United States: Occupy relaunches with May Day actions

May 3, 2012
May Day march, California. Photo from OccupyWallSt.org.

The Occupy movement in the United States relaunched itself on May 1 when thousands of people rallied in more than 130 cities across the country to mark May Day — the international day to mark working people's struggles.

The May Day events were billed as a test of strength for the movement that exploded onto the streets in September last year. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) arose to protest against inequality and undemocratic rule by the super-rich — the “1%”.

Itself inspired by the Arab Spring protests, the OWS camp in New York inspired hundreds more protest camps across the US and the world.

However, the violent evictions of the camps by police across the US raised questions as to how the movement would function without its defining feature and whether it could regain momentum.

The largest May Day action was in New York, with a crowd estimated at about 25,000 people, OccupyWallSt.org said on May 1.

A range of marches converged on Union Square for a concert and speeches. Police disrupted the following march to Battery Park by delaying many people from leaving Union Square.

A popular assembly was held at Vietnam Veteran's Plaza, but was broken up by police who arrested about 20 people, including medics, veterans and clergy. A total of 97 people were arrested in New York, Gothamist.com said on May 2.

Sarah Jaffe gave a taste for the mood in New York on Alternet.org: “My first picket stop was at the New York Times building, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) were picketing under a lovely awning in support of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers (UAW Local 2320).

“The lawyers and legal support staff of Legal Services NYC provide free legal aid to New York's low-income folks who need support--they help fight evictions, support the unemployed, work on benefits for the disabled and more. They're facing cutbacks from their board, who want them to give back part of their healthcare benefits — not to mention cuts to the services they provide.

"'We make next to nothing', a legal services worker told me, pointing out that her benefits allow her to do a low-paid service job and take care of herself and her family ...

“As we stood talking, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and a small march rolled in, playing 'Which Side Are You On?' and thrilling the workers, who didn't seem terribly connected at first to the larger May Day celebrations.

“The picket line turned into a dance party, and the band played along with chants of 'Hey hey rich boy, my job is not your toy'...”

In many cities, various protests took place at the same time. Several cities saw protests outside branches of big banks and corporations.

Many unions held pickets, including auto workers, lawyers, nurses and staff at Los Angeles' international airport, Occupy.com said on May 2. Immigrants' rights groups also held protests.

In Oakland, California, a march of 4000 people was organised by a coalition including immigrants' rights groups and Occupy activists, SocialistWorker.org said. Marching behind a banner declaring "Dignity and Resistance", it was led by immigrant workers, including from the Pacific Steel Company. Union members at Pacific Steel have been fired in a crackdown related to immigration law.

SocialistWorker.org said hundreds of nurses took part in pickets in the Bay Area, California, during a one-day strike against Sutter Health hospitals, which is seeking to cut nurses' benefits.

In San Fransisco, Golden Gate ferry workers picketed the Larkspur and San Francisco ferry terminal from early in the morning, Socialist Worker.org said. The May Day strike had been called by the Inlandboatmen's Union and supported by the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition. The workers are demanding a fair contract, including decent healthcare coverage.

At protests around the country, police used “snatch-and-grab” tactics to arrest demonstrators, a change from the mass arrests seen at previous Occupy events, InTheseTimes.com said on May 2. Many Occupy leaders were targeted in this manner, but many other arrests were random.

A protester in New York tweeted: “Random harassment arrests start across Houston [Street]. Saw kid's head smashed repeatedly on concrete, just to show they could.”

The most open attempts at intimidation occurred in Oakland, where riot police used tear gas, helicopters and an armoured truck to harass protesters, Salon.com said on May 2.

Most of the media coverage of the events cynically criticised them for failing to live up to their rhetoric, with many Occupy groups billing May 1 as a “general strike”. However, this was never viewed as a realistic prospect.

Efforts were made by Occupy groups to work on alternative ways of building the movement. Tactics varied between cities, but many focused on building stronger links with trade unions or community groups fighting cuts to services.

The Guardian reported on May 2 that New York activist Manissa McCleave Maharawal said the Occupy movement was forced to change during its downtime: “These months of planning have changed the Occupy movement.

“Through alliance-building and working with unions, community groups, immigrant rights groups and the burgeoning student movement, Occupy has had to learn from the longer history of organizing and activism in New York. It has had to learn what it means to listen to groups and people from diverse places and with diverse experiences and to work with them...

“The success and beauty of [May 1] was a testament to how important these alliances and this work have been. But it was also a testament to the ways that we must understand, as we chanted on the streets, that all our grievances are connected.”

This broadening process has not occurred without problems, however. One concern raised was the threat of the Occupy movement being co-opted by forces supporting the Democratic Party.

“The 99 Percent Spring” campaign was launched by MoveOn.org and supported by groups like “the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Greenpeace, the Working Families Party and Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization”, Salon.com said on April 10.

The 99 Percent Spring's stated aim was “to give nonviolent direct action training and teach-ins on income inequality and Wall Street malfeasance” to activists. But its failure to promote the May 1 events sparked suspicion it would build rival events and funnel the Occupy movement into re-electing President Barack Obama.

However, activist Charles Lechner said at TheNorthStar.info on March 28: “There was zero, none, nada discussion of the Obama campaign, electoral politics, the Democratic Party, or MoveOn. To sum up then, the critiques against the 99%Spring are false.”

Another factor that has potentially deterred involvement of other groups was tactics of vandalising property and provoking confrontation with police used by small numbers of protesters — of which there were isolated instances on May 1.

The movement is still developing the means to link up with, and mobilise, deep and broad enough social forces to win real change. But the May Day rallies show the forward momentum generated by the Occupy movement.

The character and size of these May Day rallies would have been unthinkable in the US last year. They were the largest May Day marches in the US since the huge May 1 demonstrations and strikes organised by the immigrant rights movement in 2006.

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