Zachary Bell | Will Occupy Spring create another world or another left?
Critical Playground | Occupy’s contradictions and challenges became apparent at New York’s May Day protests
May 3, 2012, 5:11 pm · Updated May 11, 2012, 1:32 am·
“We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”
In the fall, the Occupy movement worked to prove the first half of the chant, persisting even after physical encampments were shut down. Tuesday’s May Day marked the dawn of Occupy Spring when the movement began to make the case that “another world is possible.”
I arrived at Bryant Park early on Tuesday morning excited for the “pop-up” occupation. As a graduating senior, I see similarities between my transition and what the Occupy movement is experiencing. Just like the Occupy movement learned in the fall, I have learned in college to critique the “real world” and to believe I can change it. But this summer, those critiques will have to give way to positive proposals to address social problems.
Occupy has started to do this through specific campaigns targeting issues like housing. While these ameliorative campaigns are crucial, Occupy has not forgotten its most meaningful contribution is creating spaces that demonstrate the world it would like to see — with free medical treatment, food, shelter, education and radically democratic governance.
I began May Day eager to see a space that embodied the movement’s values. However, after 12 hours of activism, this other world that Occupy was trying to create seemed messy and racked by many of the contradictions that haunted the New Left in the 1960s.
As the day progressed, I spoke to different people and encountered many opposing perspectives. What stood out to me most were contradictions that concerned different leadership styles, activist cultures and attitudes towards confrontation.
In the morning, I marched alongside a young woman who has spoken out about the gender dynamics of Occupy’s decision-making processes. She was frustrated by the fact that a few aggressive men, including an ex-Marine, were leading the march poorly.
When the men leading the march paused at a crosswalk, the young woman became concerned that this would make it easier for the police to stop the march. After explaining this to the leaders, she led the group in another direction. Shortly after, a young man who had wandered from the sidewalk onto the street was chased down by the police and eventually arrested. The ex-Marine told me he was trying to protect the marchers and blamed the arrest on the woman, claiming that she was “on a power trip.”
This incident reminded me of the issue of white, male domination of movements of the 1960s like the Students for a Democratic Society. If Occupy doesn’t address the opposing leadership styles of its members, the movement risks splitting off, just as the march did on Tuesday.
In the late afternoon, a different scene demonstrated opposing activist cultures, particularly between young activists and their older working-class counterparts, most of whom belong to labor unions. These two groups were present at a free concert at Union Square. The lineup, which was just as eclectic as the crowd, included the New York City Labor Chorus singing “Solidarity Forever,” and musician Dan Deacon attempting to engage the crowd in an interpretive dance exercise.
It felt like a chaotic family reunion with relatives trying to bond by talking smack about their wealthy neighbor. A representative from the United Auto Workers, for example, got enthusiastic cheers by blaming the one percent for the state of unemployment. Rapper Immortal Technique was met with applause when he said, “Capitalism and democracy are not synonymous.”
But placing blame quickly becomes stale dinner conversation. While the commitment between these groups was strong, their banter felt strained. After all, complaining about common grievances cannot make a family as close-knit as designing a new home.
In the 1960s and 70s, cultural differences among labor and youth activists contributed to tragic events such as the Hard Hat Riot — where construction workers beat up young anti-war protesters. While the awkwardness I saw between these two groups on May Day was in no way antagonistic, it made me worry about divisions that could arise in Occupy’s future.
Throughout May Day, I heard a litany of opposing views about the role confrontation should play in Occupy, particularly in relation to the police. Slogans such as “NYPD, go get a real job” “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” and “This is what a police state looks like!” filled the streets. Plenty of cops — on scooters, on horses, in trucks, as walking escorts — were there to hear these chants.
Some of the more extreme confrontational chants seemed to threaten Occupy’s commitment to non-violence. While May Day protestors in New York stayed relatively peaceful, Occupy Cleveland suffered from the emergence of a small militant faction that tried to blow up a bridge. The possibility of violence in the Occupy movement threatens to create divisions like the militant Weather Underground did in the 1960s.
Still some succeeded in using a symbolic approach to protest. Joe Therrien, a member of the Occupy’s Puppet Guild, helped create a May Day Maypole at Union Square. Each ribbon hanging from the pole was inscribed with a grievance from the Occupy Wall Street Declaration. The ribbons were weaved together by protesters through a traditional Maypole dance to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the issues.
“Art convinces people in a fantastical way,” Therrien said, adding that his creative tactics are particularly successful when they “diffuse potentially tense police situations.”
Occupy has inspired this generation because it unites through creation. It has tasked itself with enacting a world with radically just social relations and decision-making processes as well as a fair way to distribute resources and labor.
However, the creation of a novel enterprise demands a critical prerequisite: humility.
As a young person, my natural reaction is to bristle whenever a veteran activist lectures me on social theory or labor history. Yes, your knowledge is valuable, but only if you intend to relinquish its authority in service of the creation of “another world.” Or else, Occupy risks breaking under the same contradictions of the New Left of the 1960s.
No one can be an authority on a world that does not yet exist. In a leaderless movement, ego, anger and personal priorities must be given up in service of collective needs.