“The City Is Ours!” A report from May Day in New York City
di MORGAN BUCK e MALAV KANUGA
Who else would it belong to? The question is posed in every moment and interaction in our protracted struggle for the city. It crosses every neighborhood, every block, workplace, playground, nursery, bank, supermarket, school and university, subway, hospital, restaurant and home. In our every day existence, we are made to submit to the harsh lesson. Who owns the city? Those for whom it is a site of investment, accumulation and upper class consumption, those who govern its infrastructure, its institutions, its sanctioned “public” spaces. They work very hard to alienate us from the city, and from each other, to teach us that the city is not ours.
If only for sheer survival, we submit, often forgetting who runs the city. It is easy to overlook the millions of people whose daily decisions to go to work—as day laborers, as domestic and care workers at home and in other’s homes, as teachers, as nurses, as students, as service workers—make the city itself work. It is we the workers that run the city; our cultures, affinities, customs, and habits are its pulse. Our labor is exploited here as everywhere. Just as everywhere our existence is disciplined by the exalted sign of money, everywhere we are the trace of the enduring struggle against this system’s imposition of austerity and precarity.
Indeed, New York is also the birthplace of an extraordinary new grassroots front in this struggle, which revealed itself in the occupation of Zuccotti as well as in the marches and rallies of May Day. Months of organizing have realigned this front, bringing together new working groups, assemblies, affinity groups, organizations, and loose associations. Our efforts have significantly reoriented the strategic field of alliance across the city’s many workers. And on May Day, we claimed the city for ourselves.
The call for a “general strike” on May Day in New York, and in 135 cities across the U.S., aimed to be a day without the 99%. Our voice was the student walkout and strike, ninety-nine pickets, pop-up occupations, rallies, festivals, and marches. With our voice we called for direct action, popular assemblies, a dispersal of power, an awakening, a convergence, a culmination, a new beginning for the 99%.
Planning for the May Day General Strike began in January at an inflection point following a tumultuous fall for the post-Zucotti Occupy movement. A “wildcat” initiative activated networks and assemblies within but also far wider than the existing organizational forms of OWS working groups, the May 1st Coalition for Workers and Immigrant Rights, and the dozens of labor unions who had signed on to the general strike. The relationship between these groups was negotiated among diverse participants at the main ‘internal’ meetings, as well as through a weekly series of Action Spokes Council meetings throughout the months of March and April. It was only a matter of weeks before attendance at the twice-weekly meetings called by the Direct Action working group was overflowing donated union-hall basements and church spaces where meeting agendas rotated between outreach and logistics—each with a set of sub-committees ranging from ‘immigrants and labor,’ ‘students,’ ‘propaganda,’ and ‘inter-occupy’ under the outreach heading, to logistical elements like ‘education and research,’ ‘art and media,’ and ‘mutual aid.’
Nevertheless, the cellular form of May Day was the affinity group, the local assembly, and the countless new autonomous groups that sprang up, self-organized, and took inspiration from the dozens of general strikes in countries around the world.
Education was an immediate and vital part of our convergence since the beginning of our organizing in the winter. From researching the history of May Day in New York City, vigorously debating the meaning of ‘General Strike’ in today’s labor composition, to popularizing, propagandizing, and communicating between diverse individuals and communities, May Day was a success in part because of what it inspired us to learn and share. Education and research committees were embedded throughout the process of organizing and outreach, while artists such as those in Occuprint brought a fecund aesthetic of protest to the streets by circulating tens of thousands of posters, broadsheets and stickers. Most outreach occurred through regularl assemblies and marches, as well as an escalating series of events leading up to May Day: community activism against foreclosure with Organizing for Occupation, protesting police violence , “stop and frisk” and the Million Hoodie March, marching on the National Day of Action to Defend Education, coming together to organize in our neighborhoods through Occupy Town Squares, and publicizing extraordinary new levels of national student debt on 1T Day.
The day that the city was ours, we filled it with life. We left behind our work, our everyday frustrations and our individual concerns and went looking for each other in the streets. We brought our bodies, our minds, our joy and our willingness to fight, learn and create together. In addition to a pop-up occupations at Bryant Park and Union Square, there were “99 Picket Lines” starting at 8AM to target employers and stitch together the common struggles against exploitation, wage theft, and racial discrimination in workplaces throughout mid-town Manhattan.
Students and non-students united on May Day in the shared desire for an educational commons. Public and private university students organized “The Free University” in Madison Square Park, opening a day-long portal to such a commons, wherein a collective vision of autonomous learning was built, elaborated, and animated by two thousand students and teachers, academics and non-academics alike. Simultaneously in Brooklyn, Paul Robeson High School students challenged their institution by walking out of classes and convening an outdoor assembly.
The day’s events culminated in permitted and unpermitted marches throughout the city that brought together tens of thousands. The permitted march began in Bryant Square Park and moved south, amassing bodies and force as it passed the Free University, regrouped in Union Square and ultimately marched on Wall Street in the late afternoon. The police tried repeatedly to corral our energy, slow us down, and prevent our festival from spilling into the streets, but many of us smirked at their intimidations and danced around their gruesome barricades.
There were numerous workshops throughout the winter and spring to prepare for inevitable confrontations with the police using nonviolence tactics (especially important given police escalation since March 17th), and to plan civil disobedience and direct actions in a mixture of permitted and un-permitted events. Police in New York City have been brutal in repressing the movement since the occupation of Zuccotti Park. In the hours before May Day, police raided the homes of some activists to send a chilling message to May Day organizers. Their presence in the streets along the march was equally chilling at times, and though the police order was for “hats and bats,” they were unrestrained in their profiling, attacking, and arresting protesters. We have become accustomed to seeing riot gear, police dogs, and swinging batons; we’ve even seen police ram protesters with their scooters (all of which we saw on May Day), but overall arrests were low, perhaps fifty.
After a spirited march with tens of thousands of demonstrators from Union Square, we finally entered the Vietnam Veterans Plaza at 55 Water Street in the southern tip of Manhattan, and joined a General Assembly already underway discussing whether or not to occupy the square after the 10PM curfew (curfews are policed for all public parks and privately-owned public spaces in the city). People’s faces were lit by halogens around a small reflecting pool, with hundreds standing, squatting, and sitting on the surrounding steps and benches of the corporate-designed amphitheater. Everyone strained to hear the people’s mic as it echoed every impassioned fragment, one—, two—, and then three—times. As the curfew drew near, the question of re-occupation became imperative. Surrounded by hundreds of people, we turned to a comrade to ask his opinion, to which he replied, “It’s not likely. There are hardly any rank and filers here.” After an entire day in the streets that brought together so many different people in this city, what did it mean to look at all those gathering in this assembly and see the wrong kinds of workers? What was this ambivalent shrug of inadequacy that our comrade was projecting? If not us, what type of workers would have the legitimated the process?
This is an enduring tension in the Occupy movement—the need for a class compositional analysis, for a political inquiry to rethink our organizing strategies, and yet the bog of many pre-existing notions of what constitutes workers’ power in the city—of what it means to organize, on May Day and beyond, as “workers” while maintaining the complex subjectivities of our everyday realities. In 2006, Si Se Puede demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands to the streets and squares of New York City for a “Day without Immigrants,” an historic moment that has created a lasting resonance for May Day organizing since. This year, given the call for a day when “workers, students, immigrants, and the unemployed stand together for economic justice,” the May Day general strike poses serious questions about how this new composition of Occupiers relates? How do the city’s many struggles compositionally cohere? To take two significant nodes from a wider network of urban protest movements, how might migrant rights organizers find a common composition with student debt abolitions? How does the movement organize against anti-immigrant racial profiling laws (such as Arizona’s SB1070, and the Sensenbrenner bill before that), stop deportations, police violence, as well as crisis of student debt?
Organizing leading up to May Day as well as our actions in the streets pre-figured powerfully the processes, relationships, and alliances that signals the strength of this bourgeoning movement. There was direct-democracy and horizontalism in the meeting halls and in the streets. These will be indelible experiences as we build a new culture of everyday resistance in this city. But how these political forms relate to the diverse cultural notions of “economic justice” amongst the city’s workers is a major question we must ask post-May Day.
We learned quickly in Zuccotti Park that one of the powers of occupation was to break the cycle of intimidating and isolation that had hitherto suppressed our collective imagination. In assemblies, we found each other and began enacting a constituent politics that was simply unimaginable previously. But what are the limits of these occupations? What would re-occupying on May Day have meant strategically for the composition of workers who produce and reproduce the city? The question has been on the table since the eviction in November, and despite our successes on May Day, the answer is pending as search for the next arc in this cycle of struggle.
That evening, the decision to leave the square was made between the general assembly and in small meetings between tactical and action spokes groups. Messages circulated by announcement and personal communication. The sense of possibility in the square was tempered by a steady march of helmeted officers filtering in to secure the perimeter. Sensing the impending impasse, we once again took to the streets, flowing out of the plaza and pushing past the concentrated and belligerent police lines. Our march was certainly smaller than earlier in the day, but energetic and hopeful. Police struggled to regain initiative as we worked our way along the dark and narrow lanes of the financial district. Confrontations erupted in bursts, accelerating tension and heightening the risk of arrest. The police tried to divide our march in order to separate people into sidewalk spectators and the isolated few in the streets where they could make their arrests. It was here in these streets that the remaining arrests of the day were made, as the oppressors beat down the last fits of our celebration.
May Day, Every Day!
The days since May 1st have been filled with energy, both in reflection and in continuing our struggle. The next afternoon, a new battle erupted at Brooklyn College when students marched on the office of the President. Their sit-in and peaceful protest was met with violence and arrests called for by the President herself. The fight for the university—and therefore the city—is clearly far from over. Of course we did not need this reminder. We know well what lies ahead. In some ways it is the same as what lies behind: cycles of organization met with oppression; the rising spirit of the people met with the counterrevolutionary force of those who think they own our city. It is clear though, that we have altered the course of our own struggle. For a day the city was our commons, its movements guided by our hands, our bodies and our spirits overflowing it in refusal of that which oppresses and alienates us, steals our time and our common wealth. For those who were on the streets, the city was ours on May Day. The city will truly be ours when all of us, the workers who produce and reproduce this city, have the organization and power to make May Day every day.