By Don Gato:
Yesterday, May 1st—International Workers Day (and what Obama has cynically renamed a new national holiday called “Loyalty Day,” tailing red-baiting anti-communist Presidents of times past[i])—I was in New York City for “Occupy May Day.” A number of friends and loved ones were working to make this May Day special with actions all over the City. I drove in the night before and stayed with two friends who were nice enough to put me up, despite being busy organizing with Occupy Wall Street and other local movements for the big day. I woke up the next day and took a subway toward Bryant Park, where people were meeting to mobilize together.
My May Day started by milling around Bryant Park for a while as people congregated. It wasn’t large—maybe a few hundred people—and lines began forming for pickets across the City. I decided to join a crowd of folks picketing the Bank of America (they had started foreclosure proceedings on my friend’s parents, so it made sense) and marched with 50-100 people in front of the building. It was a bit odd, having been in fairly tame pickets like this before, to look around and see probably 50-100 police surrounding us from the get-go. Perhaps more strange was the presence of about the same number of journalists. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume that they didn’t handle the day like the New York Times did today.
I left the picket to get some much-needed coffee and walked with friends to Madison Square Park to hear Professor David Harvey talk about capitalism and the need for anti-capitalist movements. Professor Harvey talked to a crowd of about 75 people about how capitalism is predatory, based in robbery, and the need for system change. All over the park people met for different free classes and conversations for hours. After Harvey’s talk, I walked back to Bryant Park.
The crowd had swelled at Bryant Park. There were hundreds of people there. I passed folks debating economics, the nature of the state, organizers from ACT-UP planning an upcoming march, a free library, free food, puppets, musicians—an actual May Day celebration. But for me, this one was a bit different, I have to admit. People were debating various anti-capitalist perspectives and the best ways to rid ourselves of this system of misery and deprivation that we live in or, at the very least, build our lives in conflict with it. There were years of my life where these conversations were only happening in a pretty empty echo chamber. That’s not the case anymore and I’m grateful to the various Occupy sites and movements, the rebels in Cairo and Athens, the militant students in the UK and Chile—to rabble-rousers all over the world—for making those conversations a part of the public conversation again. That, in and of itself, is news.
Next we marched to Union Square. Tom Morello, from Rage Against the Machine, was there with his “guitarmy,” a misfit band of Occupiers who joined him on stage to sing about revolution. After their performance I left to walk around and was pretty surprised (pleasantly) once again to see tables from movement groups all around. There was a sea of people in Union Square too—literally thousands and likely tens of thousands. I bumped into an old friend there and we started talking about our experiences that day with Immortal Technique taking the stage in the background.
Before long people began mobilizing to march to Liberty Square. We caught up with the march when it was in process and it’s difficult for me to describe what took place. The protesters took the streets and stretched as far as I could see in both directions (and I’m a tall dude). Yet again, I was taken aback by the amount of black flags, banners calling for the need for systems change, and the diverse range of ideas and groups in this absolutely huge march. Some of the last estimates I heard were that 30-50,000 protesters were in the streets. I have no clue how to quantify that or corroborate it, but I can say with certainty that this was one of the largest I’ve ever seen.
And then there were the cops. Covering both sides of the march, the police constructed barricades and were also out in force—also in the thousands. It’s a little strange living in a world where people taking their streets are seen as a danger while thousands of people in uniforms with guns, batons, tear gas, riot gear and the like are considered “public servants” here to ensure our “safety.” The police were everywhere.
Eventually the march was jostled and corralled and some occupiers took an amphitheater at 55 Water St. (originally we were headed to Battery Park). My friend and I tried to get out to the new occupation, but the police had shut access through most of the roads we needed to take. We were interrogated by police, told we couldn’t walk down certain streets, and in some cases were just stopped by police barricades as they shut down some streets and started controlling peoples’ movements. When we finally made it to the amphitheater through a meandering mix of good guesses and GPS directions, the juxtaposition of the police presence with what was taking place inside was almost too much. Over a thousand people sat in a circle in the amphitheater for a massive general assembly, using the people’s mic to amplify the voices of various speakers. The sight—that many people there discussing daily life and connecting it to our institutions—was beautiful.
And outside were the police, in force. They slowly began surrounding the general assembly (apparently loud talking is dangerous enough to warrant a response by riot cops). We left the area and watched as the general assembly concluded and people started taking the streets again. A group of priests and veterans apparently locked arms to protect the occupation, but we couldn’t see through the lines of police in front of the street. As we started walking away, my friends and I watched as police pulled people into the streets to beat them, arrest them, and cart them off to cages. At one point, the police charged a group of us on the sidewalk, pinning some of us against a wall and clubbing everyone near. A few brave people tried to push the thugs off of them, but the response was so quick and unexpected that few people who were targeted escaped their clubs. We saw about four or five of these skirmishes as we were heading out.
In any case, I woke up this morning to read the Times’ coverage of this historic event. More people were mobilized in the march than I’ve ever seen in my life. The police brutalized people in public and weren’t stopped as they rampaged through parts of the New York streets, at times pulling protesters into the streets as a pretext for beating, kidnapping, and caging them. People covered parks throughout New York City for May Day talking about insurrection, the violence of our existing institutions, and we got a(nother) peek at that very violence (which is all too real nearly every day in some communities within the United States and elsewhere throughout the world). Surely the New York Times, the paper of record, would have something to say about this, even if it was a liberal corporate hit piece as is so often the case when movements begin having teeth.
On nytimes.com today, May 2nd—right now around noon—we see headlines like “Dissident Exits Embassy after China Agrees to Deal” and “Fierce Clashes Erupt in Egypt.” These are, no doubt, important stories, so I figured I’d scroll down to news from the New York region and that the coverage would be there. In the “NY/Region” section we are titillated by a story about “An Earthbound View of Where Ospreys Soar” and we’re told that “a Tabloid Editor is Again Part of the Story.” Their report, “At May Day Demonstrations, Traffic Jams and Arrests,” tells readers about arrests and traffic. Odd coverage indeed after what I experienced in the streets yesterday!
Now, I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not. I’ve been involved in oppositional movements in one form or another since I was in my 20s—over 15 years. We saw the same shit happen after The Battle of Seattle (when a coalition of groups shut down the WTO Ministerial Conference in 1999)—either no reporting from the mainstream media or ridiculous distortions that ignored the violence of the police. It’s why people began developing Indymedia centers around the country—so we could tell our stories and recount them accurately. And it’s why independent media have continued developing and are becoming more and more important. And it’s one reason why the New York Times eXaminer is such an important project.
[i] See http://thepresidency.us/2012/05/presidential-proclamation-loyalty-day-2012/
This article was updated 5:18 PM (EST) 5/2/2012.