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‘Reopen’ protests claimed the spotlight. May Day activists want it back

The coronavirus has upended the traditional calendar of spring dissent

April used to be a busy month for protests in Washington, with the climate marches of Earth Day bleeding into the labor actions of May Day.

It has never looked like this.

People rode around the District this week in caravans of bikes or cars, shoving banners out half-closed windows to get across their message: “Essential not expendable.”  

“We’re here to raise awareness [for] essential workers. Many in D.C. are black. We always bear the brunt,” said April Goggans, a Black Lives Matter organizer wearing a mask and keeping her distance. She helped lead Monday’s protest with ShutDownDC, a coalition that lived up to its name before the pandemic. 

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In the past, that group has rallied against climate change and disrupted commutes by throwing up blockades, snarling traffic on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Now they kept moving, riding on quiet streets.

A stay-at-home order from the mayor remains in place until May 15, but the protesters weren’t calling for the city to reopen for business. They were demanding safer conditions for essential workers — and trying to reclaim a key season for the left.

For groups used to planning eye-catching demonstrations around this time of year, a small and socially distant gathering like this one (about 135 people attended, including a go-go band, according to a press release) is both underwhelming and more of a statement than ever.

Most events tied to Earth Day and International Workers’ Day have been rebooted online, with varying success. The new coronavirus has upended the traditional calendar of spring dissent.

Meanwhile, a lot of attention has gone to other protesters, like those pushing back against stay-at-home orders around the country.

About a dozen activists prepare to embark on bikes from Union Station on Monday.

When some protesters thronged the Ohio statehouse earlier this month and pressed up against the glass, calling for things to reopen, it became a defining image.

A journalist from the Columbus Dispatch captured the scene, and for the record, he wasn’t a fan of all the “Walking Dead” jokes it attracted on Twitter. The zombie memes piled up, but the thing that made the photo an easy target — the people crowded together, mouths uncovered and open in anger — is also what made it so striking. It’s exactly the kind of demonstration that’s off-limits right now to anyone trying to follow the recommendations of health officials, and the kind of protest that grabs attention in the media. 

According to some on the left, the “reopen” protesters are stealing their thunder. “If you’re a news outlet who spent time &effort covering protesters demanding we risk workers’ lives for a root touch-up, consider spending time on the #CantPayMay strikes across the country,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Tuesday, referring to efforts to stop rent payments due May 1 amid the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression.

“Just a thought!” she added.

An activist tapes a sign to her car before joining a caravan Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As the first of the month approaches, groups have to weigh the benefits and risks of showing up in person. ShutDownDC, for one, has another event planned that seems to acknowledge both. “​Join us on May Day (Friday, May 1) to swarm the Capitol and White House,” reads a call to action posted on their website. “Come by car, bike or on foot. Wear masks and other appropriate personal protective equipment and keep each other safe by practicing appropriate physical distancing.”

For now, the in-person protest has become like in-person everything else: valuable because it’s rare.

A protester calls for decarceration on Monday. The same coalition of activists has another demonstration planned for May Day, asking people to “swarm” the Capitol and White House while wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Jinitzail Hernández contributed to this report.

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