It’s mere days from what Occupy Wall Street organizers say will be one of their biggest protests yet, and the people down in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District are hopping mad. Well, at least they’re hopping.
On the afternoon of April 27 in the park, one Occupier called out a signal, and the 100 or so demonstrators-in-training began jumping up and down and converging around a single protester—a tactic intended to keep marchers together in the event of police action. It was the seventh in a series of “Spring Training” protest refresher courses held by Occupy Wall Street in preparation for May 1, a day rich with progressive significance: May Day is celebrated internationally as a day to recognize workers and labor.
OWS organizers say protests scheduled for that day will involve thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of protesters in Manhattan, the cradle of Occupy, and additional protests in other major cities, most notably Los Angeles, where organizers have called for a general strike.
If the protests end up being as large as organizers say, it would be Occupy’s single largest demonstration since protesters were driven from their encampment at Zuccotti Park by the New York Police last November. While smaller protests have continued through the winter and early spring, the day of action called for on May 1 is a bid to regain the national spotlight just as the presidential election campaign kicks into high gear—the question is whether in this heated environment, the Occupy movement can carry as much political weight as it did last fall.
According to an online calendar and pamphlets distributed by organizers, the May 1 protests will start at 8 a.m. in Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan. Organizers say the park will function as a staging area for picket lines that will fan out across midtown, many of them heading to locations where unions or other labor organizations have ongoing disputes. A spokesman for the Bryant Park Corporation, which manages the space, told The Daily Beast in an email that the corporation “has not had direct contact with any entity planning activities in Bryant Park on May 1,” but that a similar event in the park on February 29 was “well-organized and its participants were very respectful.”
Though losing Zuccotti Park meant that tourists and casual protesters no longer had a venue to ogle at Occupiers in tents, many of the stalwarts found other ways to protest. Among them was Jesse LaGreca, who had a confrontational encounter with a Fox News host that was caught on video. LaGreca said that after Zuccotti, he spent the winter traveling to Occupy camps in Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Oakland, and Chicago. “People have built smaller and more focused networks under the larger concept of ‘We Are the 99%,’” he said.
Smaller groups of protesters have continued to march in New York City as well. In December, about 100 protesters tried to claim Duarte Square, in lower Manhattan, an action that resulted in more than 30 arrests. In January, protesters marched in the city on Martin Luther King Day, and held a separate demonstration to “Occupy the Courts.”
As online discussion about a serious May Day has mounted, the police and the main subject of Occupy’s ire, major financial institutions, have taken notice.
On April 23, police evicted a group of protesters from a loft at 40 Exchange Place near Wall Street and Zuccotti Park that had served a headquarters and resting area.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told Bloomberg News that police, who have been criticized for their handling of protesters and the journalists covering them, are prepared for the May Day protests. “We’re experienced at accommodating lawful protests and responding appropriately to anyone who engages in unlawful activity,” he said. “We’re prepared to do both next month.”
As are major banks, including Deutsche Bank’s office at 60 Wall Street, which will close its atrium, a private space for public use that has played host to OWS gatherings, Occupy organizer Marisa Holmes told Bloomberg News. In the same article, the former head of security for Bank of America, Chris Swecker, compared last year’s OWS activities to “a big forest fire that was suppressed and put out.”
But some Occupiers and their allies think they may hold a match.
Mark Bray, a 29-year-old history Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University, said he’s been involved in planning for May Day on OWS’s side since January. A core group of about 60 or so people has been meeting at a variety of locations, Bray said, including at a Greenwich Village church, at the offices of SEIU Local 1199, and in an artist’s space near Wall Street.
“We knew that we wanted to do something in conjunction with the immigrant-rights groups and we wanted to do something on our own,” Bray said. The immigrant groups and unions were receptive, but Bray said Occupiers see a danger there. “We don’t want our movement to be reduced to following unions on their marches,” he said.
But whether the May Day turnout is as large as organizers intend it to be could well depend on how many unions get involved, and in what numbers. Close to 100 unions are listed online as planning to participate.
One of the autonomous groups organizing for May Day is called 99 Picket Lines, which is organizing many of the events around midtown Manhattan. Michael Belt, an organizer for 99 Picket Lines, said that his group has chosen dozens of locations covering a “range of targets,” but would only name a few, including banks like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, as well as General Electric.
“There are organizations, including Occupy Wall Street, that have been taking the winter to organize,” Belt said. “This May Day, when we were planning for it, we knew it was going to be an opportunity.”
For several protesters, the April 27 training soon came in handy. As the marchers set out from Zuccotti they broke into four groups. Two members of a group headed to the Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters were arrested en route, and a third was arrested as about 50 protesters marched in front of the building, watched by a score of police officers on motor scooters and another dozen on foot. At the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, police refused to let anyone through who could not demonstrate that they lived or worked on Wall Street.
“I don’t think Occupy can take credit for every action that’s happening,” said Bill Dobbs, a veteran gay-rights activist, and a member of Occupy’s press team since the movement’s early days.
“There was never an Excel spreadsheet business plan for all this,” Dobbs said. “Occupy has helped to revive street protest,” he said, in part because it “can turn on a dime.
“The line in the media is that we’re dead or we’ve been asleep for the winter, and we haven’t been asleep.”