Last Tuesday, May 1, had long been touted as the ferocious reawakening of Occupy Wall Street from its winter hibernation. “We will create the biggest shutdown the city of New York has ever seen,” boasted the public plan to blockade bridges and tunnels, with a touch of menace. Cops were deployed around Manhattan with batons and barricades in anticipation, making much of downtown look like a location shoot for The Dark Knight Rises.
But when the marchers converged on Union Square that afternoon, the scene was more spring fling than spring offensive. The sun had broken through the morning’s rain clouds, and members of an all-ages crowd sporting face paint, bandannas, and bare shoulders poured into the park to enjoy the toasty sun and share their many, many concerns. Swirling around a meditation circle were a mess of demonstrators offering banners and pamphlets dedicated to issues like stop-and-frisk, corporate-tax rates, justice for Trayvon Martin, sanctions against Iran, and even Ron Paul 2012. “All of our grievances are connected,” read the hand-scribbled sign bordered by flowers atop a multicolored maypole. Near a stage at the south end of the park, the throngs mostly ignored bilingual speeches about immigration reform and New York’s living-wage bill, snapping to attention when Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello appeared to lead the crowd in “some rebel jams” (among them Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”). The smell of weed smoke lingered.
It was a protesters’ Utopia not unlike Zuccotti Park last fall—with professional musicians instead of the ubiquitous drum circle—but, crucially, this festival was fleeting. The round-the-clock occupation near Wall Street fought (not always successfully) against the caricature that it was a smelly hippie paradise, but its stubborn permanence and focused messaging on income inequality and corporate greed were anything but flower child. Now without a permanent physical presence, Occupy has been forced to compromise. The movement’s continued relevance depends on getting large turnouts to its scheduled events, and to do that it has to mobilize disparate groups. As Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin has noted, there is now a fissure dividing the inner movement (the more radical anarchist core from the encampment) and the outer movement (progressive membership organizations like unions, immigrant groups, and MoveOn.org). Perhaps inevitably, all those agendas have created a kind of static—“We are the 99 percent” subsumed into the ambient noise of “We are the counterculture.”
Despite this lack of cohesion, protesters and their supporters hailed May Day as a victory. “Yesterday showed that when we worked together we can still do pretty impressive things,” said Occupy veteran Max Berger, who added that plans are afoot to bring together the various factions in a “week of action,” in which themed days are devoted to causes like housing, health care, and police violence.
And while the movement isn’t done with targeting the crimes of high finance—chartered busloads of protesters are expected in Charlotte this week to “Break Up Bank of America’s Business As Usual!”—Morello’s chant from the May Day stage was perhaps a little too telling of Occupy’s current state—feel-good, all-encompassing, and a little empty. “Worldwide rebel songs / Sing out loud, all night long / Hang on, man, it won’t be long / Worldwide rebel songs.”