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Voices of May Day

OWS Celebration

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:

As dark came, occupiers' plans to hold an after-party in Battery Park were foiled by police blockades. Text-message alerts guided those who wished to stay to a Vietnam veterans' memorial tucked along the East River waterfront between buildings that house Morgan Stanley and Standard & Poor’s. The memorial includes a space that served as a perfect amphitheater for a thousand-strong "people's assembly"—so named because OWS' General Assembly is currently defunct—and it became one of those moments of collective effervescence and speaking-in-one-voice that won so many discursively-inclined hearts to the movement in the fall. People of other inclinations danced to the familiar sound of the drum circle on the far side of the park.

The topic of the assembly was whether to stay, to try and occupy. At first it seemed that maybe people would. (What better place to spend the summer than by the water?) Members of the Veterans Peace Team, a uniformed bloc of military veterans and allies, volunteered to stand at the front lines. So did two clergymen from Occupy Faith. They received cheers, but as the discussion wore on, the assembly seemed less and less inclined to stay after the park closed at 10 p.m. and repeat another sequence of beatings and arrests. Even after being told that the Occupiers would retreat back to the streets, though, the Veterans Peace Team members and the clergymen—including Episcopal Bishop George Packard, a Vietnam veteran—stayed at the memorial as an act of disobedience and were apprehended by police.

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:

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.

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.”

On a holiday that draws attention to workers’ rights in the industrial era, D.C.’s event was downright medieval. On a sunny day in Meridian Hill Park, protesters danced around a maypole (held aloft manually when the cops said it couldn’t be planted in the soil), sang ancient labor ballads, hung out in the shade of trees, and erected a massive “sun dragon” puppet for the later march to the White House.

The atmosphere was festive and often whimsical. A game of “inequality pong” (with water, not beer) enticed players to aim for the 1 percent wine glass and avoid the 99 percent red Solo cups—and for an extra challenge, stand further back on the line for “poor dad” instead of the close-up “rich dad.” There was T-shirt silk-screening and purple glitter body paint. There were leaflets and models of foreclosed homes. One anarchist held his 5-week-old baby, and another anarchist gave a lecture on how chaos and disorder are actually the opposite of what anarchism seeks to achieve.

But fun and games aside, the central focus was on labor issues. One teach-in took attendees through the fraught history of organized labor and the bane of the Taft-Hartley Act. Numerous community and labor organizers took the stage, and several Metro employees in uniform could be seen around the park pushing for fairer deals.

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.