The big day is done and the energy spent. How do we look back on a single day that was the culmination of hundreds of other days of collective efforts to promote, build and create an experience that can move us forward? Here are the three ways that I think it is useful to honestly review New York City’s May Day, from an Occupy Wall Street perspective.
Looking at May Day from a perspective of the massive expectations is not going to be pretty. Promotional materials overwhelmingly declared a General Strike, and the actual participation in the strike could hardly expected to have been a single percentage point of the workforce, shoppers and students. It was not a general strike, though it was billed as such.Strikes are not personal choices that individual workers or students make- they are conscious decisions by a workplace or by the working class and its allies as a whole.
Many declared that tens of thousands of people would be in the streets, and the numbers did not cumulatively build up to over twenty thousand, according to someone who does headcounts. It was suggested the city would see its largest shut down ever, but it paled in comparison to some surrounding the Iraq War and the Republican National Convention, not to mention the blackout, the transit strike, and other events. The 99 Pickets largely did not happen, in what instead became a roving and merging series of marches that visited multiple sites. The tunnels and bridges functioned normally, and there was no insurrection on Houston. The expectations were set as high as the greatest mountains, and they were not nearly met. There’s a clear lesson for next time. Don’t bluff, or expect your language to simply create the conditions for the realization of your goals.
The Day in itself
The day in itself was arguably pretty great. Bryant Park probably topped off at two or three thousand people, who broke into large picket lines of between eighty and 674 at nearby labor disputes and corporate headquarters. A march of 1,471 people followed the Guitarmy down to Union Square. There was a weak emphasis, however, on promoting next steps or creating space for new participants and attendees to plug in and feel a sense of commitment.
Union Square Park in particular needs to be understood in the context of New York City’s previous May Days. On the one hand, it was the united mass that had failed to materialize when two separate May Days happened at Union and Foley Squares in previous years, and that is a particularly exciting development.
Perhaps 15,000 people were in Union Square, and more than 11,000 were in the march down toward Wall Street, which should be seated in the reality that in the last few years’ May Days, I personally counted between eight and ten thousand marchers. The sad reality is that the unions, and I am a radical who is still pro-union, could have brought out numbers that brought the day up to forty to seventy thousand, or far more, but they chose not to exert their energy. The numbers themselves belie the significance of Occupy Wall Street. OWS was never strong based on numbers, and likely has never seen over twenty or thirty thousand in the streets of New York, numbers dwarfed by the many hundreds of thousands in the streets against the war in Iraq and Bush in 2003 and 2004. But OWS hit nerves and created space for mass participation. Don’t count the heads or feet, count the hearts and minds. Leave counting the bodies to me.
Students did walk out, inspired by OWS. Some businesses were indeed closed, hundreds joined together across the Brooklyn Bridge, the marches felt positive, and the assemblies on Water St gave a space for speech. A united mass march, the united action of Brooklyn-based occupy assemblies, and the coalitions that kept the day together are of particular note.
Militants engaged in a Wildcat March, one of many unpermitted marches, that did not steepen repression for the rest of the day’s participants, and hardly gave the press anything to divert attention away from the political significance of the day. Several other alleged militant marches failed to materialize. Far fewer were arrested than expected, though the over ninety arrests throughout the day did measure up to the worst arrest toll since November, and few if any will need bail.
The day was also notable as a day which was not at all strong on direct action. In point of fact, I’m not sure I can point to any at all outside of the few work stoppages or student walk-outs. But it was still a great day, and most responses I heard on the ground were positive and filled with hope. The day was not groundbreaking, but people felt an energy that comes from numbers, standing together in coalition, and variety of creative actions. Those left in the streets at the end had to deal with some police repression and a sense of confusion at the next steps, but most people left feeling that they were not alone in their indignation and desire to act against structural inequalities, termed capitalism or corporate greed or austerity.
Today for Tomorrow
The final, and perhaps most important, evaluation comes not from the yesterday or the today, but from the tomorrow. Were next steps actions well promoted? Did demonstrators see the significance of returning to the streets, the workshop spaces, the assemblies or actions of the ensuing days, weeks, or months? And did people leave with heightened energy that will propel us forward.
It’s hard to tell, but I think on these levels it may prove lacking. The May 10-15th days of action (#anotherNYC) were hardly discussed. Liberation Summer and the Summer Disobedience School did not become the watch phrases. Plans for further engagement at Sothebys, Capital Grille, and other local labor struggles may not have immediately panned out. Many people who had not felt a leg into OWS in months definitely came out, and some of them will be people mobilized as actors, not simply bodies in the streets.
Nothing was occupied or maintained in the way that we saw on March 17th and again over the next five weeks, where hubs and excitement over spontaneous shifts were seen at Union Square, Wall Street and Nassau, or the Federal Hall steps. Coming out of March 17th in particular, Occupy Wall Street found a reinvigorated sense of street and plaza presence and a dynamic capacity to adapt to changing conditions in those streets. It remains to be seen if May Day inspired a similar effect.
None of this is to take a one sided perspective of May Day, or to shit on people’s incredibly hard work. But we should tell no lies and claim no easy victories in the words of Amilcar Cabral. Our honest capacity for self-criticism and assessment helps us see what works and what doesn’t, and in a rapid and constant beast like OWS, allows us to look at where we are at in any given phase or period. May Day was a beautiful day in itself, a day that simply could not reach its massive expectations, and its effect on the immediate days, month or months afterward remains to be seen. New York City is a great city capable of some spectacular forms of resistance and creative experimentation with direct democracy, just as other cities have very distinct strengths in those fields. Occupy Wall Street is not going away, and our persistent work toward the campaigns and struggles that we plan or spontaneously move toward will take us forward. Just so long as we take pauses to assess that work and where we find ourselves.