It only took about fifteen minutes tops – five blocks south of Bryant Park – before the “illegal” Occupy Wall Street and “Guitarmy” march to Union Square broke through the tight NYPD formation corralling protestors to the sidewalk along 5th Avenue in New York City. Across the country 135 cities planned similar May Day related action.
The formation had been meant to keep the swelling ranks of protesters to the sidewalk. Cries of, “c’mon, we’ve got the numbers, let’s take the streets!” pierced through the sound of whistles, chants and drums, as small groups of enthusiastic occupiers broke through and encouraged their comrades to follow them into the middle of the broad avenue as generations of rabble-rousers have.
The cops fought back with shoves, shouts and even a few baton thrusts, but they couldn’t stem the tide and by the time the march crossed 33rd Street, 5th Avenue belonged to the protesters. Jay Manzetti, a self-described AFL-CIO member from “Occupy Long Island” who had been talking-up breaking the NYPD cordon since before the march started was one of the first to bust through. “Fuck yeah, I want the whole fucking city taken!” he cheered.
Smack in the middle of this chaos, wearing a cap marking his membership in the stately old I.W.W (Industrial Workers of the World) and coolly strumming an acoustic guitar, Tom Morello—frontman of socially-conscious headbangers, Rage Against the Machine, and longtime OWS supporter—chanted: “this occupation is not leaving,” and, “these are our streets.”
As he readied to run through a quick rehearsal with his “new band” of what he described in a slight exaggeration as “10,000 guitarists,” a short while earlier, Morello shared his ideas on the respective significance of International Workers’ Day—a May 1st holiday for progressives and organized labor since the late 1800s—during the current economic crisis and OWS.
Morello, a Harvard graduate descending from an impressive transcontinental leftist pedigree, speaks with a perspective markedly more global—and critical of U.S. foreign policy—both economic and military, than the average OWS denizen, who mostly worries about the shrinking middle class and corporate money in politics. Answering a question about his patriotism, Morello says that America is not a “homogeneous” block. “There’s an America of the Napalmers and the lynchers; that sends missiles to kill civilians oversees and forecloses on farms,” he says. “Than there’s the America that fights back against it that’s the country I’m proud of.”
But even the most parochially minded OWS supporter nodded along with Morello when he said that the most pressing message for Americans to take away from Occupy is that “gross economic inequality” is not just an accident of market forces, as the consensus-oriented media and our moderate politicians would have them believe, but the result of a massive theft of wealth from the middle-class by “criminals who should be prosecuted,” in the very top-economic tier. Once people know the score, he added, “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.”
As the protest moved downtown, gaining steam, white-collar workers watched from office windows above. At one point when a gap in the march grew too long, the group out front called a “sit-in.” Despite of all the smart technology in attendance and concomitant social media it was left to a runner to be dispatched to find out how far behind the next clump of protesters was.
People chanted and waved banners, some obviously dusted off from last fall, but there were new ones as well. (A memorable one juxtaposed a headshot of NYPD police commissioner Ray Kelly with that of notorious southern racist sheriff Bull Conner.) A few handed out flowers, but there would be no photographs of lilacs gingerly placed into the barrel of NYPD guns. One flower giver, 26-year-old Emily Hosmer-Dillard of Brooklyn, said her offerings were decidedly not for the boys in blue. Like many others who were marching yesterday, Hosmer-Dillard still remembered the mass-arrests, late-night evictions and all-around authoritarian tactics that marked the NYPD’s treatment of OWS last fall. Laughing at such a “60s type image” she said, “I’m not here to make the cops’ job easier.”
While nothing approaching the anger directed at millionaires, bankers, the GOP Congress or the NYPD, several OWS supporters had harsh words for the “mainstream media,” (but especially Fox News), which they felt deceived the majority of middle class Americans against the movement even though they shared common interests. Sitting on a bicycle Fred Gates, a 39 year-old “self-employed web designer,” was arguing civilly with Phil—a middle-aged “auditor” who would not give his last name but works near Union Square and was for the moment at least stuck in his car—who told him that if someone’s unemployed he should be “looking in himself and looking for a job,” instead of out marching.
Effectively summing up the grumbling heard that day directed towards the fourth estate, Gates told Phil that they’d be on the same side if it wasn’t for the “media coverage,” which back in October “started making us look like dirty hippies with nothing substantive to say.” Indeed the two certainly agreed on one important idea, that as Phil the auditor put it, “the economic pie is shrinking and we’re getting squeezed up down and sideways.”
By the time the “Solidarity Rally” (featuring Tom Morello and Das Racist) started after 4pm, the sun was shining and Union Square was filled with thousands of activists and onlookers (video below). With free food, a “free store,” a library and representatives of a different far-left political party thrusting literature in your face every time you turned around the scene had strong echoes of the Liberty Plaza occupation. But there was a stronger union showing, especially of domestic workers, and a more international vibe.
Morello climbed the makeshift stage with his acoustic guitar and “guitarmy” comrades and kicked off into “Rebel Songs.” Looking around at the crowd and flags flying from every color of the rainbow (but especially red), one couldn’t help but think that minus the NYPD helicopter circling low overhead and the ubiquitous smartphones, this could have been May Day during the Great Depression. As if on cue, Morello announced that this year would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and that he would end his short set on a song that “we all learned in school,” except for the fact that we were taught it wrong. Then Morello played a version of “This Land is Your Land,” with a last verse about the speaker seeing “[his] people, as they stood there hungry,” waiting for government relief. This angrier version with its raw “censored” last verse ends with a plaintive question, rather than a patriotic statement. “Is this land made for you and me?”