On a day long touted as the return of Occupy Wall Street, Union Square was part protest, part social justice fair, and part music festival. Morning rain clouds and underwhelming crowds made for a slow start on Tuesday, but by 3 p.m., people were pouring in from the north end of the park to enjoy the May Day sunshine and share their many, many concerns. Income inequality, stop-and-frisk, immigration reform, corporate tax rates, justice for Trayvon Martin, sanctions against Iran, and even Ron Paul 2012 — each and every issue had representation, and then some.
“All of our grievances are connected,” read the sign atop a massive multicolored maypole. But it wasn’t clear how — coherence and momentum still felt elusive for the famously leaderless movement, despite spirited sing-a-longs, witty signs, and smiling faces.
For months, organizers have held up the international workers’ holiday as “the big kickoff of phase 2 of Occupy,” first promising a general strike and then softening their language to call for “a day without the 99 percent.” Still, New Yorkers went about their business mostly unbothered as attempts at disruptive actions mostly fizzled. A march across the Williamsburg Bridge saw a bit of snarled traffic and some scattered arrests, as did more hardline anarchist gatherings on the Lowest East Side and in Washington Square Park, with around 30 demonstrators detained through the early evening. Rallies in midtown made stops at banks and restaurants. But overall, things were largely peaceful and unobtrusive, with the NYPD well prepared.
It all coalesced in Union Square, where bilingual immigration and living wage speeches gave way to Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello’s “Guitarmy.” As he led the crowd in “some rebel jams,” including Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” weed smoke crept through and calm cops lined the barricaded perimeter. Morello’s generic onstage chant encapsulated the afternoon: “World wide rebel songs/ Sing out loud all night long/ Hang on man, it won’t be long/ World wide rebel songs.” It was overreaching, and rang somewhat empty.
Rappers Das Racist and Immortal Technique performed, too, while a dance-off led by Dan Deacon didn’t quite catch on. Each musician traded messages of solidarity with the eager crowd, but the mission was murky at best — equal parts college campus Spring Fling and Occupy Wall Street Spring Offensive.
When the impressively large concert crowd eventually mobilized for a march down Broadway toward Wall Street and the formerly occupied Zuccotti Park, again clashing intermittently with police, it was hard not to be nostalgic for the fiery fall, when the movement momentarily had the world’s attention on heated protests against corporate greed. But without a permanent occupation of actual real estate, these disparate groups have little holding them together outside of the day’s all-purpose event. Perhaps only a fraction of the allied groups will come out the next time they’re called upon. May Day might have been a ball, but it increasingly feels like the larger Occupy party is over.