The first of May has a fascinating folk history. In pre-Christian tradition, it was the first day of summer and a day to celebrate fertility. But beyond maypoles and bonfires, the Industrial era gave the day a wholly new meaning.
On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck and rallied for the establishment of the 8-hour workday. The largest participation was in Chicago, a rapidly expanding industrial town that had seen a huge influx of immigrants, many of whom were exploited as cheap labor by Gilded Age robber-barons. After a few days of protest, a bombing and subsequent shooting at Haymarket Square led to a massive crackdown on worker’s groups which resulted in a number of executions based on inconclusive evidence.
Over the next decades, the 1st of May became a rallying day for socialists and anarchists around the world, and in an attempt to distance itself, the U.S. government decided to set aside the first Monday of September to recognize Labor. Eventually May Day became a focal point for Communist nations, which made its celebration complete anathema to America. Its name was changed for a time to “Americanization Day”, and then to “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day” (which is today is the official name for May 1)
Nonetheless, International Workers’ Day, which has become an official holiday the world over, and has been dedicated to “Saint Joseph the Worker” by the Catholic Church, never stopped being remembered in the U.S., though never to any great extent.
That is, until this year. It’s been festering for decades, but the past months have seen a distinct resurgence of the concerns of class inequality and of corruption of a government closely tied to financial interest.
Early in 2012, during the winter in which it was said that the Occupy movement was over, Occupy LA called for a May Day “General Strike”, a day in which the so-called 99% would not work, go to school, nor participate in the economy in any way. The move was quickly approved nationwide, and over the next months gained support and endorsement from a number of unions, immigrant groups, and labor coalitions. Of course, no one truly believed that a vast number of the population would strike, but the goal was rather to make a large statement of solidarity and to demonstrate the power regular people can have if they band together, even outside of the traditional frameworks of American politics.
And so, on Tuesday, May Day returned home to the United States for its largest commemoration in generations. With the old labor movements and the Communist era receding further into history, the day is no longer about Socialism per se, nor does it carry antiquated “un-American” connotations any longer.
There were participants in hundreds of places across the country. But of course, urban centers attracted the most attention. In New York alone, upwards of 50,000 turned out, and other cities had proportionally similar attendance. In addition, there were countless online supporters who could not participate in person.
Most of the mainstream media have painted an awfully skewed picture of the day, focusing primarily on arrests and a handful of shameful vandals. I was out for 12 hours on May Day, covering miles of Manhattan, and the following was my experience, and the experience of many others:
“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out…”
The first stop was Bryant Park, the rallying point for numerous small-scale pickets to various locations throughout Midtown Manhattan. At 9am, it was rainy and the initial turnout was disappointing. This very quickly changed over the next few hours. The first picket that I went with numbered in the hundreds and wound its way through Times Square and around various bank office buildings along 6th Avenue near Radio City. On the way we passed and supported pickets of employees who’d walked out of their workplaces. The group, while spirited, kept to the sidewalk and remained resolutely peaceful. Of course, a small army of police tagged along.
“When immigrant workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
Next from Bryant Park we went with an immigrants group picketing various locations guilty of abuses towards restaurant and service industry workers. The police somehow missed this one, and the march took to the roadway, moving along the middle of Madison Avenue and then into the streets surrounding Grand Central Terminal. When the riot police showed up, the crowd immediately decided to return to the sidewalk and continued on with no loss of inspiration.
Meanwhile, Occupy Williamsburg and Occupy Bushwick had come across the Williamsburg Bridge (on the pedestrian walkway) and some were about to set off on a “wildcat” march – Historically, a wildcat strike is one in which people are participating without the consent of their unions. We were unable to catch up with it, but later heard reports of vandalism and purposeful taunting of police committed by idiots dressed in black, who were bent on tarnishing the day’s positive spirit to satisfy their own destructive impulses. Their actions have been condemned by the vast majority of May Day participants, but this unrepresentative 15-minute incident is one that the media chose to latch onto in their coverage of the day, in a strange attempt to amplify what they called “clashes with police”.
“Who do you protect, who do you serve?!”
We caught up in Washington Square Park, where a rally of NYU students was taking place. By now, the sun had appeared and the temperature was rising into a summerlike humidity. Many of those in the park eventually set off on a march towards 6th avenue with the ultimate goal of arrival at Union Square, where thousands were already converging, including the huge contingent from Bryant Park. Very soon after setting off, a few protesters on bikes were arrested, a couple first being thrown to the ground, and one suffering a bloody nose. The arrests were seemingly random, as we observed no criminal act and no warning; the ferocity of the police attack was completely uncalled for. Immediately the cops shut down the avenue and hundreds of officers in riot gear swarmed the block, creating a disruption far worse than that of the sidewalk protesters.
“We are the 99%”
Every demonstrator across the city now arrived at Union Square, site of the labor and May Day protests of the Progressive era. At 4pm there began a brief rally of short speeches and a few musical performances for what was now a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands; the entire park and surrounding streets were completely packed. It had turned into a beautiful afternoon and evening. At 5:30, the main event of the day, the march to Wall Street, set off down Broadway. It took around an hour to move the entire park out, and the line stretched for blocks, perhaps around 3/4 of a mile long.
The march demonstrated the wide variety of causes at work: the United Federation of Teachers, the National Alliance of Filipino Concerns, the Transit Workers Union, solidarity groups from Montreal and the suburbs, construction workers, Socialists, immigrant groups, Ron Paul supporters, and of course, Occupy Wall Street, to name only a few.
People watched from their windows and fire escapes while bemused tourists on the sidewalk snapped photos. There were many shouts of solidarity from the bystanders, and a handful of taunts from others.
“Get up, get down, there’s revolution in this town!”
The participants could be numbered in the tens of thousands. Though impossible to accurately count, my conservative estimate was roughly 30,000. As the march approached the financial district, the mood rose to a joyous fever pitch climaxing into euphoria as it arrived at Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the movement. Compared to the numbers on the streets, the park looked small – an inspiring testament to what had became of a handful of campers back in September, not all that long ago. Wall Street itself was guarded by a phalanx of cops on horseback, and the march ended at the Battery where there were speakers, a small free-food kitchen, and a large General Assembly that celebrated the day and discussed the future. A few hundred yards away the New York Bay was silent, untouched by the fervor of the streets.
The whole way down, an army of NYPD, including 3 helicopters, “guarded” the demonstration, moving walls of scooters alongside protesters, despite the fact that the route was already barricaded in the manner that all NYC parades are. We witnessed one seemingly pointless arrest as riot police plucked an individual from the crowd for who-knows-what.
Despite isolated incidents of this sort, the march was hugely peaceful. The local media reported that the Office of Emergency Management had issued an advisory of “emergency street closures”. In fact, the march had city permits, was anticipated, and followed the protocol of all New York parades. There were no “emergency closures”. Along with the isolated “clashes with police”, traffic disruptions were another fixation of the day’s mainstream reportage. Surely, there was a disruption, but certainly no more than that caused by sports victory parades, St Patrick’s Day, and scores of other parades that happen year round across the city.
The mainstream media has regularly proven itself skewed across the board. But this is becoming less and less important as independent journalists have increasing ability to get their stories out there.
My 12-hour, citywide, May Day experience was wholly positive, communicated very serious issues, and brought together a plethora of causes in a spirit of solidarity and common goals. All this was conveyed with much vigor, but, to my eyes, always remained peaceful. Aside from the handful of despicable vandals, disruptions were relatively few. No matter one’s position, how can one hold in contempt the fundamental right of citizens to petition their grievances? “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” it has been said. If people are passionate enough to take their message to the street in significant numbers, who can say that their voices should not be heard, and their actions not reported with accuracy?
But no matter- it was certainly the largest protest since the autumn, and the future promises exciting developments. This May Day, as recognized by folk tradition, was truly the beginning of summer.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“
It’s almost unbelievable that this precept must still be asserted. I saw for the first time the “free speech zone” at the steps of Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan. A recent development of Occupy Wall Street has brought protesters back to the old colonial streets surrounding the NYSE. Other than those who choose to sleep on the sidewalks there (as allowed by a 2000 city law), there has been no permanent occupation set up. However, OWS has been maintaining a daily presence in the neighborhood, and particularly at Federal Hall.
In response, the powers-that-be have erected a barricade on the steps, in which one is “allowed” to protest. Outside this so-called 1st Amendment Zone one is “not allowed” to protest. Only 25 people are allowed inside the space at any given time. In being held so, protesters’ ability to display their message is drastically hindered.
The entire idea is completely absurd. Cross an arbitrary line and one is permitted to exercise their right to free speech. Cross back and one is not permitted. This defies all common sense. However, it has been deployed for decades in the United States. Among many other instances, the abhorrence of the “free speech cage” reached an apex during the 2004 national conventions, when such places were placed at a considerable distance from the actual events and from media attention.
“…abridging…” – shortening; condensing. Doesn’t confining people to a small area abridge the right to free speech? And doesn’t telling citizens where they can and cannot assemble abridge the right to peaceful assembly and petition?
What makes this all the more disgusting at Federal Hall is that it is the site (though the present building dates from 1842) where George Washington was inaugurated our first president; and where the Bill of Rights was first passed by Congress. This is happening right beneath the famous statue of Washington.
Even in the face of such indignity, one must keep a sense of humor. Tongue-in-cheek, it was suggested that the statue be counted among the 25 people “allowed” to protest in the cage.
Today was a joint march with Occupy Wall Street and ACT-UP, a group that, in the 1980’s, was at the forefront of the fight for the rights of people suffering with AIDS:
We must never act in accordance to laws blindly. By the grace of our Constitution, drafted during a time of almost worldwide dictatorial monarchy, the laws to which abide come from the consensus of the people.
Until 1870 this standard excluded blacks and other minority races.
Until 1920, this standard excluded women.
The Constitution is brilliant in its ideals, but must also be monitored so it is effective for all. (Which is the purpose of Amendments) At this time in our history, laws can be flagrantly bought and sold. The political process at all levels inherently engages the need for money. And so those who hold the money hold the power. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about being wealthy. But once you exert wealth to service your own needs at the expense of others, something MUST be done.
Tonight the city is moving to evacuate OWS from Zuccotti Park.
If forced to leave, leave it spotless, and then move to a different park, or multiple parks- confound the powers that be as much as possible. The movement has become bigger than a park, so it doesn’t matter so much where the headquarters is. Occupy everywhere!
UPDATE – Oct 16 – As most of you know, at the last minute, discouraged by 300,000 complaints, and a large physical presence, the mayor and police stood down. What followed was an amazing weekend.
On Saturday, Oct. 15, 50,000 flooded Times Square and there were rallies and marches throughout the city- overwhelmingly peaceful. 1,500 other cities in 82 countries staged their own occupations.
What started as a small gathering in Lower Manhattan has now exploded across the globe. When people begin to say the things that are on the lips of millions, fantastic things are born.
October 11, 2011
Now in its 4th week, the Occupy Wall Street movement has picked up tremendous steam, despite inattention from most of the nation’s media. The movement has inspired similar occupation protests around the world, in more than 600 cities. Each one is bound by a realization that all governments must answer to the people, the common people who labor for their living and pay the taxes that keep society running.
On Saturday, October 15th, 662 cities around the globe will protest in a day of solidarity against the corrupt economic and political practices of their governments. In NYC, this day will include rallies in Lower Manhattan and Washington Square Park; and a mass march on Times Square. <a href=”http://15october.net/” rel=”nofollow”>15october.net/</a>
Today, #OccupyWallStreet led a march through the Upper East Side of Manhattan, home to some of the richest and most corrupted people on Earth. Along the way, the demonstration stopped and chanted in front of the homes of selected billionaires, including Rupert Murdoch, and other leaders of business who benefited from federal bailouts on the people’s dime.
It seemed media was there from all over the world, from Japan to Italy. There was a lot of positive energy in the march, and there were no notable confrontations with the police.
Two chants stuck out:
“We are the 99%!” – which has become the movement’s battlecry
“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” – aimed, obviously, at the rich CEO’s who live in the neighborhood
Along the way, many bystanders paused, and expressed their support. They far outnumbered the scoffers…
A similar thing happened in 1884, in Chicago – though that was a bit more sinister. On Thanksgiving Day, protesters marched past the mansions of the robber barons on Prairie Avenue.
”On Thanksgiving Day 1884 the anarchists [of Chicago] unveiled their new symbol. The black flag of hunger and death joined the red flag of social change. Playing the anthem of the French revolution, the Marseillaise, they began a march which took them past Potter Palmer’s elegant hotel, the Palmer House. Then on to the Prairie Avenue mansions of the capitalists who had “deprived them,” their leaflets said, “of every blessing during the past year.” “Every worker, every tramp must be on hand to express their thanks in a befitting manner….
…And they’re going up and they’re ringing the doorbells. And of course nobody’s answering the doors. But they’re screaming that they want bread or power. There’d just never been a direct demonstration quite like that…”
Many more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattron/sets/72157627754699192/with/6238183718/
Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square sits at the edge of what was 19th century New York’s most notorious neighborhood, the Five Points – setting of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York
Yesterday something extraordinary happened there. A march of thousands (up to 50,000 by some estimates) rallied at the square to express their discontent with a broken system – a system in which common people are charged with funding the caprices of the extravagantly rich. A system with an ever-increasing disdain for the citizens in its care. A system in which basic American rights are being trampled upon. We’ve been seeing in the previous weeks that people are beginning to realize that the “system” is OUR system. We pay the taxes, we support the economy, we contribute to the services that are meant to make a society work. When an apathetic population comes to, and realizes that it is meant to lead a country instead of blindly follow a select few, great things can happen.
Three weeks ago, a few inspired individuals took over a small park in the Financial District and set up a model society – with cooperative medical services, food contributions, security, a media center, and decision making by consensus. The usual happened: snide references to “over-privileged, over-educated, short-sighted hippies” etc. etc. The past week, however, has blown this stereotype straight out of the water:
Perhaps a society run for the people and by the people is not just a stale 235 year old catchphrase. Because- as it turns out, the “fringe” settlement at Zuccotti Park has amassed support from far and wide.
Yesterday, at Foley Square, we saw representatives from almost every major union imaginable – postal workers, teachers, laborers, nurses, marines, and the transit workers (Who are said to have decided to stop donating buses for mass arrests by the NYPD). Occupations have begun in cities across the country. – In solidarity, students have walked out of schools and colleges.
Yesterday’s march was the biggest yet of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was peaceful- full of anger, but also of optimism. Unlike at the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, and Union Square the week before, the police, for the most part, kept themselves in check- Though after much of the crowd had dissipated, they unleashed their typical brutishness once again, this time flailing wildly with batons, and later bragging about it:
Naturally the city and police department would like to avoid investigating this like the plague. But enough outcry may change that:
1st Precinct: +1 (212) 334-0611
NYPD Switchboard: +1 (646) 610-5000
NYPD Central Booking: +1 (212) 374-3921
NYPD Internal Affairs: +1 (212) 741-8401
Mayor Bloomberg: +1 (212) NEW-YORK or +1 (212) 374-392
HOWEVER – The experience for the vast majority of people in the march was positive. “Good vibes”. The national Occupy Wall Street movement is not only about poverty or the disadvantaged, it is about all of us– working, middle, and even upper-middle class – the 99% of us whose pursuit of the American Dream slips further and further from our reach, not by our lack of effort or where-with-all, but by a government that has wrenched it from our grasp.
On Saturday, October 1, a solidarity march left the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, and thousands proceeded north to City Hall and then began to cross the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. A stand-off with police ensued and mass arrests numbered up to 1,000.
I was out of town and missed it but this is an excellent video showing the march and stand-off:
The movement is gaining traction and is spreading to cities across America:
One-day protests come and go, usually without much notice. In our world of continual distraction, these things are easy to gloss over – especially in the hands of an apathetic media. The strategy of indefinite occupation is far more effective – it is designed to create ever-increasing involvement and solidarity. As the word spreads, the movement is moving beyond fringe groups. This week has seen the picketing of postal workers and pilots’ unions before the steps of the New York Stock Exchange:
Today was the 12th day of the Occupy Wall St movement and it is growing in strength and in numbers, not just in New York anymore, but all over the country and world. (http://occupytogether.org/)
The optimism and determination at the Zuccotti Park encampment is fueled by this progress. It is palpable as you walk around- scattered about are small groups talking policy, tactics, by-laws, etc. Organization is being organized. Along Broadway, demonstrators appeal to the rush-hour crowds. Makeshift cardboard signs line the perimeter of the park – attracting tourists, shoppers, and businessmen – some of whom express support, others of whom have many questions, and, of course, those who pass with mocking laughter. The weather has been weirdly summer-ish; but more humid rain is coming – tarp-lined beds are being set up.
At the other end of the park, drummers and various other musicians have assembled in an improvisatory canon resembling the Terry Riley classic “In C”
And in true NY entrepreneurial spirit, a number of food carts have set up along the edges of the square – In a weird comingtogether, both protester and police have lined up to partake of their offerings.
The movement has attracted a number of high-profile figures, including Immortal Technique
Protest movements have always attracted harsh criticism and cynical mockery. People do not like their boats to be rocked. It is very easy to forget that many of the rights we enjoy come from a similar voice as that of the current expressions. Both the Progressive era of 100 years ago and the Civil Rights movement of 50 years ago attracted their fair share of scorn in their day. However – their outcomes are now a part of common American life.
From the stalwart of rugged individualism that was Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive, come these:
“A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.”
“The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”
“The liberty of which Mr. Wilson speaks today means merely the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. It means merely the liberty of some factory owner to work haggard women over-hours for under-pay and himself to pocket the profits. It means the liberty of the factory owner to close his operatives into some crazy deathtrap on a top floor, where if fire starts, the slaughter is immense….We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress. We stand for the limitation of his liberty not to oppress those who are weaker than himself” also T. Roosevelt (1912) http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5722/
More info: https://occupywallst.org/