Voices from the streets: May Day in New York City

May 1 began with rain and heavy clouds in the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. Since it has been an unusually dry and cool spring in New England, I worried that the May Day demonstration planned by Occupy Wall Street would not draw the crowds so essential to keep the momentum of the movement going.

I parked at the extreme northwest corner of Manhattan and took the A train downtown and walked to Bryant Park at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the first planned actions of May Day had already begun. Clouds lingered amid the labyrinth formed by skyscrapers around Times Square as I approached the park.

My reasons for traveling to New York City were twofold: First, I wanted to demonstrate solidarity with the OWS movement, and second, I planned to interview as many people as possible during the march from Bryant Park to Union Square (the historic site of huge labor and political demonstrations over many generations). I wanted to find a cross section of the people who made up the movement.

Rowland Miller was the first protester who agreed to be interviewed. He was holding a sign in Bryant Park that read “Press.” Rowland works in the Press Working Group of OWS. In answer to my question about why he was at the demonstration, he responded: “To show solidarity with the historical May Day and to stand against the inequality of both the financial and banking industries.” He traced the economic and social inequality that has come to typify life in the U.S. He categorized New York City as “the most unequal area of the country” and noted that the economic situation of most New Yorkers has been exacerbated since the 1970s when earned wages began to slow and the hours worked by most Americans began to increase. He felt that the demonstration would “publicly show alternatives the kind of society that we want to live in.” As an illustration of police disregard for the right of free speech, he recounted a March 17 OWS protest where people were arrested for wearing masks backwards on the Williamsburg Bridge that spans the East River between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. According to New York City law, wearing masks backwards is prohibited.

Sherman Jackson also works with the Press Working Group of OWS. He has been a reporter for decades and recently suffered a disability. He talked about how police from the New York Police Department had arbitrarily arrested people in recent weeks near the New York Stock Exchange, despite a court order prohibiting such arrests. He viewed the police under Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg as choosing to arrest people and let the courts dismiss the cases rather than allowing the right of protest in the streets. He commented, “You’d think that cops would opt for viable arrests . . . Kelly doesn’t give a shit as to the viability of arrests!” He continued, “The objective is to suppress our right to free expression.” Jackson is an example of how the economic and political system works to hurt those who have suffered any sort of health setback. After becoming disabled, the IRS stepped in and garnered a portion of his wages forcing him to downsize his apartment. He sees the latter as a “rigging of the system that someone has to stop.” He believes that the “country has been turned over to corporate interests and that the common individual doesn’t stand a chance when facing such overwhelming power.” He cited a report on the television program Frontline this past weekend that documented how Goldman Sacks and City Corp had created derivatives in the lead up to the Great Recession while the Security and Exchange Commission turned a blind eye. The conclusion is that federal government regulatory agencies are “asleep at the switches.”

Leaving Bryant Park for the march down Fifth Avenue toward Union Square, I met Wanda who had been a teacher in the New York City Public Schools until she was fired two years ago. We began our discussion as we walked beside the imposing neoclassical architecture of the New York Public Library. “I’ve been on unemployment . . . pushed out of the profession.” She was up for consideration for tenure while working at a junior high school in the city as a social studies teacher. She had worked her way up from a substitute teacher, a job that she had held since 1995. She formed a culture club for students at her school, but learned that the principal of the school wanted her position for a friend. Wanda was terminated after a math teacher, who was evaluating her, wrote her up for what that teacher viewed as an unsatisfactory lesson in 2008. The evaluation claimed that Wanda was ineffective because her students were noisy at the end of the observed lesson. Wanda cited the Bloomberg administration’s “orchestrated movement to get rid of teachers who would qualify for pensions.” She called the educational environment in NYC a “perfect storm.” Wanda found the atmosphere created by the administration so hostile at her school that it was impossible to teach skills like “critical thinking while being harassed.” During another classroom observation, the school principal walked around the room during the lesson opening closets. Wanda’s assessment of the plight of educators in NYC is that “we don’t have any rights.”

While Wanda and I discussed her experiences in the NYC schools, a cheer went up from the line of march, with demonstrators forced to march on sidewalks rather than the streets, an unending line of hundreds of police shouting from just beyond the curb to stay off of the road: Demonstrators roared, “Hey Mr. 1 percent, give me back my government!” Wanda ended her comments about the state of the schools in the city by talking about how principals had been recruited from outside of education programs, along with teachers, at low salaries, for the sole purpose of ending the power of unions and public schools in the city. She believed that the growth of charter schools was also a key factor in the demise of public education in the city.

Among a mass of multicolored banners and puppets, I spoke with a student named Matthew as we approached the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue. “We need to draw attention to the fact that public education and social services are not being properly funded.” Matthew continued, “All money is spent on bailing out corporations and fighting wars that accomplish nothing and destroy the lives of groups of peaceful people.” He noted that in Afghanistan the majority of people “do not support terrorism, the Taliban, or Al Qaeda. Those people are the victims of our wars.” Matthew works while going to college. He said that half of his paycheck goes toward funding and supporting war. “Why not use trillions of dollars to support public education, health care, and the social safety net?” Such a plan to use the money that could come from taxes on the wealthy would easily meet all of the needs of people. Matthew went on to criticize money spent on prisons and locking up people for petty drug offenses. He noted that corporate money pumped into politics limits our choice and democracy. He viewed the problems that OWS addresses as threefold: First, money in politics; second, military spending; and finally, an unfair tax policy.

Next, I asked three women holding a banner if they would like to be interviewed. They declined, each stating that “you’re not supposed to be working today.”

Marching just ahead of the three women, as we approached the Flat Iron Building where the march crossed onto Broadway from Fifth Avenue, Pam Nogalese carried a banner with others from The Platypus Affiliated Society. She offered an assessment of the movement and the left. “As leftists, how can we live in the movement with no international emancipatory left?” She felt that it is “unclear what it means to be on the left. There’s no adequate response to the challenges of capitalism today.” She believes that there needs to be “some effort in OWS to understand the left,” and how that understanding of the left is “different than protests.” Pam continued, “We should have the practice within OWS that helps us to clarify what the left could be.” Pam concluded, “Part of what OWS can do is to provide people the space to reflect on what it could mean to transform the world.”

As the march approached the north side of Union Square, the crowd had grown exponentially to thousands of people. I met Annie who carried a banner for the Revolutionary Communist Party. The banner read: “The Whole World Comes First.” Annie, who had taken a leave from her undergraduate studies, said that the OWS movement appealed to her, in part, because of the debt she had accrued while pursuing her degree. Annie stated that student debt had recently increased to more than credit card debt in the U.S. She asked, “Is education even worth achieving if you’re mired in debt with an uncertain job outlook?” She quickly answered her own query, “Of course education is worth the objective of broadening one’s outlook.” She has spent time as an activist in the anti-fracking movement (hydraulic fracturing of the earth’s crust to extract petroleum products) and was enthused about the content offered at OWS’ free university sessions in Bryant Park during the morning.

As the line of marchers approached Union Square, the sun came out and the temperature soared into the mid 70s.

At the northern border of Union Square I met Adam Alexander who was holding a white banner with others from The Occupy University. Adam is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Adam had attended and taken courses offered in The Occupy University. He said that at Columbia the competition for teaching assistant positions was so competitive that opportunities “are few and far between. My chances of getting a position are very small.” He was “excited to transition from being a student at Columbia to TOU.” He mentioned a planned fall course named “Feeling The Revolution” that will give “people a structured space to get them to rethink their emotions as developed under capitalism.” He said, “Irrational feelings arise under capitalism around individualism, shame, and anxiety.” Adam looks forward to broadening the base of TOU to include “regular folks.”

Fitz Reid stood holding a banner that read “Solidarity Forever” with other members from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “The masses and unions are undergoing mass oppression from the ruling class.” Fitz recounted how “reduced consumption and the collapse of markets had brought pressure on profits and big business.” He believed that the crisis was “being resolved on the backs of workers, their pensions, and their rights.” He viewed the effects of the collapse of the economic system and the resulting destruction of the welfare state: “hence, oppressed people.” He continued, “We have to fight back through the union movement.”

As I left the group of AFSCME members, I stopped at an area of the park occupied by members of a May Day baseball “team” with the words “Tax Dodgers” emblazoned on their baseball shirts. They held a red hula hoop with the word “loopholes” written in large block letters at the top of the hoop.

My final interview was with Art Brennan of the group Veterans For Peace. Art had awakened before dawn in central New Hampshire and driven into Manhattan for the May Day demonstration. He was a retired superior court judge and a veteran. He talked about an undergraduate thesis his niece had written about what she categorized as the “second public.” The thesis developed the idea that “the government was working for corporations and for the benefit of business interests and not people.” What resulted from the latter was the creation of a mass of disaffected people with nowhere to go in the political system. Art categorized the VFP perspective on the military-industrial complex as being the biggest issue that this society faces. Art asked, “Why is the veteran’s perspective different?” He replied, “Veterans have experiences that have brought them closer to the experiences of war that are much different than how war is portrayed on TV. Veterans see a different perspective in battle and the tragedy of what happens to innocent people in war . . . what has come to be called collateral damage.”

Art was sent briefly to Iraq by the U.S. State Department on a special assignment to advise the director of what is the Iraqi equivalent of the FBI. His job was to offer advice on how to clean up corruption in government. His investigation involved looking into the possible theft of $18 billion by members of the Iraqi government. He was privy to orders from the highest level of the Iraqi government “not to investigate” the issue. He described the conditions in Bagdad as “horrific” in 2007 when he was on assignment in Iraq. As Art and I spoke, a performer on a nearby stage sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Following the interview with Art, I left Union Square by way of 14th Street where Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interviewed a NYC council member. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, I met an actor who had recently returned from Europe and wanted to know more about OWS. We spoke for several minutes before I headed down to Washington Square Park to take a break, although I would miss the final part of the May Day demonstration that would culminate with a march from Union Square to Wall Street. Remarkably, Washington Square Park appeared as it would have on any other warm spring day with a mix of students and others going about their business as if nothing momentous was taking place. Just one city block away on Broadway, police helicopters monitored the protest from above while the intermittent sound of police sirens broke the conversations in the park.

Across the US, dozens were arrested on May Day, including many arrested in New York City. I met a relative soon after going to the park and she related that she had heard police joking while she marched down to Union Square earlier in the day, overhearing them laugh, saying that the police dogs they held on leashes “were specially trained to attack OWS demonstrators.”

Driving back through the night to Western Massachusetts, I thought of the thousands who had marched for freedom and equality during the day in places both large and small and it seemed to me that they represented not only the best hope of the US to save itself from finance capitalism and militarism, but perhaps the only hope for that elusive political, economic, and social redemption.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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