Activists aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York ended a day of mass street protest Tuesday by being chased out of a public plaza in Lower Manhattan by the police, in an anti-climactic conclusion to what otherwise seemed to have been a successful day for the visibility of their cause.
The takeover Tuesday night of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, on the southernmost tip of Manhattan, lasted barely more than 60 minutes, in sharp contrast to the squatting actions at Zuccotti Park last year, which lasted more than 60 days and became a cultural touchstone.
Tuesday's demonstrations in New York came on May Day, an international celebration of the labor movement that, while not a holiday in the United States, was chosen by the Occupy Wall Street organizers as the date for a full slate of street protests decrying America's social and economic system.
After being brought to its knees following eviction from its logistical base in Zuccotti Park last winter, the Occupy movement had been showing signs of life as of late, garnering much-needed media attention. Organizers were looking to use May Day to give the movement's visibility a shot in the arm.
In that sense, Tuesday's actions appear to have been a success. Following tepid attendance at scheduled early rallies on a rainy, cold morning, activities planned after lunchtime warmed up with the day's weather. Dozens of protesters who had picketed the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of Bank of America, News Corporation and Paulson and Co. -- guarded by heavy police presence that in some cases bested them numerically -- gathered into a sizable march down Fifth Avenue, and joined others in Bryant Park.
A smaller, wildcat demonstration jostled with police and the media through New York's SoHo district.
For the day's big event, a crowd which easily numbered over 5,000 -- about a thousand of the Bryant Park demonstrators, reinforced by labor union members and straggling nine-to-fivers that came straight from work to protest -- began moving down Broadway shortly before 6 p.m.
The end point of the march had not been specifically set and participants wondered whether the demonstrators would attempt to use their overwhelming numerical superiority against the police to force their way into occupying a public plaza in downtown Manhattan, either Zuccotti Park or another one.
A token effort at taking over Zuccotti did arise at one point, when a group under a yellow Occupy Wall Street banner overtook the march's lead, planting itself in front of the park and yelling Nobody move at police directing them not to idle. But the half-hearted initiative fizzled when the protesters did not get support from either of the union contingents -- the metropolitan transit workers of TWU 100 or healthcare laborers of SEIU 1199 -- who made up the head of the march.
Following some disarray further, and complaints about being pushed into the water as the march continued down Broadway, those remaining were allowed by police to proceed east, into the winding, cobblestoned streets of New York's historic Financial District.
One block into this new route, the march's vanguard made a split-second but fateful decision.
Mic check!, a demonstrator holding the red and black banner of anarcho-syndicalism yelled, his voice somewhat muffled by the handkerchief over his face: We need to stay together to be strong.
And with that trite exhortation, the single masked demonstrator kept walking, waving his banner south and onward. Perhaps unbeknowst to him, he was about to lead the march into the New York Vietnam Memorial, an open, fully-paved public plaza whose main architectural feature is a circular amphitheater-style seating circle arranged around a reflective fountain and backed by a lit glass wall -- in other words, just about the perfect place to host a public assembly of several thousand.
Some demonstrators were in awe of their luck.
This is way nicer than Zuccotti. We should have come here last time, enthused Mike Ilser, who said he had come to demonstrate from Philadelphia and had participated in last year's protests.
After several hundred, and later, perhaps over a thousand jammed the concrete seating area, a large general assembly, the term the Occupy movement uses for the anarchic meetings in which it conducts public discussion, was undertaken.
We have to decide if we are going to fight or stay, said one of the speakers. A portable projector set up to flash a message across a wall was even more forceful: Do not let the police intimidate you. Our power is in our relationship, in the community that we've built together.
That message did not seem to stick. A rollicking percussion dance party going on elsewhere in the plaza drew many from the assembly, as did the panic every time a phalanx of police ran by the perimeter of the park, with people screaming Mic check! We are being surrounded.
Then, the inevitable happened. As bullhorn-toting police brass told the people in the plaza to go home, shortly after 10 p.m., most demonstrators left. A few heckled the white-shirted officers, and there were some arrests, but the battalion of police that suddenly materialized, numbering hundreds and including many in tactical armor, was simply overwhelming.
The day ended, in many ways, just as it began, with small groups of several dozen demonstrators being tailed and herded by a police force that now exceeded them in numbers. Except, unlike in the morning, there was no cordial understanding between cops and protesters: scooter-riding officers pushed demonstrators into the sidewalks of adjoining streets, arrested a few, and hit some who wouldn't budge across the legs with batons. In turn, those herded to the sidewalk yelled vicious insults at Community Affairs Bureau officers, the specialist cops in less-threatening clothing that commonly deal with assisting crowds at marches.
May 1 bled into May 2, and -- after a day full of noise and struggle -- the movement finally went home to occupy their beds, rest, and live to fight another day.