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
:

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
.

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