Friday, May 3, 2013

Happy May Day! Socialism and Ground Hog Day, Occupy, Street Parties and the Myth of the Eternal Return

“The problem with socialism is it would take too many nights,” a friend quoted Oscar Wilde the other day in Union Square. We were talking about the old Direct Action Network and the endless meetings. For some democracy is an endless meeting; for me this is a prescription for headache. I’d rather get in, meet and get out. Others value a far more protracted process. It’s the same conversation many of us have been having for a long time. What is the best way to organize – from the bottom or the top, with pure consensus or with a moderated form of task based facilitation? There are no simple answers. Walking around the May Day rally in Union Square, it felt a bit like we’ve all been here before. “Same old OWS: Marches and Arrests” reported AM New York. Nietzsche contemplated the myth of the eternal return in the Gay Science:

MayDay2012 CS Muncy

Arriving at Union Square, I felt like that looking at the sea of union signs, pamphlets, May Day posters, an eightieth edition copy of Catholic Worker and the other trappings of the labor and associated movements.

I greeted my friends from Occupy and the Puppetry Guild performing.

The People's Puppets of OWS, bringing joy back to the revolution since 2011.

Said hi to my co-author Ron.  Chatted with other friends. My friend Mickey and I talked about the arrests of at the Anti-capitalist action in Tompkins Square Park, with anarchists and members of the book block rounded up.

Jenna Pope
Arrests near Tompkins Square Park.  CS Muncy

Book block courtesy the New Yorker.

“Glad the police are there protecting us from the book block,” I noted.

“Don’t you feel protected?” he retorted.

Still, it feels like we’ve been here before with the anarchists in their black masks profiled and pushed off the streets as they have every year I have watched Mayday since 1999. Yet, these conflicts date back to decades, as if the police are still chasing the shadow of McKinley’s assassin. Some push for systematic changes and others push for more limited reforms. Unions grumble and hold their sanctioned marches. And the movements try to intersect.

“Workers Rights at Human Rights!!!!!!!” members of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra chanted entering the square.

And members of OWS started a dance around the May Pole. Their point is that all our grievances are connected.

Walking through the crowd, I greeted my old professors from Hunter and the Graduate Center.

Greeted members of my union, the Professional Staff Congress and reveled in the interconnections of our movements. 

The cacophony of voices and stories, individual perspectives and links with larger movements is never easy to reconcile. Feeling tired by it all, I ducked out to catch up with my kids.

Some of us were going to meet at the Blarney Stone like last year. But others were planning a street party at Washington Square Park. So we met there. Greeting Peter, Jennifer and Keegan, the energy felt different. While we have done countless street parties through the years, this one felt different. It felt alive, like a departure and a continuation of something lovely we’ve been doing with reclaiming spaces over the last fifteen years.

Bill talked about the upcoming actions to defend CHARAS, handing me a flyer noting: “Give Us Back Our Community Center.” Another man gave me a safer spaces flyer. And I noted the Hoop for Your POPS action planned for Saturday and listed in the Times UP! Bike Month Calendar.

May 4th Occupy off Broadway

Hoola Hoop the POPS.

RECLAIM Public Space.

Take this public space back from parked cars and bankers.

Create our own commons with stories, art, music, play, and hula hoops for public space— at New Street between Beaver and Exchange Place.

With sound bike in hand, Keegan placed it inside the fountain and people started to dance.

“We’re still here,” my friend Priya recalled as we laughed about her appearance in a movie about the Seattle 1999 protests in Seattle. She was sitting with a group of drummers, keeping up with the beats, behind a banner declaring: “Its Not a Crisis, It’s a Scam! Capitalism is a Crisis.”

The sound system stopped for a second. And the energy waned. The sound system always dies in these moments, a few of us from the old Reclaim the Streets days of the late 1990’s recalled. Just when you need it most. But Joe arrived with a new battery and we kept on going.

“Let the sun shine in, Let the sun shine in,” the anthem from Hair blared through the speakers and the group shook.

“Happy May Day!” someone screamed standing on the fountain.

“I never know what that means,” someone responded.

A few of us talked about the poetry ride from the previous Sunday and the ways connection to the anniversary of Duchamp’s declaration of “the free and independent Republic of Washington Square” nearly a hundred years prior during another occupation. We reveled in the connection of bodies, of Occupiers who’d been so beaten up the previous year, sent to jail, still out here, this time dancing and smiling.

Yet, the city and the voice of the Comstocks are always there to suppress the gestures of collective joy, to take away drums, prohibit the sound of live music in the park, or restrict spaces where people to converge, dance, sing, and come together. But it rarely works. Our unsanctioned marches continue despite them.  So does the eternal cat and mouse game between police and those with far more expansive definitions of freedom. 

“The streets, the streets, the streets are on fire!!!!” the crowd of dancers screamed.

“Whose streets? Our streets – tear up the concrete!!!!!” others followed in homage to 1968.

Some of us talked about the moving the party into the streets before the curfew. Lopi blocked, noting it was the boys who were making that call. Others chimed in. The police were also moving in so we moved out.

And the group marched out into the Village streets. Police followed the group, pushing everyone into the sidewalk. The crowd zigged left against traffic. People begin to run. Word went out for the crowd to disperse and re converge. And finally, we all met at Cooper Union.

The blurry beginnings of a stand off.

“Cooper Union: Free Tuition for All” read the banner hanging from the building.

The police stood on one side, in a row, dancing bodies on the other.

Kick lines and dancing bodies in space.

Monica and Keegan turned on “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Spaghetti Western Sound track. Bike dancers vs cops in an epic dance, noted Monica. Yet, the showdown never really materialized.

“Great Free University Dance Party last night.,” Keegan later chimed in on facebook. “Finally got to do the Good, Bad, and Ugly with a line of police, protesters at my back. The White Shirt refused to come back at my MJ impression, so I'm pretty sure we won...”

At some point, the police moved in for the sound bike, turning it off.

But the kids from upstairs had their own sound they could blast from the floors above.

And my buddies and I rode off through the night with the Clash’s “Know Your Rights” blaring into the night. “You have a right, not to be killed.”

And the unsanctioned dance party boomed into the night, a refreshing end, without arrests to the eternal return of May Day. We can be crushed by the repetition or embrace the choice to live and grasp and perhaps get a few of these moments right, challenging the powers and principalities, large and strong, as we perform the sonata of our lives in this playground of our city.

The beauty of May Day is it allows us to connect with a long standing culture of resistance, which takes countless forms.  Most importantly, it reminds us there is a culture of dissent in this country.
As Emma G noted in 1940, "The strongest bulwark of authority is uniformity; the least divergence from it is the greatest crime. ... [S]He who refuses to submit is at once labeled 'queer,' 'different,' and decried as a disturbing element in the comfortable stagnancy of modern life. Perhaps even more than constituted authority, it is social uniformity and sameness that harass the individual most."

Sadly, today homage to uniformity is taking legal precedent around the world.   Last Sunday, the NY Times published Salman Rushdie's story: "Whither Moral Courage?"  The article features an image of a member of OWS being dragged away by police.  The article highlights the plight of those, such as Hamza Kashgari, who challenge long standing conventions who now find themselves in jail, without support, quite often blamed for challenging powers and principalities.  Rushdie writes:

The writers and intellectuals of the French Enlightenment also challenged the religious orthodoxy of their time, and so created the modern concept of free thought. We think of Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and the rest as intellectual heroes. Sadly, very few people in the Muslim world would say the same of Hamza Kashgari.

THIS new idea — that writers, scholars and artists who stand against orthodoxy or bigotry are to blame for upsetting people — is spreading fast, even to countries like India that once prided themselves on their freedoms.

Rushdie notes the problem is not something those in the US are immune to.  " The young activists of the Occupy movement have been much maligned (though, after their highly effective relief work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those criticisms have become a little muted)."

So on this week of May Day, let us celebrate those willing to stand up against blandness and income inequality in support of workers, immigrants and human rights.  Lets also hope OWS and associated movements can move to a place where they, we, grasp power, weild, and remake it.  The lessons of the life of Civil Rights activist and trade unionist, Bayard Rustin, of the new film How to Survive a Plague, are that activists can push power, get a seat at the table and create changes, even if that means transforming the table.  Inside outside.  Hopefully this is where we are going. 

Happy 94th Birthday Pete. If ever there was an example of moral courage its you.
Thank you.

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