May Day 2012
New York City, New York (After)
By most accounts, May Day in New York City was a resounding success. Thirty-thousand people representing a broad cross section of New Yorkers marched through Manhattan. The coalition that planned the day—consisting of immigrant rights groups, organized labor and Occupy Wall Street—was sometimes difficult to build, but when the big day finally arrived, the groups collaborated harmoniously. This alliance among sectors of the Left that have often been antagonistic towards one another was a feat in itself, and there is a decent chance that it will be revived next May Day, and the May Day after that. In fact, it’s not farfetched to think that last week’s collective show of force will initiate a new political tradition in New York City: a unified May Day. As someone who helped plan the OWS-led events for that day, I can say that I was astonished at how smoothly things went. Barring a few notable mishaps (like the aborted proposal to occupy the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Plaza that night), the plans we developed over the previous four months went off without a hitch. That never happens in OWS.
Considering this, one might have expected the post-May Day debrief convened by OWS on Saturday, May 5, to be a lovefest. But it was more like a fraught family reunion. Long-simmering grievances bubbled to the surface. Relationships were sundered. People walked out. I was surprised that such a tense atmosphere reigned among people whose enormous collective endeavor had just succeeded beyond our own expectations. But with May Day over, the discontent that some folks had been feeling, which had been suppressed by the urgency of planning for the day, finally came to the fore. For me, the meeting threw into question the future of OWS as I’ve known it.
During the first half of the debrief, the mood was relatively upbeat. Many people in attendance (there were about 100 of us in the room) even said their May Day was exhilarating. When we went around the room to share our personal experiences of the day, one of the most active organizers declared that May Day was “historic” for the Left in New York, while another, who had worked tirelessly to bring out immigrants on the day, said it was “the best day of my life.” A few people even said that May Day was their first time participating in an OWS event, and that it inspired them to become actively involved in the movement. At moments, the elation in the room was palpable. But these positive experiences were tempered by several negative stories from the day. Although the people with negative stories were in the minority, it was an important minority: it included some of OWS’ longstanding organizers, most of them anarchists. One of these people, who I will call Victor, told the room that during the morning pickets on May Day, another picketer told him that there was no room for “people like him” (read: outspoken anarchists) in OWS, and that he should leave to start his own movement. This is ironic in more ways than one; not only was OWS founded on anarchist principles, but Victor has been around since the beginning of the occupation, helping create the Direct Action Working Group and sleeping in Zuccotti Park almost every night. Victor then told the room that he didn’t equate a mass turnout on May Day with success. He suggested that the masses mostly wanted reform, whereas he had joined OWS to fight for “social liberation.” As he said this, a woman across the room interrupted him to disagree—a moment that epitomized why Victor no longer felt welcome in the movement. All of this, he concluded, had made him decide to leave OWS. He wasn’t alone. Another founding member of Direct Action, who had worked harder than almost anyone to plan May Day, said that he was “done” with OWS. He felt let down by his Direct Action comrades on May Day, who, he said, had failed to step up when he needed them. He also expressed dismay at the many compromises OWS had to make in order mollify our coalition partners. As the debrief wore on, a number of other anarchists who’ve been part of OWS from the beginning said that May Day left them feeling alienated and disillusioned.
May Day was OWS’ largest undertaking to date. It involved building alliances with outside organizations and populations so that May Day was a truly mass day of action. But what is the price of becoming a mass movement? What is gained when we grow, and does it compensate for what is inevitably lost? Many Occupy participants and supporters believe that growth is a self-evident goal of the movement. They say that we need to make our message and tactics appealing to “average people.” But by making Occupy palatable to anyone and everyone, we deprive it of its most important quality: the challenge that it poses to settled assumptions about political participation, genuine equality and how we satisfy our collective needs. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi has written, the overturning of received ideas is the very essence of a social movement: “I use the word ‘movement’ to describe a collective displacing of bodies and minds, a changing of consciousness, habits, expectations.” Participating in the Occupy movement should be discomfiting, for liberals and anarchists alike. It should force us to rethink our most cherished ideas, to recalibrate our worldview. (I’ve certainly done this since participating in OWS.) Yes, we should always seek to attract new people to the movement, but not at the expense of our radical principles and tactics. If we abandon them, some of the people who made this movement what it is—people like Victor—will abandon us.
In many ways—not all of them good—May Day may mark a turning point for OWS. It may initiate a long-term collaboration with organized labor and immigrant rights groups, which could boost turnout at future actions and help the Occupy message reach more people than ever before. It may mark the beginning of Occupy as a truly mass movement. But it may also compel some of the people most committed to the ideals that defined Occupy at its inception—horizontalism, participatory democracy, anti-oppression—to exit the movement. Perhaps this separation was inevitable. Perhaps it’s even a good thing, especially for the people leaving the movement, who tend to be more radical. After all, it’s radicals who usually make the greatest compromises in a mass movement. For the first time in its eight-month lifespan, I have no idea what OWS will look like in the near future.
May 1 coincided with Montreal students’ twelfth week of striking against tuition hikes, a fight which has been ongoing since March 2011 when the Québec government proposed a rise in post-secondary tuition fees by $1,625 over the next five years. The city’s May Day demonstration also coincided with the eighth consecutive night rally (the former beginning at 4:30pm, and the latter around 8:00pm). Student associations representing over 180,000 students are currently on strike across Québec, and the past twelve weeks have seen over 160 protests in Montreal alone.
While Montreal has maintained largely peaceful protests throughout this year, the past few months have seen an increase in direct action tactics and, as such, have prompted greater media coverage from the province as well as, slowly, the rest of the world. Protest tactics have grown increasingly hostile – understandably perhaps – as the government makes moves and propositions that have been less gestures of negotiation than paternalistic insults. Though moves toward negotiation was proposed between the government and students last Monday, they were quickly dismantled on Wednesday when Minister of Education Line Beauchamp dismissed the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) from the negotiation table after they were accused of violating the 48-hour truce period. In solidarity, two other student unions FEUQ and FECQ also removed themselves from negotiation discussions. That same Wednesday, 5000 showed up for the nightly march – with more outrage than ever – resulting in 85 arrests.
On May 1, 103 arrests were made, the majority of which were against students seen by police as illegitimately occupying public spaces. The anti-capitalism rally that began peacefully at 5pm yesterday quickly fell into violent disarray by the end of the hour, when police declared the protest illegal and asked the crowd to disperse. Violent clashes quickly ensued and the crowd – originally comprised of around 2000 people – dissipated into less than a few hundred by 7:30 pm. One reporter tweeted: “This is 1st time I’ve witnessed truly unprovoked baton strikes from cops. Nerves are getting very frayed in this city,” while another noted a drunk man who kept trying to shake a cop’s hand that was pulled in and arrested. Noting the thinning crowd, live media coverage wondered if the tear gas and grenades used on the anti-capitalism march would deter the usual night rally crowd from turning up. Turn up they did, however, in rapid and energetic surges, resulting in thousand of bodies on the streets by 9:00 pm. By the end of the night at 11:30pm, there was still an estimated 700-something people grouped outside. As with prior nights, protesters have found creative ways to disperse and regroup throughout the city, even as riot police try to curtail and surround them, or, in one instance, attempt to lead them off single file. Physical detainment, however, has not been the only means by which Québec officials have tried to control the student movement.
Mainstream Québec media – and by extension the majority of Canadian media that pick up from these sources – have insisted on a narrative that ridicules and demonizes students, zoning in on the most radical groups as representative of the entire cause, and minimizing the entire strike as to be just about tuition hikes. The Montreal strikes, and May Day especially, converge around oppositions to an entire discourse of austerity and neoliberalism; these protests no longer only involve students, but professors, families, and union workers as well – all of whom came out on Tuesday.
L. E. Long
As I write, two marches are converging in east Oakland. It’s warm and sunny. I’ve been fighting dehydration and residual tear gas, so I took the opportunity for a break, rode my bike home to write this dispatch.Regretfully this can only be a dispatch. It may be my own foolish drive to think that I should fully parse what has happened and account for the richness of Oakland, its struggles, and its history, but that can’t be done in this space.
I can only write about watching some OPD officers, surrounded after a failed a snatch-and-grab in the middle of a march, toss tear gas indiscriminately into the crowd, nearly causing a stampede. or about seeing an acquaintance, small and slight, bleeding through the bandage on her head shortly thereafter. I can only write about the fear the that slowly ruptures one’s nerves when you’re told a known organizer, the kind too embedded and with too much at risk to make a mistake, was singled out, dragged through the street, and tossed in a van.
There’s nothing to process here, just a new condition settling in. There are less disconcerting moments – a familiar song to give a quick wash of nostalgia, news of an unarrest, the sound of a tear gas canister or flash bang grenade exploding and a rush of hundreds toward, not away from, the source.
As I write, local news streams in another window, with anchors confirming mutual aid, the OPD press officer confirming reformed crowd control policyThe new crowd control policy is significant for many reasons. OPD Chief Howard Jordan announced last week that new crowd control policies would, among other things, curb unpermitted marches (the bread and butter of Occupy Oakland), and attempt the surgical removal of lawbreaking protesters. Both of these tactics have shown today that they result in escalation, not dispersal, and have only increased the fear but also the resolve of protesters. No one has been made safer, considering they tear gassed a busy downtown intersection during standard lunch hours.Secondly, and much more distressing, is that the previous crowd control policy, which OPD already could not/would not follow, was court-mandated. The Oakland Police Department is under imminent threat of federal receivership, not only because of their history of violence confronting protesters that predates Occupy by many years, but because it has systematically used excessive force to brutalize, assault, and commit murder in the poor and minority communities of Oakland. For the most recent example, this past weekend a trans woman was murdered downtown. She reportedly bled out in the arms of a community medic while police left the scene. An ambulance did not arrive in time. is being used, the good protester/bad protester narrative emerging. I’m taking the last sips of water before I ride back to an intersection that has etched decades of protest and strike in Oakland into the cultural memory. For the first time, I’m really unsure of what will happen tonight. For the first time, I feel unsafe and unable to ensure that I won’t be swept up in arrest.
Only some last-minute Internet research saved me from missing the Occupy Phoenix May Day festivities. Since November, the movement had apparently morphed into Occupy Scottsdale. Unaware of this fact, I originally planned to head to César Chávez Park in downtown Phoenix, the site of last autumn’s protests. This change of venue made sense, if you think about it; whatever passes for the “one percent” in the Valley of the Sun you’ll no doubt find concentrated in “the ‘Dale.” And it seems to keep with the sense pervasive in the U.S. that politicians enjoy mere figurehead status, that real clout rests with those of tremendous economic resources.
So to downtown Scottsdale I delivered myself in order to lend my voice to the chorus decrying iniquity, inequality and the supremely sociopathic hauteur of the moneyed classes. Yet outrage takes but shallow, uncertain root in the desert. The crowd, by no measure considerable, appeared nonplussed by their new environs of strip malls populated with specialty food stores, furniture importers and high-end salons. The built-yesterday stuccoed opulence confronting them seemed to sap some of their vigor. They chanted the familiar slogans, but so scant a force as mustered there sounded more like a game of Marco Polo than a protest. Their efforts at consciousness-raising met with little more than derision and hostility. Passing motorists, presumably Scottsdalians on their way home from work, shouted at them, “Get a job, socialist!” and other choice phrases. Cops, making their typical show of overwhelming force (which in the past has proven effective when dealing with the odd drifter), struck poses suggestive of possible kettling to come. At one point several of Scottsdale’s finest — one or two on foot, eight or nine on mountain bikes — got their blooding when they took down one male protester for reasons not immediately evident, their efforts no doubt coordinated by the two helicopters that hovered overhead. This had the effect of at once exasperating and chastening the arrestee’s peers, and it signaled to me that I had witnessed all that I needed to.
I wish I could claim that some of echo of Progressive-era grandeur attended the Occupy Phoenix, er, Scottsdale May Day event; but, sadly, it conformed utterly to my expectations, which I had set none too high. The Occupy Phoenix website reports that student protesters from Arizona State University plan to lay siege to Tempe. They have designated as their staging ground a pier overlooking Tempe Town Lake, an inundated segment of the Salt River dammed by two inflatable bladders. The manufacturing of said lake spurred an abortive development boom. In the shadow of glittering, half-filled high-rise condos the Stafford Loan–maddened multitude will call down the thunder — if indeed the heat-island effect ever allows it to rain.
Kansas City, Missouri
A single unmarked Crown Vic with a single cop circled the park, but that was about it. It was a pretty day, and the occupiers were assembled at Kansas City’s iconic J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, named after a local land tycoon so powerful he once thought he could dam and control the mighty Missouri River if he threw enough influence at Congress; the Missouri would later flood the ultrapretentious shopping district he built almost on top of it, leaving 25 dead.
By coincidence, roughly 25 strikers were on hand Tuesday as Occupy KC — which once claimed to have the longest uninterrupted occupation before its unpermitted Penn Valley Park camp was dismantled by police last month to make way for planned spring events — planned to march on the Kansas City Board of Trade to celebrate the general strike. “We don’t have Wall Street here, so this is our mini-Wall Street,” occupier Anthony Cage told the placid group via a megaphone that he didn’t particularly need. Around 1 p.m., it began picketing its way toward the board a few blocks away, chanting against the commodification of food: “Food is for the people / not for corporate profit!”
A young woman hustled after the departing coterie after they crossed a busy intersection without her. She didn’t know they were marching today; she wasn’t even from here. “I came from 990 miles away, from North Carolina,” she said. Why did she come to KC? She sounds exasperated at the question. “Because I couldn’t find a job!” After the light changed, she clutched a rolled-up blanket tighter beneath her arm and hurried to catch up.
A half-dozen cops in kevlar jackets looked on as the occupiers picketed in an orbit outside the front door of the KC Board of Trade for half an hour; one picketer read a speech from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” An office worker in an old polo shirt and ill-fitting pleated khakis came out to chat with one of the demonstrators. He was confused why the occupiers were protesting against the Board of Trade. “If it weren’t for this building, a lot of people would go hungry,” he told her. “A lot of farmers wouldn’t be able to protect their prices.” The two were amiable, and she invited him down to a GA session.
Within half an hour of arriving, the occupiers were gone. “This is what we were able to do with two days of planning,” Cage told the picketers, a little proudly, though in an interview a few minutes later, he sounded bummed that the cops had erased the encampment right as the weather was getting nice again; it was a real momentum-killer. “We weren’t really able to mobilize people to strike en masse,” he said. As for the future of Occupy KC? “We’re reorganizing.”
Antiexousiastiki Kinisi (Antiauthoritarian Movement)/Void Network International
The first global movement from the people below was the antiglobalisation movement (that begun from Seattle 1999 and seemed to come to an end after Salonica 2003), which at that time fell in the trap of revolving around the agenda of the above elites. However, history never ends and from the riot in Greece in December 2008, to the Arabian Spring, the riots in London and other European metropolitan cities and the global Occupy movement we can detect the emergence of another globally unifying radical agenda with characteristics amd ideas brought forward by the people’s movements themselves, despite and outside the frame of the dominant authoritative imaginary. Characteristics and ideas like the de-economisation of society, the transposition of meaning from the economic relations to the self-governed individual (from economy to politics) and for the first time the feeling of a global community (due and parallel to the interaction via and with the internet, as seen in the Arabian riots, the wikileak activities and the Anonymous activists).
In this new social interface, the collective individual is forming movements without leaders and, by reclaiming the free public and social time and space from the authority, creates, through direct-democratic, antihierarchical structures, new ways for the pursuit of freedom. The recent global crisis, being not an economic, but a crisis of meaning, denuded the system from its social legitimation, thus awakening its phobic reflexes of totalitarianism.
But, with great power comes great responsibility. Since the idea of determinism died out with the rest of ideologies, the decomposition of the dominant authority doesn’t ensure the emergence of freedom. So that the new hope will not be buried in the wreck of conservatism and that we will not be blocked by the ‘shock of victory’, the networking and action outside the boundaries of political identity is more necessary than ever.
As a part of this global radical community we, from Greece, greet the first for decades general strike in the United States of America, in the place where the victims of oppression on the first Mayday strike in 1886 became victors of freedom. We consider this strike not as a conclusion but as a beginning of a series of general social and political actions for the purpose of the social and political liberation of society.
Brothers, and sisters,
OCCUPY PLANET EARTH
Evan Calder Williams
Yesterday, ex-PCI member and current Italian president Giorgio Napolitano visited the Monumento ai caduti del Lavoro (Monument to the Fallen of Labor) in the Fascist-planned EUR district of Rome and placed a giant wreath on it to honor those fallen in the line of their freely-sold duty, so to speak. The monument commemorates a particular form of death from labor: exceptional deaths, industrial accidents, what has come to be called, perversely, morti bianche (“white deaths”) and omicidi bianche (“white murders”) to designate the “absence of a hand directly responsible.” (One can’t help but note that the notion of capital as the white death has a quite different history and echo in parts of the world colonized by the global North.) The placing of the wreath is telling in its perversity. To defend the nobility and coherency of labor during its genuine crisis (the rate of unemployment for those between 15 and 24 is now up to 35.9% by official records) and to avoid confronting the general hell of work, you must focus on and treat those literally mangled by it as rare cases, sad but necessary casualties in the long war against the potential breakdown of civil society.
The messy battle over labor, as a figure and reality under attack or to be attacked, was in full display in Italy yesterday, even if it didn’t remotely take the form of streetfighting, other than brief clashes in Torino. Nor was it a general strike: the day is a declared holiday, a “festival of labor,”albeit one on which many shops stayed open and celebrated their workers by reminding them of what it means to be so. The day itself was extremely quiet, other than the noise of marches (about 400 people here in Bologna), concerts, carefully worded press statements by government and union officals, a few scuffles, banners dropped, eggs thrown (at the Greek Consulate), flares lit, buildings tagged, CLOSED spray-painted onto open businesses, wreathes laid on monuments. Nevertheless, it’s perceptible in the discourse surrounding it and the redefinitions of what the day is for: a day to celebrate labor, a day for “hope, passion, and the future,” a day to celebrate laborers, a day for precarious labor, for migrant labor, a day against unwaged labor, a day against all labor, a day to bitterly and biliously mark the “suicide of labor” (see here, the poster put up by BLU, a splinter of neo-fascist Casa Pound), a day to remember past struggles, a day to try and chain together present ones. In the midst of this, a number of eyes faced elsewhere to try and steal some spark after a severely quiet response to the austerity program being currently put into place by Monti and crew. Although Greece remains a touchstone, both for the disobedienti and for the general population who try to avert their eyes from an image of what their coming decades may well be, much of the gaze was largely westwards to Occupy in the U.S., tellingly signaled by the increasing propensity for English slogans (the stenciled phrase TAKE THE SQUARES is now repeated ad infinitum across Bologna’s porticoes).
All the same, little doubt remains that of the modes of resistance on the ground in Italy now, it’s NO TAV – neither an issue nor a movement, but rather a material analysis and war in the making – and the attack on “growth” that’s becoming the most significant. Fittingly for a day and an era attempting to process, mitigate, or hasten the breakdown of labor, the energy to make tinder of its contradictions may likely come from issues other than “labor” itself: immigration, patriarchy, racism and xenophobia, and in the specific case of NO TAV, unnecessary construction, imposition of the plan of capital, environmental consequences, and the wrecking of public or affordable services. A stress on the construction of that one train line is far from narrow. It is metonymic, insisting that that there is no production of value without its reproduction and circulation. And so, if there is to be a strike, a strike against the relations that doubly enforce and dissolve labor, it won’t fall on the first of May but through the continued spread of this refusal of development, starting from a particular battle in a particular valley and spilling out to other concerns, other trainlines, starting in the interstitial space between cities and doubling back onto them to stop traffic and movement where they start.
New York City, New York
I’m standing in line at Duane Reade on the same street where thousands of people had gathered for a general assembly a couple hours earlier. The group was quickly pinned inside the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial by what must have been hundreds of police arrayed in lines at both sides of the plaza. Occupiers were stuck between two towering office buildings, once again victims of enemy terrain. I watched from the waterfront across the FDR as five corrections buses made the neon on the Staten Island Ferry terminal sign flicker. But they wouldn’t be necessary, the police had the overwhelming force necessary to empty the space without resistance.
I’m standing in line at Duane Reade demoralized and thinking about Chekov and which act this is supposed to be anyway 10 months after the first New York general assembly, and I’m thinking about the meathead outside who threatened to beat my ass after stage-whispering something about occupiers and “a bunch of faggots,” but mostly I’m thinking about the cop behind me in line with three big water bottles, a blue Gatorade, and a radio that won’t get quiet. He’s dancing foot-to-foot like he has to pee, but it’s because he has to get back to his squad car outside and answer the calls buzzing on his hip. If it were anyone else I’d let them go ahead, but after watching officers smash a 19 year old’s face against the pavement, then seeing them pull his shirt over his face to hide the blood as they put him in a car, there is no way I’m going to give him one extra second to do his job.
After practically jumping with impatience, Officer Thirsty cuts out of the line, tosses the drinks on a chair near the door, and exits back into the night. The Duane Reade checkout worker, a lanky black guy about my age, shakes his head and says, “He better come back and put those away,” knowing full well there is nothing less likely to happen. There is a wind-up police car sitting on the checkout counter. A young woman in front of me paying for some toilet paper suggests “You should just give them to some occupier.” I ask the clerk if the police have been in there all day acting like that: “Pretty much.” He pauses and shakes his head again, “I have no respect for those people. None at all.”
I think of the calls from the night before, the frantic search to figure out who the police were intimidating with threatening house visits, the ambient fear of early-morning raids, and a high-stakes game called “Where is it safe to sleep?” Bloomberg’s Army had been more aggressive than I’d ever seen them in the morning, not even waiting for the wildcat march to leave the park before attacking and snatching targeted people out of the front lines. I think of the news from Cleveland this morning where the FBI had instigated, facilitated, and then foiled an anarchist plot to blow up a bridge, and I think about how long those kids will be in prison. It showed on my face because as he scans my drink, the clerk asks me if I’m with “them,” and he doesn’t mean the police.
“Yeah, I’m with them,” because even if I can’t stand the procedural fetishes, the pointless bickering, the reformists with radical pretensions, the meditation circles, or the movement branding, I am. Suddenly I’m not so worried about being associated with all that crap.
He hands me my change and tells me to stay safe out there, a standard piece of advice that I’m not sure how to follow, since it’s the danger that makes it “out there.” I nod my thanks before quickly reconsidering the strange circumstances that lead a young black man in lower Manhattan to tell me to stay safe from the cops. I look back at him and say, “You too, man. You too.” He gets it, quickly enough that I wonder what exactly he thinks about when he thinks of the police. We share a small laugh.
I flip the toy car over and leave.