May Day Reflections

By Josh Leifer

(This post was originally written one week after the May 1 General Strike.)

Union Square was packed. Aging Maoists, reformist liberals, and the occasional steampunk-looking person stood shoulder to shoulder under a sun that had grown progressively warmer as the day wore on. Tom Morello’s atrociously banal “Worldwide Rebel Song”” rang out from the speakers placed around the park. We had marched there from Bryant Park, starting on the sidewalk and then gradually taking the street. We had streamed down the avenue as police on their scooters tried desperately to corral us at each intersection. The air in the square was triumphant but apprehensive. It felt like we had finally done it. Thousands were assembled in Union Square. We had effectively shut down a major boulevard in the busiest city on Earth.

As Tom Morello’s final chords echoed around one last time, I left the park to survey the surrounding streets. Were more people coming? Where were all the street cleaners, garbage men, and bus drivers who should have already joined us? A taxi whizzed past, probably carrying some wealthy European tourist. More cars drove by. People entered and exited luxury shops. Kids just out of school exercised their civic imperative to consume. Just two blocks away from Union Square, business carried on as if nothing was happening. Yet somehow, sympathetic writers (see the Nation’s Allison Kilkenny’s post-May Day article and Natasha Lennard’s pre-May Day article) have been reluctant to recognize the May 1 General Strike for what it was – like many recent Occupy actions, a disappointment.

Firstly, May Day was disappointing because it wasn’t really a strike. Sure, lots of students, young members of the creative class, and veterans of the anti-war movement were there. But the unions didn’t join the march until later in the afternoon. Transit workers, teacehers, sanitation workers all worked on the day of the General Strike. Indeed, the May 1 General Strike action would not have been possible had there been an actual strike. Many of the activists who arrived at Bryant Park via subways or buses would not have been able to do so had there been a strike. The students from New Jersey, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens would not have been able to make it either. The supreme irony of the May 1 General Strike is that no action would have been possible if the city’s workers had actually refused to work.

The second disappointment has to do with tactics. And there’s been a lot of writing about the NYPD presence and the brutal tactics it employed against protestors. The NYPD learned from last fall – it wanted nothing to do with the mass arrests that marked the early days of the Occupy movement. Instead of the spectacle of arrests, like the Brooklyn Bridge in October, the NYPD adopted a subtler and more brutal strategy. But what is disappointing is that the effectiveness of this strategy – “snatch and grab”- is not due to the sheer power in numbers of the police. Rather, the Occupy movement has made it easier, and this was the case on May Day, for police to apprehend activists and disrupt marches by using the “snatch and grab” strategy.

“Snatch and grab” as crowd control is successful chiefly because it disrupts the flow of a march. When thousands of pople are flowing down a street, the best way to effectively impede their motion is not some kind of colossal barricade but rather some kind of threatening distraction. When the police pull a young woman out of a crowd and throw her down on the pavement – as has happened countless times – the attention of the march is diverted. Movement halts and confusion takes over. What just happened? Who was that? And of course there is the concomitant attempt to make an un-arrest, which diverts the attention of the marchers even further. The answer to this police behavior is not to become callously indifferent to the abuse of our comrades; instead, we must find a way to make “snatch-and grab” ineffective, if not impossible.

I am not a seasoned protester or professional activist by any means; I am a high school student from New Jersey. But I was there on May Day, and I witnessed the disappointment. I was weaned on the legend (and I say legend because I was five years old in 1999) of the protests at the WTO conference in  Seattle. It is almost impossible to compare Occupy to the global justice movement of the 90s and the coalition of groups that came together in Seattle in 1999. And even so, Seattle has already been dissected, analyzed, and fetishized. But there is one image from the grainy youtube clips of Seattle of which I am reminded nearly every time I think about Occupy: protesters blocking an intersection, forcing the police to open fire with rubber bullets and tear gas. The protests in Seattle prevented the conference from happening. It blocked the WTO delegates from entering the meetings. To do this, activists took over intersections, blockaded roads, and halted the flow of traffic. In most cases, these tactics have been absent from the Occupy protests. Though unpermitted marches have become a hallmark of sorts of the Occupy movement, they create only minor disruptions and occur almost randomly. There is no specified goal or target (and I’m not taking about demands here). The unpermitted marches simply end up leading several hundred people down New York City sidewalks.

The Occupy movement, at its core, is about putting an end to business as usual for Wall Street – putting an end to the unquestioned reign of the “1%” over the “99%.” Occupy, then, is about disruptions – so is the General Strike. The purpose of both is to stop the flow of capital. But this is hard to do when marches simply rush through the streets or sidewalks. disrupting little and certainly not halting the flow of anything.

The unpermitted march inhabits a strange place on the spectrum of public protest. It is not a state-sanctioned event, so the police remain antagonists instead of facilitators – but it is not an act of civil disobedience. In most cases, walking with a group down a sidewalk is not illegal, but it is still moderately disruptive and it irritates police. Occupy has often been reluctant to use flat out civil disobedience – such as public sit downs and blockades of city streets- out of fear of directly violating the law and the sensibilities of mainstream Americans. Occupy’s strategy, instead, has been to tread the line of legality in the hope that a violent police response will win the movement sympathizers. But this strategy has not worked. Those the movement hoped to win over simply react to the roving sidewalk protests as a nuisance. “Shut up and stop crowding the sidewalk” is a common response. If the public is not receptive to timid attempts to remain within the bounds of the law, then the law must be broken.

If we’re going to get arrested anyway – snatched and grabbed off the street into a paddy-wagon – then let’s get arrested the right way! What better method of clotting the arteries of capitalism is there than to sit our asses down in the middle of a Times Square intersection with 5,000 of our closest friends? The cops will need to do more than “snatch and grab” to get rid of us. And we can be sure the amount of time that would be enough to turn those clogged arteries into a stroke. But to successfully induce a cardiac arrest, we need more people in the street; as long as the number of protesters remain in the thousands, the media will continue to ignore them.

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