The Landscape of May Day in New York
An Occupy Wall Street organizer I know — one of the original ones, from the planning meetings before the occupation began last September 17 — has a striking banner atop his Facebook Timeline. It’s from the History Channel series Life After People, an artist’s rendition of a cityscape after which all the humans in it somehow disappear. It’s quiet, and still, with trees growing out from the sides of crumbling towers.
To say that this image has anything to do with the movement’s plans for May 1, which the person who posted it is involved in making, might cause both paranoid-style right-wing radio hosts and the most anarcho- of primitivists to froth a bit at the mouth. And so they should. Ever since the idea of working toward May Day started catching on in Occupy Wall Street last January, it has been infused with the impulse of creating the vision of a radically different kind of city.
The visionary impulse, however, has also mixed with things more mundane. Over the course of the May Day planning process in New York, in at least two meetings each week, OWS organizers have been patiently patching together an historic joint rally and march with labor unions, immigrants’ rights groups and community organizations, many of which were invited to participate in the planning process since the beginning.
The members of this tenuous coalition, however, have refused to demand the impossible together — which is to say, a general strike. Instead, the coalition speaks of “a day without the 99%” and the slogan, “Legalize, Unionize, Organize.” But at just about every other opportunity, people from OWS have been echoing the call for a general strike on May Day, which originated from Occupy Los Angeles’ General Assembly in December. During the April 4 press conference announcing the New York coalition’s plans, the OWS representative avoided saying those words, but after his speech he stripped down to an undershirt with “general strike” scrawled on it in red.
Meanwhile, a group called Strike Everywhere, consisting of “anarchists, anti-capitalists and autonomists,” has made a general strike its unapologetic mission, and it is busy covering the city and the Internet with propaganda, both beautiful and obscene, to agitate for revolt. Some of its members have even constituted a tantalizing Central Park Exploratory Committee, which has yet to disclose its intentions to the public.
Such calls for a general strike raise challenging questions about what a strike could even look like in a society with the lowest rates of union membership in generations. Employment is often episodic, inadequate and undemocratic, yet people seem to lack any inkling that things could be otherwise. Unlike more traditional union-based strikes, also, OWS offers no provisions for long-term support for strikers who suffer retaliation from bosses. What, then, could feasible striking mean? What new forms of workplace organizing could there be, besides unions that have their hands tied in contracts and repressive laws?
A strike, if it actually happens on May 1 or thereafter, may not look like one ever has before. Strike Everywhere, for instance, has been holding assemblies for “precarious and service workers” as a way to create new solidarity networks, and numerous social media accounts are trying to do the same online. Tumblrs have appeared collecting people’s various ideas for how and why they plan to strike. For those who can’t skip work or school, OWS recommends at least a consumer boycott: no housework, no shopping, no banking. And, of course, “TAKE THE STREETS!!!!!” Much like the Adbusters call that resulted in Occupy Wall Street itself, the logic of May Day has been to start with the impossible and figure out the possible from there.
The plan for the day, insofar as there is any single plan, starts at 8 a.m. in Bryant Park, in Midtown. From there, Occupiers and allied organizations will break off into pickets and other kinds of groupings, each targeting one or several of the many corporations with offices in the surrounding skyscrapers. Meanwhile, in the park, there will be a bazaar of “mutual aid,” with food, trainings, medical care, teach-ins, radio transmitters, massages, bike repair, free stores and more. Over the course of the afternoon, the theater of action will shift (likely by way of a ruckus march) down toward Union Square, where the unions and immigrants’ rights groups will by rallying. From there, at around 5:30, there will be a safe, taxi-led, permitted march further down, through Foley Square and into the Financial District. The general consensus seems to be that the bulk of arrests will be saved for after that — for whatever the night will hold.
When the subset of Occupiers preparing for May Day aren’t planning, or wheatpasting posters, or viral-video making, or negotiating, or tweeting, they’re studying history — the Haymarket Massacre, Rosa Luxemburg, and so on — through old films, teach-ins, zines and the movement-made magazine Tidal. They’re also warming up in the streets.
Every Friday, there are “Spring Training” marches to greet the closing bell of the Stock Exchange, and at each Occupiers test out a new creative tactic, like “civilian,” in which they revert to non-protester status so as to evade police blockades, or “melt,” in which they collapse into a disarming die-in or cuddle-puddle. Spring Training culminates in the “people’s gong,” replacing the NYSE’s bell with the voices of Occupiers standing in concentric circles and crying, “Ding!”
On April 17, too, Occupiers will be testing their synergy in the streets for Tax Day actions with many of the institutional allies who will come out in much greater force on May 1. This comes at the end of a nationwide effort called the 99% Spring, in which 100,000 Americans are supposed to be receiving training in nonviolent action, and it will be the first test of a newly-trained populace, just in time for May Day.
After the big day itself, though, nobody knows what will happen. There is a suspicious, almost apocalyptic silence about this among organizers. They call for a general strike on May 1, but is the idea to go back to work on May 2? They talk about building power for the 99 percent, but for what? Some, at least, have been murmuring about the international days of action called for in Europe on May 12 and 15. The 12th, in New York, is also the anniversary of a major march on Wall Street last year. A few Occupiers here are planning to go to Chicago to protest the NATO summit on May 20 and 21. But above all there’s the feeling that if May Day goes well — as, for the movement not to suffer a crushing disappointment, it must — then what follows will unfold organically from there, in a city somehow not quite like the present one and which, from this side of May 1, we cannot really imagine.