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Voices of May Day

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Getting the full picture of what happened on May Day is difficult from afar. Here in Kansas, things were quiet on May 1. The Media Consortium’s live-action map of demonstrations and arrests across the country showed little activity within a day’s drive. Occupy KC’s indomitable rally in front of the Board of Trade in Kansas City turned some heads, but fizzled within an hour. The heartland, big and beautiful, is not known for its radical organizing—at least not lately.

And for the most part, mainstream media sources didn’t help much, as Allison Kilkenny points out in The Nation. There were no Occupy images on NYT front pages like there were in the fall (maybe it didn’t help that marchers picketed the Times’ offices in Manhattan), and sources like Reuters and CNN were quick to declare the day’s events a failure. After all, despite the nationwide call to action, most places saw business-as-usual continue. Zuccotti was conspicuously unoccupied, and traders on Wall Street had a pretty normal day. Conclusions like this aren’t too surprising, Kilkenny says. Occupy is a complex, ever-changing movement that consciously resists media categorization, and wire services aren’t too good with nuance.

Fortunately, there were alternatives. On the day itself, sites like OccupyWallSt.org offered frequent updates and live video from New York, Oakland, and other flashpoints. The Guardian put big American outlets to shame with its extensive live coverage. Occupy websites were awash in Twitter feeds and live video streams, from CourtneyOccupy’s dramatic live video from Oakland, to @allisonkilkenny’s updates and photos from lower Manhattan.  

The pictures that emerge from these sources don’t easily fit into binary narratives like success/failure or win/lose. Mostly what the pictures show is movement. Video cameras shake with a strident march, glass shatters against a thrown rock, police shields press against a frozen crowd. Even the rapid-fire Twitter feeds and blurry (still) images capture dramatic volatility. And while this immediacy can easily be lost in writing, there has been a flurry of powerful on-the-ground coverage from a number of alternative print sources.

Writing in Yes! Magazine, Nathan Schneider captures much of that intensity in a critical moment from New York:

That veterans and church officials—not students or global justice activists—would be the last holdouts in a would-be New York occupation says a lot about how expansive Occupy has become.

Elsewhere in New York, the situation was tenser. After stepping into a convenience store following a night of violence, activist Michael Harris was surprised to see a police officer waiting in line. Writing in The New Inquiry, Harris recounts a telling exchange with the cashier after the officer leaves:

But of course, May Day wasn’t all confrontations and violence. In Washington, the situation was very different. “As New York swelled with up to 30,000 May Day demonstrators on Broadway, and as parts of the West Coast exploded with tear gas and broken windows,” writes In These Times’ Emily Crockett, “Washington, D.C., held a carnival.”

Washington’s Occupy movement has a history of being much more peaceful than those of other cities, says Crockett, despite the city’s violent rap. Until an eviction in February, the encampment there was one of the longest lasting in the country. On May Day, Occupy D.C. lived up to its unconventional reputation.

One irony about mainstream coverage of activism is that it tends to define even what it ignores. Unfortunately for activists, whether an American Spring can repeat the significance of last fall depends in large part on how media respond to it, and by extension, how it appears to those at a far distance. The internet may level the playing field a little, but exactly how much difference this makes is yet to be seen. For now, getting the full picture may be tricky.  

Image by Katie Moore, used with permission.  

Sources: Media Consortium, The Nation, OccupyWallSt.org, The Guardian, Yes! Magazine, The New Inquiry, In These Times.