Eight months ago, three people were put in charge of finding a spot to host a protest assembly. At the time, they did not expect that their decision would launch the kind of occupation of Wall Street that Vancouver-based Adbusters had called for on September 17. As the most consistent members of a group of agitators that had been meeting to discuss related possibilities once a week in Tompkins Square Park that summer, the three-person “tactical team” had to choose where to meet if their first pick, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, was cordoned off.
“We weren’t positioning ourselves to actually organize an occupation,” Mike Andrews, both a member of the original tactical team and an organizer for May Day, tells me over a beer in late April. “None of us were deluded enough to think that what happened would actually happen.”
The team quietly decided that close-by Zuccotti Park would be the next best bet. They kept the news to themselves for several hours until the meeting. Then, Andrews got up and made the announcement: A general assembly would be held at Location Two on a map that he and the team had passed out earlier. He didn’t say “Zuccotti,” so police within earshot wouldn’t know right away where the group was headed.
“And then people just stayed. And they stayed another night, and another night,” Andrews says. “It’s a well-known story.” He shakes his head and grins.
Andrews calls what resulted an accident of history—albeit an accident that has fundamentally altered the national discourse on inequality. Since, the occupation of Zuccotti Park has galvanized and frustrated national and international audiences. And even after an eviction, a winter of fragmentation and continuous speculation over the likelihood of its ongoing relevance, Occupy and its allies in the labor and immigrant rights movements revived May Day, a traditionally under-recognized workers’ holiday in the United States, with the force of tens of thousands marching in the streets of New York City alone, and many more across the country.
But the same questions and comments that have been leveled at every Occupy action from the beginning—“What’s the point?” “Is it over yet?” “Get a job!”—persist. What began as an “accident of history” has grown into a large, albeit decentralized, social movement. And after months of diligent preparation for one single day of action on May 1, critics are right to wonder whether Occupy’s sustainability is at stake.
Seasoned commentators have pointed out that occupiers will have to be smarter about strategy going forward. Andrews acknowledges the possibility that many of his peers have become “action junkies” addicted to one-hit days of wonder. But historical accidents don’t happen in a vacuum. Their momentum tips other accidents into being. When we ask ourselves, “What will become of Occupy Wall Street?” maybe what we ought to be asking is, “What other accidents have happened as a result?”
The Little Occupations That Could
On the morning of May 1, while union and Occupy picketers were demonstrating outside of corporate targets in Manhattan, a small group of people huddled in the rain at Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park. Police officers stood at every entrance—an NYPD blotter had been made public the night before with news of an unpermitted march to take place through North Brooklyn neighborhoods. The smell of burnt sage surrounded the protesters, who were noshing on donated bagels out of garbage bags.
Brian Douglas, an Occupy Bushwick organizer, was handing out complimentary umbrellas for the action ahead. Three months prior, he and four others had resurrected Occupy Bushwick from a largely abandoned online forum and started weekly meetings. They learned about each other, and they learned about community boards. Occupy Bushwick discussed breaking into gardening. Soon, a weekly meeting of four people blossomed into a meeting of 30. And Occupy Bushwick expects its numbers to grow.
Douglas describes the meetings as a learning process, a way to address the problems he encountered at the old Zuccotti Park general assemblies. After all, in many ways, Occupy Bushwick is a conscious attempt to tailor and localize a movement that grew uncomfortably beyond its borders. “What really helps to make a general assembly effective is we’re all local, we all know each other,” Douglas says. “Some people come to our meetings and they’re like, ‘Y’all are talking about gardening! We wanna do action.’ And there’s somewhere they can go for that.” “But to think of Occupy as a long term movement, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Douglas continues. “And I feel like we’re in the right posture for that.”
If there ever were a time to sprint, Douglas, who—in a deep irony—works in advertising for a large national bank, knew that May Day would be it. As Occupy Bushwick’s “little march” began winding its route along Flushing Avenue, it picked up more protesters along the way. A partial marching band showed up. By the time the group had reached Continental Army Plaza, the protest’s ranks had grown to roughly 200 people.
The response from neighbors and bystanders was atypically and overwhelmingly positive. When Occupy Bushwick crossed a bridge over the highway, trucks beneath them honked in approval. Hands waved from windows, neighbors clapped, and bodega owners came out of their stores to chant with the demonstrators, “El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido!” One protester spoke to a police officer who reassured them she didn’t want anything bad to happen. Later, she handed that protester her card.
For many local OWS factions, May Day was just a beginning. In Manhattan, members of Occupy Bushwick met up with Occupy Astoria, Occupy Sunset Park and Occupy Red Hook. It was unexpected, but hybrid community organizations and Occupy splinter groups have thrived in the fragmentation of the larger movement.
When I ask Andrews what this kind of decentralization might mean for Occupy’s future, he pauses and takes a moment to think before answering. “I think Occupy is actually not a group of people,” he says. “It’s a tactic and it’s a set of principles. And that if you employ that tactic and adhere to those principles, you’re part of the Occupy movement.”
He continues. “That’s why after September 17, when this whole thing caught on, you had people in dozens, if not hundreds of cities across the nation, set up something in a square or park. They didn’t call us and say ’Hey, can we be part of this movement?’ They didn’t apply for membership.”
With Elected Officials On Their Side
On April 30, four City Council members, a local Democratic official, journalists and protesters filed a 143-page federal civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD for violating the constitutional rights of those present at the Occupy protests. The impetus stemmed largely from a blundering arrest of Ydanis Rodriguez, a Council Member and the lead plaintiff on the case, back at the eviction of Zuccotti Park on November 17. While Rodriguez had been accused of resisting, he claimed he was “physically attacked by multiple officers with night sticks for no apparent reason” and was seen later bleeding from the head. Charges against Rodriguez were eventually dropped.
The timing of the massive suit was no coincidence. “It was timed with May Day intentionally to capitalize and further the momentum of Occupy Wall Street, to bring a resurgence,” Paul Newell, the Democratic District Leader for Lower Manhattan and another plaintiff on the case, told me over the phone. To some, this direct political involvement in Occupy might seem odd—many occupiers guard their anti-authoritarian positions closely. Party politics? Anarchists don’t run that game. But to Newell, Occupy is inevitably part of a larger political conversation.
“I must say, in my entire lifetime, and I’m 36 years old, I’ve never seen any progressive movement so effective in changing the discourse in this country,” Newell says. “I’ve never seen the country talking about economic inequality the way it is now, and I really think most of that credit goes to Occupy Wall Street continuing actions, both large-scale like May Day, or small-scale, like the run on the banks.”
In many ways, the Occupy movement has never had more support from elected officials than at the present. President Obama’s State of the Union dealt heavily with the income inequality highlighted by OWS. Some New York City politicians are even more direct. At the very end of May Day events, when Occupy protesters marched down to a Vietnam Veteran memorial sandwiched in between J.P. Morgan and Standard & Poor at 55 Water Street, Councilman Jumaane Williams stood behind a large banner in the center of the memorial and used the people’s mic to address the teeming crowd on the steps:
“I’m begging with you,” he said. “I’m begging with you,” repeated the crowd three times over to the farthest reaches of people in the space. “I’m pleading with you,” he continued.
I’m pleading with you.
“History is begging with you.”
History is beg-ging you.
“History is pleading with you.”
History is pleading with you.
“That you continue to agitate.”
That you continue to agitate.
“Continue to agitate.”
Continue to agitate.
“Continue to ag-i-tate,” he finished.
Continue to ag-i-tate.
Williams held up a fist.
The Wellspring Of Anger
Though they may have been accidents, one might see fragmentation and the budding entrance of mainstream politics into the Occupy movement as inevitable. But there’s something else at stake here as well. “People were angry enough and hopeless enough that when they saw something that looked like resistance and refusal, they felt they should go occupy a park too,” Mike Andrews points out. “I’m not going to lie—if the economy got worse, that would be good for the Occupy movement.” But what about projected gradual economic growth—does that mean Occupy’s urgent, transformative energy will fade?
“I think eventually this window of opportunity will close,” Andrews says. “My thinking on how to do this is just to push this as far as we can until the window of opportunity closes.”•
Photos Sydney Brownstone
May 9, 2012