Across New York City, People Honor May Day (Part II)

Continued from my previous report.

Union Square was packed. The north clearance and west sidewalk of the park were devoted to mutual aid – food, clothing, and other amenities to liberate strikers from the necessity of economic activity – and, of course, a maypole. The south steps temporarily turned to Coachella as the assembling thousands appreciated Das Racist, Dan Deacon, Immortal Technique, and others. Though many in the incoming crowds were people getting off work, Deacon implored the crowd to cheer for all the workers who couldn’t make it, which they did with enthusiasm.

What had been an impressive three-block-long march from Bryant Park to Union Square became a sixteen-block-long march, according to the count a friend of mine conducted by running the march’s span in reverse, from Union Square on south. Here was a labor union, there a community organization, here an immigrants’ rights group, there a marching band, for block after block of raucous marching, chanting and music. Linking all of them were the slogans, iconography and members of Occupy Wall Street, which is mostly credited for “changing the conversation,” but deserves a lot more credit for vitalizing the left – if in a very uncomfortable, messy, challenging way – as May Day showed.

Or, according to the president, Loyalty Day. Despite right-wing paranoia that President Obama’s milquetoast liberalism was “class warfare” offered as a salute to May Day and Occupy, the president declined to even acknowledge the day, and instead proclaimed May 1, 2012, Loyalty Day. This idea was first officially promulgated on May Day 1959, during the cold war and immediately following the worst Red Scare suppression and intimidation. The idea was deliberately to insinuate that the American left – the socialists, communists and anarchists who had led the labor movement – were Soviet agents, disloyal to the United States, by defiantly replacing their so-called “International Workers’ Day” in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago with bellicose jingoism.

If marchers weren’t killed by police on May 1, 2012 – as during the Haymarket massacre – they certainly weren’t ignored. Surveillance was in full force yesterday, including a number of startlingly nearby New York City Police Department helicopters. The financial district was a Byzantine labyrinth of police barricades, prescribing the march’s route, with cops in suits of varying degrees of militarization, scores thick at certain critical points, like Zuccotti Park and the Broadway entrance to Wall Street and its adjacent intersections. The group headed to Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza to relax, rejoice, dance and hold a large general assembly – I estimate 500 participants – at the plaza’s amphitheater. The atmosphere was as electric, optimistic and celebratory as I can ever remember it being. Then, the park closed at 10 o’clock.

Hundreds of police officers, hundreds and hundreds of police officers, police officers from every direction and as far as anyone could see, amassed around the square. Three different groups – brigades? battalions? – of police officers marched in formation into the square, one delegate of each group reciting through bullhorns the instruction to leave or hit the clink. The Veterans Peace Team, on which I have previously reported, linked arms with clergy to form a line of nonviolent protection between the approaching police and protesters, most of whom took the opportunity to vacate the premises, with assistance from the casual shoves and prods virtually every police officer continually distributed to anyone in arm’s reach (which always includes me and to which, full disclosure, I always register verbal objection).

I asked one police officer where I could stand in order to maintain a view of the scene without being in breach of the law. He directed me to one spot from which another officer instructed me to move or get arrested. We had the same conversation, and he directed me back to the first place. Another police officer moved me down the block, out of range of sight for the park and another, further still. None could explain why, since we had vacated the park, which was the infraction detailed by bullhorn. There were, of course, arrests and instances of police inflicting violence on protesters.

By now, this is widely accepted as normal and unremarkable, though there are some disquieting developments that ought to make us pause and consider the insouciance with which we now routinely dismiss violent policing of dissidence. Specifically, police departments are becoming much more powerful. Oakland is now deploying tanks and M-4 assault rifles. Police departments and, as we now know, universities are buying up drones just as fast as they can.

I walked to the subway, through pockets of police officers at almost every corner. The largest group, predictably, was stationed at Broadway and Wall Street. There, a young woman of very short stature, unconnected to the May Day events, stood arguing with officers about what I couldn’t tell. The cops dismissed her. “I’m going to report all of you!” she shouted. They laughed. “You think I’m joking?” she inquired. One responded by singing “Follow the yellow brick road” in his best munchkin voice. The rest rewarded the joke with hearty laughter. The young woman left, ashamed, humiliated and unable to trust the people whose specific professional purpose is to serve and protect folks like her. Maybe they were shirking their motto – Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect – in observance of the general strike.

May Day was a success by the account of everyone I spoke to. However, the people in power seem increasingly interested in responding not by addressing the dissidents’ concerns, but by violently containing their activities. Stay tuned for news coming from the courts in the weeks and months ahead – if Occupy produces its first political prisoners, we will have reached a new chapter.