The 99 Percent

Occupy Wall Street’s May Day Strike: A March for Relevance

OWS tries to avoid getting absorbed into the organized progressive world on May Day. By Harry Siegel.

Seven months in, Occupy Wall Street hit its half-life with Tuesday’s May Day "general strike." As the small but dedicated group of occupiers that outlasted the occupation of Zuccotti Park set out to demonstrate their continued relevance, New Yorkers went on with business as usual.

Without the park itself—and the media attention that came with it—the occupiers have been working hard to regain their footing and to define themselves without the massive press coverage that, together with the police response, had given the movement much of its early shape. The May Day events reconnected those activists with two distinct groups that have at times found themselves under the Occupy umbrella—organized labor and black-bloc protesters. The tensions between those groups point to some of the core contradictions the movement has yet to work out as it tries to maintain its relevance.

In its reflexively snide and belligerent coverage of Occupy Wall Street, the New York Post correctly noted the obvious today: there was no general strike, and New Yorkers went to work as usual. For most of what was billed as a “major day of action,” there were just a couple thousand protesters spread around the city of more than 8 million, not counting gawkers and the couple hundred journalists following them around.

That small core was augmented at the end of the work day by a huge by-the-hour labor contingent that, unlike the protest crowd, was as organized as ever—showing up on time at Union Square, marching on time and with a permit down Broadway, and then calling it a day on time. If Occupy is a sexy story in part because it’s chaotic, the unions, who provided the bulk of the more than 10,000 marchers, are orderly to a fault. And of course, the members were mostly coming from their jobs, never mind the “general strike.”

The day’s planners, who have embraced “diversity of tactics” –a particularly ungainly euphemism for less civil or sometimes criminal actions—did their best to keep the anything but predictable black-bloc protesters at arm’s length from organized labor. It’s no coincidence that while the bulk of marchers moved north to south over the day, from Bryant Park to Union Square Park to Wall Street, the black bloc protesters were moving in the opposite direction, with several marching over the Williamsburg Bridge and triggering confrontations with the police and members of the press around Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park.

“There are fissures within OWS, notes a leaked NYPD “event advisory” about May Day and largely concerned with the prospect of black blocs, “but a ‘respect for diversity of tactics,’ which includes everything from peaceful protests to the kind of vandalism directed at Starbucks in April, when demonstrators tried to smash the windows at the Starbucks location at Astor Place, has been embraced by the movement.”

It’s not an abstract concern. Smaller West Coast May Day demonstrations Tuesday in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and elsewhere saw black blocs skirmishing with the police. In New York, black-bloc groups masked up and emerged from several smaller marches that had seemed peaceful, clashing with police and also attacking several press photographers.

By declining to shun them, Occupy planners are effectively compelling the police to respond aggressively to what seem like “regular-citizen” crowds—putting a cynical sheen on their complaints about state violence, given its benefits for the movement. As absurd as it seems when officers are screaming at an overflow crowd to "get on the sidewalk" when there's no traffic, it’s harder to argue with when, minutes later, masked characters are racing out of that same crowd, looking for trouble.

Planners defend diversity of tactics as a means of accomplishing three things: drawing press attention to the bigger issues they’re concerned with, exposing how the police in their view cater to moneyed interests rather than protect citizens, and preparing those citizens for wider-spread acts of civil disobedience.

Of course, drawing a police response also helps draw press, which in turn helps attract new members to Occupy. The movement’s heady early days of explosive growth were built on that dynamic.