's been gaining, we're starting to combine all of this motion and energy. 

I think we saw clear signs of that during this May Day, and that's something to build upon that I think can and will change the character of the left. It's going take a lot of work. It's going to take a lot of struggle. There's a lot of political and ideological struggle still to be had. But I think – this, again, just my view – there is a level of maturation that is happening, that we are finding ways, despite many of our old-school political ideological differences, to actually work on developing a concrete program that we can carry forward to transform society. I think we're moving in that direction. 

WOLFF: Any international linkage? Is there any kind of connection to (and I know we're running out of time, but briefly) to other parallel, let's call them, parallel struggles in other parts of the world?

AKUNO: Yes. I wish we had more time, or maybe another time, Rick, but I just got off the phone with some international comrades, a network that's been building on the heels of this, that today represented 15 different countries. So we've been in dialogue with folks from South Africa, to Indonesia, to India, to Hong Kong, to Italy, Spain, France, the UK, several countries including Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile, in Latin America, that I know were on that call. 

And from the beginning, you know (I wish we had more time), I should say that our direct experience as Cooperation Jackson was really shaped by the international context and relations that we had. So just briefly, if I can, one of the things that even led us to this point was being in some detailed conversation with comrades in Italy, who let us know that we needed to take this very serious. This was in February. You know, we were already on this track, but they were letting us know it's more deadly than they're even saying; is more uncertain than they're saying; it does impact younger folks, not just older people; and they told us very clearly that when we started kind of a mutual-aid response, a relief response here in Jackson, immediately at the end of February and beginning of March, and they told us in no uncertain terms: Unless you have the personal protective equipment, stop – until you can figure this out. Because they did it, you know, as part of their common practice, and all of their members got sick. Right? And so they let us know, hey, find some other ways, take this serious. But that is because of the international relations that we were able to have that kind of advance warning and start thinking in new and creative ways of how do we organize to deal with this particular crisis? 

WOLFF: Well, you've answered my question. That's solidarity international, if ever it was. Thank you so much for your time, Kali, for your insights, all the work that you're doing. And let me plead with my audience: Pitch in. This is a time of crisis, but, as always, it's also a time of opportunity, and let the crisis build us the opportunity to act together. Thank you, Kali. Thank you, all of you that watch and listen, and I look forward to speaking with you again next week

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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