Voices of May Day


| 5/4/2012 3:08:08 PM


Tags: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy DC, Mainstream Media, Twitter, May Day, Sam Ross-Brown.,
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.

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