Monday, April 30, 2012

From the Haymarket to Occupy: Ruminations on May Day 2012

Just reading through Facebook.  My friend May Hem posted,5 military choppers circling new York city right now. Ray Kelly high terrorist alert my ass. How stupid do you think we are ?”  Listening out my windows, I hear the sound of helicopters in the distance.  Its usually like this in the city the day before a big convergence action.  In the days before Feb 15th, 2003 when thousands converged on the UN before Colin Powell’s infamous speech, the office of homeland security changed alert level terror codes almost daily.  Protesters dream for democratic expression in the face of expanding income inequalities while police strive for social control of the streets during days such as May Day, the Republican Convention.  Conflicting images of urban living clash in the corridors, sidewalks, parks, libraries, plazas, and anywhere else people gather.  These are days when the dialectics of the city turn the streets into a living, breathing work of art. 

These dialectics involve an interplay those seeking to express their concerns about restrictions on democracy and responses from the city which sees anything  but “permitted” (translate regulated and controlled) marches as “disruptive activities” which constitute a threat to social order and quite possibly terrorist activity.  Examples of potentially “disruptive” activities listed by the NYPD Counterterrorism Unit include the Wildcat March, Bike Block which would “attempt to tie up automotive activity”, and any unpermitted activities taking place on May 1.   In other words, first amendment protected expression is deemed potentially ‘terrorist activity’ by the NYPD.   Yet, for every restriction, a counter response takes shape.

Walking home from Occupy Town Square in Union Square on Saturday, someone passed me a copy of a broadsheet with the words: “STRIKE OCCUPY.”  

ha-ha, ho-ho!
Fly into the streets!

All who are still fresh and young and no dehumanized – to the streets!
The pot-bellied mortar of laughter strands in a square drunk with joy.   Laughter and Love, copulating with Melancholy and Hate, pressed together in the might convulsive passion…

Long list the psychology  of contrasts!  Intoxicated , burning spirits have raised the flaming banner….

The words, of course, are from the Anarcho Futurist Manifesto of 1919.  The passion they conjure still lingers in the air, in the contrasts of the city on the eve of a proposed general strike.  Of, course, a general strike implies workers propose to strike.  “Strikelujah” chimed in Gideon Oliver at tonight’s Reverend Billy “Night before May Day’ show and rally tonight.  Many at the show felt that way.  The inequalities we experience today will only continue unless more people fight back, express themselves, and reclaim democracy of and for the people.

My union, the PSC, has called for a labor rally tomorrow, not a strike.   By laws of the state, we are obliged not to strike (not that many of the members of our union were around when the Taylor Laws were signed, writing off our most useful tool, the general strike).   

The chapter chair of my chapter Robert Cermele notes:

This May Day will be historic in its dimension. The call for a "general strike" may be... rhetorical. But there will likely be tens of thousands of people or more in the streets. The Occupy Wall Street movement, Labor Unions, Immigrant Rights groups and others have been seriously organizing for this.
      The heart of the May Day holiday is directly relevant to the students and workers at CUNY. We are workers.
  Participating in the creative, militant, diverse May Day activities is an educational experience.  We all know that education is not just, or primarily, something acquired in the classroom. It is also gotten through real life experiences. 

            The labor sector of the May Day March and Rally endorsed the following statement:

Legalize! Organize! Unionize! 
We want to be heard! We need to be heard! We will be heard! 
We are here to celebrate our power as working people. We are here to assert our power as working people. We are here to declare our solidarity with working people the world over. 
We are here to declare our right to economic security, to health care, to public services, to safe and healthy communities, to quality education, and to civil liberties. We are here to demand all the popular, administrative and legislative initiatives required to secure these rights.  
We are here to decry the rampant growth of inequality. We want an end to tax breaks for the rich. We want an end to assaults on the right to organize. We want an end to the mass incarceration of people of color. We want an end to the demonization of the immigrant community. We want an end to war and the unaffordable militarization of foreign policy. We want an end to a political process bought and paid for by the 1%. 
We are here to emphasize our growing unity of purpose. We are Puerto Rico. We are Wisconsin. We are Ohio. We are New York. We are Los Angeles and Oakland and a multitude of cities across the country. We are the 99%! 

Of course, most everyone who has been through a round or two of convergence actions in the city is weary of these moments. Tonight, Reverend Billy talked about the reality that some would be arrested and spend the night in the tombs the following day.   We’ve all seen it before, as if from the ghosts of the Haymarket Martyr’s of labor’s pastThe police fear another bomb and react to signs of anarchists, the Black Bloc, or radicalism, seeking to sweep their images from the street and the public commons. I recall a friend being swept up by the police standing in Union Square with a black block mask.  Four years later, friends with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra had their instruments smashed by the NYPD on August31 2004 while standing in Union Square during the Republican National Convention, when the City of New York became a paramilitary zone; innocent people were swept off the streets for doing little more than occupying the sidewalk, liberals remained quiet, and the city fell further into the grips of an expanding  censorship zone.

Of course, these convergence days of action have produced amazing things over the years; but just as often, they culminate in arrests, criminalization of dissent, and lawsuits. This is part of why it is so important to have lawyers around to push back.  Just today, I received a press release declaring:

Elected Officials and Members of the Press File Civil Rights Suit Against
NYPD and JP Morgan Chase For Arrests Related to OWS

Federal lawsuit alleges civil rights violated by NYPD and private entities including
JP Morgan Chase and Brookfield Properties asks for federal independent monitor

New York, NY. April 30, 2012. Lawyers on behalf of 5 elected officials and over half a dozen members of the press filed a major lawsuit today in federal court alleging the City of New York, the MTA, the New York Police Department, Brookfield Properties, JP Morgan Chase and others are in violation of numerous civil rights, including First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.  The suit seeks redress for police misconduct in arrests made during the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and asks that a federal independent monitor be appointed to oversee the NYPD in order to safeguard the public.

The 143 page complaint submitted by a group of civil rights attorneys including Leo Glickman, Yetta G. Kurland and Wylie Stecklow, was filed today in United States District Court in the Southern District and includes a 24 minute video which highlights the use of excessive force and selective enforcement which many have claimed has become an issue over the past 6 months during the “Occupy” protests.

The suit also addresses the City’s relationship with JP Morgan Chase who donated $4.6 million to the NYPD during this time, as well as the fact that members of the press and elected officials have been arrested while observing and/or reporting on these protests.

One of the plaintiffs, New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who was bloodied and arrested on November 15, 2011 for attempting to observe the eviction of Zuccotti park stated “While my charges were dismissed, the bigger issue still remains, namely that the NYPD misused their power and did not respect my First Amendment or the NYC Charter which gave me the right to act as an observer."

New York City Councilmember Letitia James, another plaintiff in the suit, stated “this is about accountability but it is also about ensuring that we have a proper balance of powers in this City. People should not be afraid to suffer harm from the police when they express their First Amendment right to assemble.”

New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito has also joined the suit. She stated “Some of us in the City Council are looking to address these issues legislatively, in the meantime we will avail ourselves of the United States judicial branch to ask for its help to ensure our police properly protect the public they are entrusted to serve.”

Jumaane Williams, another New York City Councilmember made the point that this effects everyone not just OWS protestors. “We hope this suit will help all New Yorkers, as well as the NYPD. We believe officers should not be put in a situation where they are asked to act in a way which results in this type of misconduct or puts them at odds with the public.”

John Knefel, a journalist and radio show host, who was arrested while covering a protest in the publicly-accessible Winter Garden in lower Manhattan because he didn’t have NYPD issue press credentials, is one of the plaintiffs as well. “It is of course concerning that the public is arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights, but it is likewise concerning that members of the press are arrested when they try to cover this.”

Justin Sullivan, another plaintiff and citizen press journalist who assembled the video exhibit for the suit stated “I was arrested while covering someone else being arrested for complaining about someone else being arrested for doing a ‘mic check’. This is not how our police should act.”

While they rarely slow the NYPD, these lawsuits help those who have been swept from the streets feel like there is some recourse after experiencing the raw end of the often unconstitutional rule of force often exercised by the NYPD.  The City of New York is still paying out those swept from the streets during the Republican National Convention eight years ago.  A few years ago, a group of us swept from the streets and arrested protesting the Carlyle Group, were rewarded a settlement from the city.  While the city rarely admits guilt, the lawsuits help hold the city in check.  They help those arrested feel like the system is not completely stacked against them.

Days and Rage and Wildcat strikes.
For much of this year, activists involved with Occupy have engaged in a debate about a diversity of tactics.  Embracing direct action, OWS has not asked for permits for rallies.  Echoing the IWW before it, OWS does not seem to view those in power as sources of legitimate authority.
And asking for a permit for a right to peacable assembly which already exists strikes many as counterintuitive.   Yet, the NYPD sees things differently, sometimes violently attacking those engaging in first amendment protected activities.  As the arrests by the NYPD have escalated, some have debated other approaches to engagement.  Such debates are not unfamiliar.  The history of social movements is full of activists who have entertained a range of approaches.   Today, much of this debate has surrounded the unpermited May Day Wildcat Strike scheduled for May Day.

We were told by a bosses, by activists, by union leaders we couldn’t strike. Perhaps, they suggested, if we wanted to protest we could carry a sign and walk within police barricades, safely cordoned off in a free speech zone. On May 1st, we aren’t working and we aren’t protesting. We are striking.

We call on all fellow wildcat strikers to join us for a massive unpermitted march at 1pm at Sara D. Roosevelt Park (corner of 2nd and Houston). Along with striking rebels all over the world, we will show the bosses and cops of the world that we are many and we are only getting stronger.

Bring drums, banners, music, and an affinity group. See you on May Day.

Yesterday before the Times Up! Polar Bear ride, a friend approached me about the action, noting that journalists had been told not to attend the action.  Rumors about the action abounded and I was encouraged not to attend.  If May Day comes and goes and it's a peaceful demonstration, no one's going to remember it"”  noted a conservative source in the Wall Street Journal seeming to provoke a violent reaction from the movement, which to this date, has steered away from such approaches.  After all, when movement strays too far from the Ghardian repertoire of non-violence, the state usually steps in fast, crushing most everyone involved.  They did this with the Young Lords, Weather Underground, Earth Liberation Front and many others.  As it has done in other years, the NYPD seem to be demarking good protesters from bad, contrasting those engaging in unpermitted rallies in contrast with those, such as labor, who have applied for a  permit for their action.

 “I came here for community," noted Mark Adams, with the author overlooking to the top left.
Photo by Stacy Lanyon. 

In the meanwhile, others have simply committed themselves to building a more compelling image of democratic social relations. “We will dazzle with brilliance, not isolate with violence,” noted my friend Keegan on Facebook.  “I came here for community, solidarity, mutual aid, everything for everybody,” noted my friend Mark Adams.  For many, mutual aid networks are part of what make the Occupy experiment, just so vital. The street theatrics and community building are part of what make the movement feel so embodied, fun, and vital.

For the last six weeks, I have attended the Spring Training sessions taking place on Fridays at Zuccotti Park.  These are training sessions for May Day done with group exercises in which groups of hundreds of learn to move, supporting each other, while holding space.   Last Friday, the final session, was a great day at Spring training. Zaps of Chase Bank, Trinity Church and the MTA, and a gesture of civil disobedience in front of the Stock Exchange. A marching band accompanied us as we wondered from Zuccotti down through the labyrinth to Bowling Green. “Occupy and Shut it Down, New York is a working town!” and "Hey, Hey MTA, How many fair hikes did you have today?" some chanted. Others fell back to the vintage: "The system, its Broken, Hella Hella Occupy!" and "One, two, three four, lets have a class war, five, six, seven, eight, smash the rich, smash the state!" The Human Gong and civil disobedience at the closing bell was thrilling.   

The three pickets were samples of some of the 99 similar pickets called for for May Day.

The 1% crashed our economy, foreclosing on millions of homes,destroying jobs, and wrecking our city budget. Enough is Enough. As we approach May 1, we will be setting up 99 Picket Lines to expose, disrupt, and shut down the 1% who rule our city.

As we approach May 1,we will be setting up 99 Picket Lines to expose, disrupt, and shut down the 1% who rule our city.The 99 pickets will be an effective way for people to plug into the morning activities on May Day. A few other pickets will happen in the coming weeks to build for the May 1st, but the focus of this project is May 1st. This is an opportunity to fight back against austerity, union busting, the attacks on immigrant rights and the entire system of the 1% rule with a tactic and framework that is in solidarity with the May Day call to action. The recent General Strikes in Spain and Greece show us that when we all fight back together, against austerity we are stronger. The picket line is a tactic with a rich history. It can be diverse and does not have to be symbolic.

How will we get to 99 picket lines?
Good question- We are off to a great start. Right now, Unions, Worker Centers, community groups, and affinity groups are selecting and bottom lining targets. We already have over 20 locations. We have an outreach plan to encourage many more organizations to participate.

In order to get to 99, but we need more unions, community groups, OWS working groups, affinity groups, and workers to step up and pick a target.

Pick a target you want to picket, ideally at 8 am on May 1, in midtown. Can you get at least 20 people to join you in picketing? Great! (We can help by publicizing your target, if you want. There will also be some upcoming trainings on picketing and mobile tactics) If you do not have 20 people, no problem come to an OWS action spokes council to plug into existing pickets or just come at 8AM to Bryant Park on May 1st and recruit folks to join you. Either way, You are also strongly encouraged to participate in the affinity group spokes councils and existing May Day planning which happen every Wednesday at 6PM at 33 West 14th St. This tactic and project is in solidarity with the all of the exciting plans for May 1st. This action will be distinct but also compliment the amazing mass march from Union Square at 4pm.

If you would like to register a picket line and or have any questions or need support email:

San Francisco writers James Tracy and I had coffee today.   We talked about the ways Occupy has plugged into countless local campaigns, including struggles for workers at Sotheby’s or people losing their homes.  Staughton Lynd has argued movements thrive when they go local and join such campaigns over the long term.  Days of action are important ways of bringing people together, yet they lose their vitality when people lose the capacity to connect with changing everyday mechanisms of power.  May Day is tomorrow. See you tomorrow at Continental Army Plaza at 10:30 am.  From there, we move into the abyss, between protester ambition to take on corporate control on a march over the Manhattan Bridge to the Lower East Side, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park  and back to Union Square..  Along the way, we’ll probably end up trickling past the Wildcat Strike and encounter the Bike Block, already drawing  the attention of the NYPD and its Counter Terrorism Bureau, which equates democratic expression with Terrorism.  But what really matters is what we all do on May 2.

Its 11 AM, the night before May Day.  

May Day bat signal. Photo by Gideon Oliver.

I just got a text message declaring: 

“Occupy NYC: MAYDAY All Civilians Stand by for a General Strike at 8:00, No Work, School of Shopping.”  Looks like the game is on.  Time to enter the breach between the streets and history.

No comments:

Post a Comment