Tuesday is May Day, the international celebration of the workers' movement that for most countries means a day off with most businesses closed. In the United States, where Labor Day is in September, May 1 is a workday like any other. But it may well be a historic date, one way or the other, for the loosely-organized movement against social and economic inequality known as Occupy Wall Street.
After being brought to its knees late last year by a combination of police action, cold weather, the holidays and an improving economy, or so the conventional storyline goes, the movement has shown signs of life of late. Protests in downtown Manhattan and elsewhere in April have been visible enough to make it to the evening newscasts. The New York Police Department has taken street actions seriously enough to set up blockades around certain streets in the Financial District, and even tossed a few protesters in jail.
And now, having called a general strike and street action as the first massively coordinated event of the year, the movement will finally have to lay its cards on the table and show the world it has the numbers to back up its posturing.
Occupy's Big Stakes on May Day: Relevance, stated flatly the headline of an analysis at leftie magazine Mother Jones. They're back, but does anyone care?, read a less-friendly title from financial network CNBC.
Things may be a little more complex than that.
That's because over the past couple of months, the Occupy Wall Street movement, at least in New York, has gone through a transformation, becoming at the same time more idealistic but seemingly more focused in its execution. The changes don't guarantee the movement will be any more successful. And getting a good turnout on Tuesday will undoubtedly still be an important goal for the people behind the action. But the developments do mean that math isn't as simple as counting heads marching in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday and saying that 1,000, for example, equals a failure while 30,000 would be a great success.
The last time most people heard about Occupy Wall Street was sometime before Thanksgiving. After being forced off the downtown Manhattan plaza they'd been occupying for nearly two months, which worked as a both an operational nerve center and a symbolic heart of the movement, the hundreds of activists that had slept in Zuccotti were thrown into operational disarray.
In the ensuing, low-intensity stand-off with the city, protesters did come back to fill the park, but were now penned in by fences that stretched the perimeter of the area, hounded by more intense police presence, and stifled by a new set of rules that essentially made it extremely uncomfortable to spend the night in Zuccotti Park. Within weeks, the winter cold, the holidays and recovering U.S. job numbers that calmed the heated sentiments of late autumn -- when it had seemed the economic sky was going to fall again --picked off activists one by one. By the new year, the city wasn't even bothering with keeping the physical perimeter around the plaza.
By the time the protesters came back in any number to the Wall Street area, in early March, the pens were gone and we were able to go out right in front of the New York Stock Exchange, an activist who identified himself only as Josh recounted at a recent assembly.
It was like we were no longer a challenge to them. That was hurtful.
In the intervening period between the eviction and the return in March, it could be said, Occupy Wall Street hunkered down for the winter. Besides a group of people who occupied foreclosed properties, squatting on empty homes to both make a political statement and have somewhere dry to sleep at night, the members of the movement who didn't have permanent lodgings in the city stayed in various city churches. The New York City General Assembly, the organization that took donations on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, bankrolled this arrangement.
While they hibernated, though, the movement's diehards didn't just spend their time sleeping on pews and rolling cigarettes. They began elaborating a new tactic.
They took the various subcommittee-style discussion groups that had been in place before and tried to turn them into mini-movements within the Occupy umbrella. Some of the groups had existed since September. But now, with people not occupied with occupying, they became the heart of the movement.
Indeed, some of the most idealistic people in the movement, the thinkers who could sometimes deliver easily lampooned demagoguery about how the oppression of debtors, the environment, minorities and women are all connected and need to be adressed at once, were now supporting focused, solutions-oriented efforts.
The Environmental Solidarity Group, for example, discussed what people could do regarding the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, reached out to form coalitions with other New York City pro-environment groups, and had lively discussions about Earth Day. Healthcare for the 99 percent discussed mobilizing to stop a closed New York hospital from being turned into luxury condos and discussed creative ways to prank pharmaceutical companies in public, among other things. Occupy Farms flirted in early January with the idea of growing food for the movement, before focusing more on food justice education. Occupy The SEC pored over the 325 pages of the draft Volcker rule -- a long-awaited regulation on financial transactions, unveiled late last year -- to find any loopholes big banks might exploit and protest them. And on. And on. And on.
It's not exactly that Occupy lost its fire-in-the-belly appetite for marching or its bohemian artist sensibilities. Many participants warmed up to Tuesday's action with early spring demonstrations demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager shot in Florida for what many believe to be racially-tinged reasons. People were arrested at protests against pharmaceutical companies, against the NYPD and, most recently, against the financial system. And at a recent event in Union Square, whose main focus was educating rookie demonstrators on the etiquette of the movement, a performance artist confused groups of passing tourists by dumping purple paint on a plastic-wrapped model while a mime show performed nearby.
But Melina Hammer, an activist at the Union Square event who said she's been with the movement since the beginning, feels it's more about working groups and affinity groups, too.
Where do the events of May 1, 2012 fit into this picture?
For one, they've made people in the movement excited. Hammer said she believed the day's actions would be pretty magical.
Indeed, several activists interviewed gushed about events they'd engaged in planning: an early-morning bicycle 'bloc' around Union Square, a 100-person choir demonstration, an army of guitar-wielding activists marching up Broadway (the 'guitarmy,' in Occupy parlance).
But it seems even those most gung-ho about the street theater portion of the Occupy movement have grown a pragmatic mentality about what yelling and marching in the streets, by itself, can accomplish.
Or so it'd seem by talking to retired Capt. Ray Lewis. The former Philadelphia police officer, who was a lonely fixture of Zuccotti Park even through the winter cold, rain and snow, is no stranger to being arrested. He shows up at nearly every New York public action in his spotless uniform, a pair of pens in his shirt pocket, the same gold color, as the twin bars signaling his rank on his shoulder straps.
And yet, Capt. Lewis readily acknowledged, the movement can't be all protest: It definitely has to go beyond that. It has to.
A possible way for it to go is suggested by David Intrator, a tall, gray-haired 50-something film producer who has recently become one of the most audible members of the occupation, playing his saxophone through demonstrations large and small. The unofficial sax man of the movement said bringing people into the fold to work on reforming the system and having conversations with people who know what they're talking about is a driving force keeping him where he is.
Things are kind of screwed up. So what do you do first? Noting his own interests and views made him somewhat more moderate than big picture, revolutionary activists, he added, This is what's really exciting. You can work on what interests you.