Occupy Wall Street - Has May Day Made a Difference?
Occupy Wall Street panel: has May Day made a difference?
As Occupy regroups after May Day protests across the
country, our activist experts weigh in on what it
Rinku Sen, Janet Byrne, Tom Hayden, Billy Talen, Hannah
Appel and Manissa McCleave Maharawal
May 2, 2012
Janet Byrne: 'Occupy Wall Street is not a dog-and-pony show
If one were attempting to mummify Occupy Wall Street by
reducing it to a greatest hits list of accomplishments, the
kinds of questions asked Tuesday by many mainstream news
outlets would be a good start:
"What about the street presence? Isn't that Occupy's
single greatest strength? Is there anything left if
With the May Day march down Broadway, protesters effectively
put an end to any such efforts to Facebook-timeline the
First, the march was too big to allow Occupy Wall Street to
continue to be reduced to a dog-and-pony show. Four police
officers I spoke with at about 8pm near Trinity Church, at
Wall Street and Broadway, estimated the crowd at 25,000, and
Occupy Wall Street organizers put it variously at
10,000-15,000 and at 50,000. The office of the Deputy
Commissioner of Public Affairs at the NYPD explained on the
morning of 2 May that the NYPD "does not give out crowd
estimates. Ask the organizers." The New York Civil Liberties
Union put the number at 30,000.
Second, it included too many factions for Occupy Wall Street
to be considered homogeneous anymore. Among the groups
chanting "We are the 99%" were the National Alliance for
Filipino Concerns, construction worker union LIUNA Local 78,
the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the AFL-CIO.
The movement is proving not to be as instantly archivable as
some may have wished. It is a complex organism. It is
forming new alliances and severing old ones. Street protest
is colorful and quantifiable, but it is by no means the
movement's only avenue.
[Janet Byrne is editor of The Occupy Handbook]
Reverend Billy Talen: 'The future lies in reinventing
Occupy is a new form of protest comprised of ordinary
living, strategically placed. It electrified us last fall
when, in Liberty Square, we lived simply in the open, fed
each other, made our own media and security, created new
hand signaling for a start-over democracy.
We had tried to find a new kind of protest for decades -
accused so often of recycling protest clichés, the rally and
the march, the signs and shouts. Then we found it right in
front of us, living life in ordinary terms on islands of
public space, all in the shadows of the financial dark lords
vacuum-wrapped in their reflective glass.
This proved transfixing theatre. The play had a long run.
The police were flummoxed by the invasion of pup tents and
pots of soup and crucially sincere discussions.
Finally, in the US, led by uniformed thugs in Oakland and
New York City, the first amendment to the US constitution
was amended to allow police violence. In a matter of weeks
in November, coordinated by terror professionals in
Washington, we were ousted from public space. The security
state, often financed openly by big banks (in New York, JP
Morgan Chase paid $4.6m) - finally figured out our magic.
Lots of revolutions hide in the camouflage of the
population, although that is more identified with Cuba in
the 1950s or South Africa in the 1980s or Syria now. Pre-
Occupy, how many tens of thousands were there on New York
streets? Tuesday, there was a huge May Day show of marching,
but it was completely ignored by such papers as the New York
Times and New York Daily News, resembling once again a
traditional protest. But under sunshine, with so many
families, it was an exhilarating hello within our culture.
The number of cops and helicopters was almost breathtaking,
and added to the reminder that we are a threat to the 1%.
Clearly, the future lies in again inventing a protest form.
Our evolution makes the revolution. There are ways to open
up the seams of society and once again emerge powerfully,
communicating with the larger world in unstoppable ways.
[Reverend Billy Talen is the leader of the activist
performance group the Church of Stop Shopping]
Hannah Appel: 'May Day felt like a celebration of renewed
May Day started with 99 pickets headed out into the
Manhattan drizzle. In front of Citigroup's world
headquarters, protesters chanted their critiques through the
now-famous people's microphone: $10bn profit in 2010 alone,
zero dollars federal taxes for five years running.
Elsewhere, an Immigrant Worker Justice Tour led protesters
from Wells Fargo to Chipotle, to the Capital Grille, setting
up a picket at each to highlight the forms of workplace
discrimination particular to immigrant workers. In each of
the picket lines, one could see signs of Occupy Wall Street
- puppets, the use of the people's microphone - side by side
with community organizations (New York Communities for
Change, the Immokalee Workers), and unions including the
Teamsters Local 814 and the UFCW Local 1500.
In short, May Day 2012 indexed a time of surprising
political possibility. Thinking back to the summer of 2011,
the intractable political argument in the US was whether or
not to raise the debt ceiling. But as Occupy Wall Street
burst into downtown Manhattan's privately-owned public
spaces, questions of inequality catapulted to the front
pages, as did a renewed focus on the financial industry's
role in an economic crisis that seemed to pass systemic risk
to tax payers and systemic reward to the top.
May Day felt, in many ways, like a celebration of renewed
possibilities: critiques of the foreclosure crisis, student
debt, or investment banks' ongoing role in the European debt
crisis were sharper; coalitions that would've been
unimaginable only a few months ago - between immigrant
workers and unions, for example - took their first public
The drizzle cleared to sunshine, and a free university
unfolded in Madison Square Park with people crowding around
teach-ins and discussions. In one - "Weapons of Math
Destruction" - a former hedge-fund quantitative analyst, now
an organizer with Occupy Wall Street's Alternative Banking
group, talked to a growing crowd about the abuse of
mathematical modeling in the financial industry. Eventually
a "guitarmy" of musicians swept those gathered in Madison
Square Park into a march that stopped first to rally in
Union Square, and then proceeded down Broadway, where else
but to Wall Street, where the movement started nine months
ago, and where May Day 2012 ended in an impromptu dance
party and public assembly.
[Hannah Appel is an economic anthropologist, active
participant in Occupy Wall Street's alternative banking and
thinktank working groups]
Tom Hayden: 'We need a new generation of Robin Hoods'
The measure of a genuine uprising, as distinct from a
political campaign or mobilization, is the degree of its
"newness", in the phrase of the New England
Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. By that
standard, the broad Occupy movement is a genuinely new force
in the world, one which has unhinged "the predictable".
Tuesday, there were hundreds of spirited protests as
Occupiers ended their winter. There were protests against
Iraq a decade ago, but these are defined by their youthful
leadership, courage, and geographic breadth. The tactics in
some places deserves discussion. But instead of being
critical spectators on the sideline, we all can demand that
our leaders not mechanically defend the status quo with
police and empty promises.
The Occupy movement, and kindred spirits from the Middle
East to China, is driven by young people who feel
unrepresented by the institutions, disenfranchised
economically, and threatened by an environmental
The direct action movement of the early 1960s was similar in
nature. Young black students, lacking the vote and facing a
Jim Crow future, became Freedom Riders and occupied
segregated lunch counters. Students who could not vote but
could be drafted for Vietnam took up resistance. Our elders
utterly failed in their duty to nurture the young. Mounting
catastrophes were the result, until the Vietnam war was
ended, Richard Nixon deposed, and democratic reforms
Now that we have an African-American president and normal
relations with Vietnam, one wonders why the crises of the
sixties really were necessary. Power seems to yield only
stubbornly, always leaving a trickle of blood to warn
against future defiance.
Will today's establishment yield or not? It appears that
Merkel's stark vision of austerity is being rejected, that
Labour is rising in the UK, that the Socialists may win in
Paris. The popular tide is running against privatization and
repression, as it has in the US since 2008, where the Tea
Party is losing support.
But will new political leaders, benefiting from rage against
the City of London and Wall Street, deliver anything of real
value, such as a Robin Hood tax? And if not, then what?
This is the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement,
the founding document of the American New Left. Despite the
great democratic reforms our generation did achieve, one
mountain remained untouched. The 1962 statement noted that
1% of Americans controlled 80% of all corporate wealth, and
that the disparity was changed since the 1920s, despite the
Keynesian reforms of the New Deal.
If there is any chance at all that our elected governments
can bring the unelected financial oligarchs to heel, it will
take a new generation of Robin Hoods, burdened by debt from
the modern Crusades, along with feminists and
environmentalists (Maid Marions), and a radical spirituality
(Friar Tuck). Or a new dark ages will descend.
[Tom Hayden is a founding member of Students for a
Democratic Society, and is the founder and director of the
Peace and Justice Resource Center]
Manissa McCleave Maharawal: 'These months of planning have
changed the Occupy movement'
May Day in New York City was beautiful. From the "99
pickets" protest in the morning targeting corporate
headquarters in midtown, to the Bryant Park pop-up
occupation, to the Free University in Madison Square Park
where students and educators went on strike by holding their
classes outside, to the joyous, fair-like atmosphere of
Union Square and, finally, with the energetic march with
tens of thousands of people, chanting, singing, dancing all
the way to Wall Street, the city felt re-imagined and re-
invigorated. The entire day was inspiring and powerful.
I had been anxious about the day for months, anxious that
the multiple-hour-long planning meetings, the outreach
strategies, the banner-making parties, the coalition
meetings and the coordinating meetings would all be for
nothing. Anxious that months and months of planning that
went into May Day would have been spent in vain. Anxious
that it would rain, that no one would come, that it would be
a failure. And while it rained a little, the day was a huge
success with tens of thousands of people on the streets
standing and acting together.
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.
It has had to understand itself better through this
listening, and it has had to convince other groups that it
is a serious movement, not just some kids who camped in a
park for a few months.
The success and beauty of Tuesday 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. The lesson of May Day is that we are powerful
when we do more than just say this, but when we enact it in
[Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a doctoral student at the
CUNY Graduate Center, a founding member of the editorial
collective In Front and Center]
Rinku Sen: 'We can smile our way through the fights we pick,
but pick them we must'
Someone asked me recently what was the best way to convince
administrators to address racial inequities with systemic
changes on her college campus. How can we convince the
powers that be to change their ways? Embedded in that
question was an abiding assumption that the people who
already enjoy positional power must agree with an idea in
order to implement it.
While many people running key institutions are doing their
best to close racial, economic and gender gaps across the
world, in my experience, there are many more whose chief
concern is maintaining the status quo. If "convincing" such
leaders to do the right thing only required presenting
compelling evidence, then we could make all sorts of change
simply by producing research reports and hosting
And that's why I love May Day. The protests tie us to a
tradition of righteous collective action, and remind us that
profound changes require actual fighting; that not
everything can be achieved through consensus; and that the
pathway to change is in building and channeling the power of
the people who need the change. It's not about convincing
the recalcitrant or the blind, nor about asking nicely. The
project of progressive social change requires aggregating
enough power to make a demand and have it stick.
The original May Day took place in the middle of a 50-year
struggle to establish the eight-hour workday. The titans of
industry resisted violently, not just because the new rule
would cut into their profits, but also because it opened the
door to regulation in general. Many of our current agenda
items will require similar timelines because they will, in
fact, reduce the money and power that elites have.
Today's elites aren't going to give up those assets any more
easily than yesterday's. Racial, economic, and gender
justice are all possible to achieve. An optimistic tone and
solutions orientation take us a long way in recruiting
allies. We can smile our way through the fights we pick, but
pick them we must.
[Rinku Sen is executive director and president of the
Applied Research Center, and the publisher of
Additional biographical information:
Janet Byrne is an editor who has worked with Nobel Prize-
winning economists, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, and
leading political figures, financial journalists, academics,
and bestselling authors. She is the editor of The Occupy
Reverend Billy (aka Billy Talen) is the leader of the
activist performance group the Church of Life After
Shopping, based in New York City.
Dr. Hannah Appel is an economic anthropologist, currently
serving as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University's
Committee on Global Thought. She has been an active
participant in Occupy Wall Street's Alternative Banking and
Think Tank working groups.
Tom Hayden has over fifty years experience in activism,
politics and writing. Hayden served 18 years in the
California legislature and is a founding member of Students
for a Democratic Society, and is the founder and director of
the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, CA. He
is also the author of 19 books, including The Lost Gospel of
the Earth, Ending the War in Iraq and The Long Sixties.
Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a writer, activist and
doctoral student in the Anthropology department at the CUNY
Graduate Center. She is a founding member of the editorial
collective In Front and Center and has been involved with
various working groups of Occupy Wall Street since September
Rinku Sen is a leading figure in the racial justice movement
with expertise in community organizing and journalism around
economic justice, feminism, and immigration. She is the
executive director and president of the Applied Research
Center, and the publisher of Colorlines.com. She is the
author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and
The Accidental American. http://colorlines.com/
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