Outside of the sheer number of people rallying, one of the most impressive features of May Day was its music. No one musician on stage played more than two songs, and most performances were roughly on time. It’s a feat of engineering that a lineup was able to adhere to such a tight schedule while taking into account the myriad possibilities in which the day could go majorly, terribly wrong. But aside from a minor number of roughly 30 arrests (according to the National Lawyers Guild), sets from Tom Morello, Das Racist, Dan Deacon, Bobby Sanabria, The New York Labor Chorus and JD Samson and MEN ran smoothly—and so did the musical stylings of the ragtag guitarmy, which spent most of the morning tuning up and practicing in a corner of Bryant Park.
At a May Day meeting in the basement of the Amalgamated Textile Workers building last month, a representative from Occupy’s music working group announced that its team was preparing to gather and launch a guitarmy. A what? A thousand people carrying string instruments, and at any level of skill. Guitarmy soldiers were to learn songs they could play in unison while marching, and Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist, would lead them at the rallying point at Union Square. It sounded nearly impossible (and sort of like a magnet for the insufferable type of person who insists on staking out a corner and playing acoustic guitars at large-ish parties), but sure enough, a unified guitarmy (though closer to 100 than 1,000) marched on May Day.
After Occupy and the guitarmy made their way down Fifth Avenue to Union Square, immigrant rights activists and representatives from labor unions shared short speeches with the crowd in between musicians’ sets. Tom Morello kicked off the rally, inviting his new guitarmy friends onstage for a rendition of his “World Wide Rebel Songs” and a hoarse, celebratory version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The Bobby Sanabria band followed with sizzling Latin jazz, and the ever-stoned Das Racist performed “Michael Jackson” and “Rainbow in the Dark” for a crowd of dedicated fans—when Heems, Kool A.D. and Dapwell had their mics turned off for lack of time, they decided to rap, more committed than ever, with an audience that knew every word. Dan Deacon also popped up from the audience to attempt to organize a massive interpretive dance exercise, which half-worked, even in a crowd of thousands.
At the end of the day, the coalition and Occupy marched, sometimes stretching half a mile at a time, down Broadway to Bowling Green, where they were met by JD Samson and MEN. Obstacles along the way (including a couple of arrests, a sit-down at Zuccotti and NYPD only letting a limited number of people out of Union Square at a time) meant that JD and the band had to start playing before the masses arrived. The set was meant to be 15 minutes, but the former member of Le Tigre only got through two songs, “Boom Boom Boom” and “Make Him Pay” (“dedicated to the Occupy movement,” Samson said), before they were ushered off the stage by other speakers. Still, the energy translated, and so did the thought. “If I don’t kiss your ass, you think that I’m biting your hand/Not gonna ask for your permission just to live in my skin,” Samson sang. Celebrating—as well as not asking permission—continued well into the night. By 9pm, occupiers had announced a new occupation, a war memorial on Water Street sandwiched between JP Morgan and Standard & Poor.