"Festive, Righteous Anger": Occupy Makes a May Day Comeback With Massive Demonstrations
Midtown NYC, morning
-- Sarah Jaffe
Midtown is a great place for chanting; your voice echoes off the tall buildings and you can hear it blocks away. Even better for marching bands, bells and whistles. There may not actually be 99 pickets, but midtown Manhattan is clogged with them in the morning, and they're inside the heads of the people on the street--I walk past a couple discussing our "cruel," unequal society as I hurry from picket to picket.
The Wildcat Strike -- designed to bring together non-unionized, or unionized workers whose unions had not approved the strike -- was one of the unpermitted actions of May Day. Protestors and strikers came at the risk of their own arrests and the authorities had the right to "do whatever they want."
I arrived at Sara Roosevelt Park half an hour early--there were already fifty or sixty police huddled on the corner of 2nd Avenue and East Houston. At that point, there were maybe ten protestors.
"I feel like they're the ones that should be protesting and we should be the cops," I joked to one of the few other protestors in the park.
"I know. I wish we could pull out our batons and tell them that they're blocking the sidewalk," he replied.
A few minutes later, fellow protestors and marches streamed in from Brooklyn, fresh from having walked across the Williamsburg Bridge. To my surprise, the police began to subside, merely observing the demonstrators as they played music, held signs and chanted.
Though the crowd was mostly young and though not exclusively white, far from racially diverse, their occupations -- and reasons for showing solidarity at the wildcat march in particular -- were vastly different.
"I am a not union metal worker, working a pretty low range for my skill set," said Rachel, a young woman holding a foil flag as an artistic allude to metal workers. "I'm here to represent those who are actually in labor who don't want to be part of a permitted anti-capitalist march and stand in solidarity with my fellow workers who might be afraid or can't afford to be here."
Gregory, a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at SUNY Stony Brook College also came to use the wildcat strike as an opportunity to express himself in protest.
"I'm a union member, I'm a public employee of the state--and as a public employee, we are legally not allowed to strike. The wildcat strike provides a space for those of us who can't strike for whatever reason to still express ourselves in protest."
Gregory went on to talk about how his role as an instructor, and a member of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) made him align himself more with student strikers than other instructors. As students face state budget cuts, and increasing tuition and debt, he sees his role as an instructor as part of the larger struggle around education rather than precarious labor.
"I make $15,000 a year -- I should be striking for myself, but actually I'm striking for my students."
After a fairly civil twenty minutes of chatting, singing, live music and navigating the march -- a march began. The first young man that tried to even so much as leave Sara Roosevelt Park was immediately tackled to the ground and arrested by the NYPD. After digesting the chaos, demonstrators decided to run en masse to the south end of the park, many jumping over the railings to avoid the police and began marching south towards Chinatown.
The police followed, a ridiculous-looking parade of 30 riot cops on mopeds following strikers on foot on the sidewalk and on bicycles in the streets. Throughout the crowded, but peaceful march, vans and other arrest vehicles began to follow the mopeds, indicating imminent arrests.
Ironically, the extreme police presence was blocking traffic and inconveniencing the flow of the city far more than the strikers.
Once the march reached Houston and Lafayette -- almost a complete square from where it began -- the cops donned their riot gear and took out their batons. Protestors were kettled onto the sidewalks, spilling off of them and threatened if even so much as a foot was in the street. One nicely dressed man, without provoking anyone, was arrested and thrown to the ground.
After being halted by the police, the march continued up Broadway -- ever racing riot cops to resist being surrounded, the march continued and ended at Washington Square Park.
Free University: Madison Square Park, noon-3pm.
-- Sarah Seltzer
The sun came out over Madison Square Park as the OWS Free University kicked off. Forgive the pun, but the class war was definitely in session. Professors and experts gathered groups around htem throughout the benches and pathways of this park as midtowners walking by stopped to look. There was a lesson on "horizontal pedagogy,"--or how to teach without hierarchy--talks by noted leftist thinkers Chris Hedges and Francis Fox Piven, a discussion about native/indigenous resistance and another about gender constructs, and most pertinently, a student debt teach-in. One guy was even leading a class on "ancient political philosophy" and I thought about the Athenian forum.
This action was meant to--and did--accomplish two goals. First, it recaptured the "public square" aspect of Zuccotti Park occupation and other encampments, that sense of people radically coming together and talking to each other about major, transformative ideas without boundaries or rules. Secondly, it demonstrated by example a principle of communal, free, shared and sharing education without tuition or fees, a rejoinder to the rising tuition costs at institutions across the country.
As the "class" sessions came to an end under the sunshine, demonstrators talked in clusters, took pictures and gathered around the park's central fountain. And then the sound of chants, whistles, and guitars began to float over the park.
Protesters rushed over to Broadway to see the advancing "guitarmy" march--a musical, un-permitted, wild walk down from Bryant Park led by Tom Morello, its members spilling out onto the sidewalks and the center of Broadway flanked by the NYPD. Cheers and the sound of musical instruments ensued as the march continued on its way down towards the afternoon's destination: Union Square.
-- Alex Kane
The hundreds upon hundreds of protesters streaming into Union Square on May Day were greeted by an elaborate paper “maypole.” There was no need for explanation, as the top of the “maypole” read, “All our grievances are connected”—another way of saying “We are the 99%.”
Walk a couple hundred feet in the park, and there's an Occupy Wall Street group that fervently believes that maxim: the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Global Justice Working Group. A contingent of about 30 people affiliated with the working group had gathered before the union-heavy permitted march from Union Square to Wall Street. The reason? To “declare our commitment to resist and to end wars at home and abroad,” in the working group’s own words.
The names Iran, Palestine, Egypt and more were written on the activists' placards. They joined thousands of demonstrators for a march that capped off a day full of actions highlighting economic inequality, police brutality, immigrant rights and more. In the streets, NY-based Palestine solidarity activist Dave Lippman provided the guitar strumming while others sang songs. “When you shop and when you dine,” they sang, “stand up for Palestine”—a plea for boycotts of Israeli products.
Activists from the Global Justice Working Group are full of knowledge and experience about struggles from Bahrain to Egypt to Palestine. It includes organizers involved with Code Pink, the War Resisters League, Adalah-NY and more--key groups that work on peace and justice issues in the city. And they want to bring their knowledge to the broader world of Occupy Wall Street activism. The march, and songs about struggles here and abroad, were one way of doing that.
“Very often in OWS you get people who don’t know what’s going on across the water,” explained Udi Pladott, an activist and former soldier in the Israeli army. “We’re trying to inject global issues into Occupy.” Towards that goal, the working group has sponsored events on Bahrain and held a teach-in on the global tear-gas industry.
“We want to make connections between the war on the poor here and wars abroad,” said Nancy Kricorian, an organizer with Code Pink. Conversations with working group participants made clear what those connections are: a system that rewards militarism with profits while demanding austerity for the poor.
Apart from Bahrain and Palestine, the specter of a war with Iran, and organizing to stop that possibility, was very much on the minds of OWS Global Justice Working Group participants. A number of signs at the march read “No to sanctions. No to war. No to state repression.” I spoke with Manijeh Nasrabadi, a PhD student at New York University and an organizer with Havaar, an Iranian group that now works with the Global Justice Working Group, for more on this subject.
“There are people in Iran organizing against the same things. They have a government pushing neoliberal policies,” she explained. Nasrabadi also criticized the tendency of some on the left to reflexively back Iran’s leaders since they are in opposition to the West, even as the regime violently cracked down on dissent. “There is a third way: global solidarity,” that isn’t morally compromised, Nasrabadi said.
I then asked Nasrabadi what the connection was between Iran, the US and the Occupy movement. Answers abound to that question.
But she had a simple answer that helps explain the importance of the Global Justice Working Group: “If bombs fall, it would derail thinking about class.”
Tom Morello and the Guitarmy/Union Square/
-- Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Under unexpectedly sunny skies, thousands converged upon Union Square yesterday afternoon, their numbers growing as the Tom Morello-led “Guitarmy,” flanked by their acoustic axes, marched in from Bryant Park. One of the only spots with a city permit, the Square was the destination for the day’s live music, but it also served as a safe space for those protesters unwilling or unable to risk arrest. As such: the undocumented faction came out in droves, and it became a symbolic place where unions and Occupy joined forces with immigrant’s rights movements. People carried signs reading, “Amnesty Para Todos,” “Trabajando y Educación Para Todos,” “Stop the Raids” and, most crucially, “No a la guerra, ni a la militarización de la frontera.” It’s important not to forget the bigger picture: the border debates are an extension of our country’s war-obsession, and solve no problems.
But the overall spirit at Union Square was one of joy and enthusiasm and united strength. A large stage was set up to accommodate the performers and speakers and the message was clear: through art, activism can glean both power and relief. At around 4 PM, the show started with the beloved Tom Morello, aka the Nightwatchman, aka guitarist in Rage Against the Machine (which we recently learned is Paul Ryan’s favorite band, and who we hope will act on the knowledge by writing a song about him).
Because of the abundance of artists and speakers on the line-up, each act only got to perform two songs, and Morello used his time most effectively. Playing after a speaker announced, “We’re here to announce that another world is not only possible, but on her way,” Morello brought his around 20-person Guitarmy onstage to a fired-up crowd ready to party for justice. He kicked off his set with a singalong of his song “World Wide Rebel Songs,” which pays homage to union classics, and got thousands of protesters singing the chorus (and freaking out when he played the harmonica, because the proles, apparently, love a harmonica).
Then he noted that, were Woody Guthrie alive, he’d be 100, and that if he were still with us, he’d be headlining the event. Morello’s next song? “This Land is Your Land,” which resulted in another joyous singalong and pogo session. His parting words: “Take it easy, but take it.” Morello’s performance was followed by a speech by Emily Park, who announced herself as an undocumented student at CUNY. “DREAMers like me are the future of later,” she said, and advocated the New York DREAM Act that’s currently underway at the state level. Then Joyce Lyon, of the Domestic Workers union, reminded us that, “The thousands of you standing here are the engines that make the economy run,” whether documented or not.
Their speech was followed by a performance by an awesome multinational Latin jazz band representing Local 802, the musician’s union, during which the drummer protested the elimination of 31 multicultural categories at the Grammys. (Including the award for best Latin jazz album and best Native American album, among others.) The band was followed by performances by rap trio Das Racist (full disclosure: the group is this reporter’s family), noise-pop musician Dan Deacon, and rapper Immortal Technique, all of whom celebrated the energy and presence of the thousands in the crowd. And while the focus was certainly on the arts, the most salient point of the rally was made by a speaker later in the day, who reminded us that the Supreme Court is on the cusp of legalizing Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, and that it was up to us to stand against similar racist laws like it. “This is not an immigration issue,” she said. “This is a people issue.” The crowd was penned in by barricades, guarded by ever-more police as the protest geared up to march downtown, but her message was more powerful than the city’s ominous message. Immigration is a people issue, and this was a joyous, inspiring peoples’ protest.
Go here for full slide show.
Marching from Union Square After the Rally: 5:30 pm
-- Sarah Seltzer
Artists for Occupy and immigrant rights groups kicked off the long march from Union Square to Wall Street down Broadway. Despite the barricades and unnecessarily huge numbers of cops on both sides of the street, marchers headed downtown undaunted. Among their numbers were groups like the Teamsters, the Transit Workers Union, and student and community organizations.
Groups let out chants like "we are students, not statistics!" the very May Day-appropriate "black, Latin, Asian, white! Workers of the world unite!" As we entered the shopping district they playfully shouted "out of the shops, and into the streets!" But there was a more mellow feeling than at marches past. One woman cheering for the protesters pointed up at the newly-blue sky and grinned as if to say, "see? even the weather's on your side!" Marchers ran into friends, hugged each other and chatted. The solidarity all the unions and their official signage showed for immigrants was remarkable--groups that once seemed to have been divided by the one percent were making a huge effort to stand up for each other. And the atmosphere was one of festive righteous anger: one protester walked by a Jesus costume carrying a massive cross, and another in a Captain American costume waved at us to applause from a window above.
As the very vanguard of the march, led by taxicabs festooned in banners, crossed Houston Street a huge cry went up and echoed back, turning Broadway into a canyon of noise for block after block after block.
"This is some serious shit," an onlooker said, shaking his head with a smile, at the throngs weaving back all the way to Union Square.
Occupied Lower Manhattan, evening
The financial district was occupied all evening--occupied by the NYPD, who were out in riot gear, brandishing batons, lining up on side streets and marching two by two down to rallying points for tired but fired-up occupiers from the final march.
As the march--with crowd estimates of 30,000 or so--wound down, hundreds or even thousands wound up in the space at 55 Water Street, where they held a People's Assembly as night fell. The crowd was peaceful, but the space closed at 10 and so of course the NYPD moved in, calling for dispersal and threatening arrests. City Councilmembers Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams were on hand with several members of the clergy, observing and gathering evidence. The two councilmembers are part of a lawsuit filed this week against the NYPD.
I followed a breakout march up side streets, and while at first it was disorganized, a crew of experienced Occupiers, including many from the Plus Brigades (a newer working group that specifically works on clowning and other positive reactions in order to defuse tense situations with police) took lead of the march, walking arm in arm, dancing, and singing. The tension faded from the air as they marched, for a while, without police interference, singing "This is what democracy looks like."
When we came to Wall Street, though, we ran into a barricade--it seems that the worst thing Occupiers can do is attempt to set foot on the actual street their movement is named for. The march turned up William and then down Pine, and as the crew paused to debate where to go next, reports of police violence down on Pearl Street--where we'd just been--came in over Twitter from reporters John and Molly Knefel and Ryan Devereaux. We sat on the steps of a JP Morgan Chase building on Pine, and as some discussed tactics and plans for the rest of the night, stragglers came up William, visibly shaken by what they'd seen. "Police were just grabbing people, throwing them to the ground," one marcher said.
And then the police arrived, bearing batons and riot cuffs. They cleared the steps mostly without incident, though as has come to be usual there was tension and a faceoff for a while before most of the crowd dispersed back down Pine--where a line of police reinforced a line of barricades once again, keeping the crowd from getting anywhere near Wall Street.
Many of the Occupiers wound up where Occupy began, back in Zuccotti Park, where only one side was barricaded off and about 100 people were sitting, chatting in small groups, discussing, once again, what would come next--for the evening, for the movement, for everyone involved. A week of action is planned for later in May, and Brooklyn College is holding a rally today, May 2nd, to build on momentum from May Day.
-- Joshua Holland
The Bay Area celebrated May Day with a series of strikes and protests throughout the day, as 19 local labor unions joined thousands of Occupiers and immigrant rights activists.
The Inlandboatmen's Union staged a half-day strike, shutting down ferry service from Sausalito to San Francisco. The ferry workers are in a dispute with management over health-care costs, and have been working without a contract for over a year. Early in the morning, they were joined by Occupy protesters in a picket line at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. Bus and bridge workers had promised to honor the picket.
About 200 people participated in a peaceful but boisterous immigrants' rights march in San Francisco's Mission District in the morning. Several separate demonstrations wound their way through downtown Oakland, trailed by a heavy police presence. At one point, tear gas was deployed to disperse a crowd, according to protesters who were on the scene.
In the afternoon, a large contingent of Occupy San Francisco activists -- as many as 1,500 -- marched from the Financial District to set up residence in a vacant building from which they had been evicted weeks earlier. The building, formerly a shelter, is owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Police staged around the corner during the afternoon, but at around 4:30, approximately 200 officers clad in riot gear moved in, erecting barricades around the building. A tense standoff ensued, during which time a man on the roof of the building threw several objects -- a brick and some metal pipes -- at police, striking and injuring another protester, who was taken away by ambulance. A San Francisco police spokesman later said that the man had been apprehended and charged with aggravated assault.
After several hours facing down protesters, police again pulled back, and as of press time, protesters had flooded back into the building en masse.
The largest action of the day took place in Oakland during the evening, as an estimated 3,000 people took to the streets around City Hall. The protest was largely uneventful until after nightfall when, in a scene that has come to be all-too-familiar, Oakland police ended up dispersing occupiers with tear gas and "flash-bang" grenades. As of press time, arrests were ongoing.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and a staff reporter for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.