Impressions from May Day, Part 1: A Problematic Spring

I went to work on May Day. I believe that the vast majority of Occupy supporters did, at least those lucky enough to have work. I walked to the 19th St BART Station, and I didn’t see any shuttered businesses. During my lunch break in San Francisco, I went out to observe the protest just down the street on Market, and the crowd was exuberant and cheering and they were drawing friendly honks from the diverted motorists. It made me smile. But, unlike last November, this time there was no way that I would be willing to skip work. For one thing, my days at this job are numbered. It’s temp work, and I need the money. For another I just wasn’t sure that there were that many actions I was all that interested in joining. The build up to May Day, which I’d observed from a relative remove, myself having somewhat drawn away from Occupy over my last few months of full-time work, had seemed fraught with contention and worry. There was talk of a few scattered strikes, such as the shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge, but that was dependent on the union’s participation (which ultimately fell through); perhaps another port blockade, but this perhaps would have seemed a bit redundant and mean-spirited. Some seemed to think that a reckoning of some kind was coming. Perhaps there were no good actions. Perhaps, things had changed.

But while a general strike of any real significance didn’t come to pass, neither did the reckoning, at least not in so dramatic a fashion. There were no spectacular arrests or instances of violence. Indeed, I was pleased and surprised, if not by the numbers of the specific protests, as by the level of support they still enjoyed. The Bay Area public is not yet completely exasperated with us. Even the vandalism and property destruction is still met with a degree of understanding. This is testament to the intelligence of the American people, which manifests in surprising ways just when it seems that all hope is lost and everybody else is just worth writing off.

After work I went home, ate some dinner, and decided to pass by the protest en-route to a Wifi café. I’m moving apartments soon, and I’ve felt the need to get out in the meantime, the walls a little too stir crazy and close. Internet cafés have been my best place for getting work done over the last few weeks, and I’ve come up with a nice and sizable little network of them (favorites being House Café on Grand, Urban Blends on Broadway, and the Barnes & Nobles Starbucks in Emeryville on Sundays, for the outdoor seating and people watching).

It was about 8:00 when I pulled my bike to a stop on 14th and Broadway. The crowd was diverse and fairly sizable. Speeches were still blasting away from the Dignity and Resistance March, an annual event that traditionally disembarks from Fruitvale BART and terminates at San Antonio Park, but this year made the longer trek downtown, perhaps in honor of the Occupy Movement. This was, from the accounts I’ve heard, the piéce de resistance of the Bay Area’s events, in the numbers it drew (up to 5,000), the manner of the demonstrators, and, of course, the inherent cultural strength of this action, having sprung from the activism of people like César Chavez and Oakland’s strong and proud Latino community, which has grown so spectacularly in recent years. My own impression is that many Latinos seem to sympathize with Occupy, and are pleasantly surprised to find more people responding to some kind of the same pain that people within their own community have experienced since ever hence. But this sympathy has limits, generally defined by the actions by protesters that will draw the police, and therefore precipitate risk of arrest. One well-respected speaker at an OO GA several weeks ago went so far as to say that the OO’s employment of the so-called “diversity of tactics” was becoming a race thing — that if Occupy couldn’t cut out their destructive behavior they risked further alienating minorities, who inevitably bear the brunt of police aggression. I’ve heard this sort of sentiment from other places that have reached out to us as well, such as activists out of Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland, to which a group of Occupiers were invited one day to participate in organizing against the Goldman Sachs credit swap scam, and who, upon arrival, attempted to commandeer the event, and left their hosts with an impression of arrogance and pomposity. I’ve heard black people refer to us as “entitled.” How unfortunate that I even feel the need to write “black people,” as if our movement were distinct from this population, as, unfortunately, it seems largely to have become, with a good portion of Occupy Oakland still remaining the blessed exception. Perhaps tensions of this sort are unavoidable. Indeed, the genuineness of these controversies can’t help but inspire a little pride in my own lily white heart, which, pre-Occupy, had been all but convinced that my people and my generation were good for little else but iPod-buying and afternoon beer-drinking. Thank God some of us at least are willing to take stances, to take risks. Such are the qualities of a strong and healthy populace. Such is the essence of the true American way, which is at its best when at its most disobedient.

OPD shows of its new hardware

As it turns out, I never made it to the internet café. I locked my bike up in front of Walgreens, and then I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in months and we decided to stick around to see what happens. It was only a few minutes later that the sound truck packed up and left, and the officially sanctioned dignity and resistance march ended. Soon after, the police began to mobilize on 14th East of Broadway. Protesters at the intersection would not be moved. Skirmishes broke out near the front. A man in a suit came down from one of the office buildings to heckle the crowd, and, sure enough, a crowd formed around him. Yelling ensued, and police approached, and after a tense few minutes, the man disappeared into their protection, followed by calls of “That guy’s the 1%! That guy’s the 1%” Some people had to be pulled back from following him further. The energy in the crowd was intense and passionate, and it wasn’t all white people. Far from it in fact, even as the dignity and resistance marchers left, though the crowd grew increasingly thick now with masked black bloccers, some bearing shields. I pulled my friend a little ways back from the front. I had the feeling that she’d never been in one of the bad protests before (Julie, if you read this, please feel free to correct me J), so didn’t quite understand how quickly these things can spin out of control. I for one had no interest in being arrested again, and I doubt that she did either. Mostly I think she came for the spectacle, perhaps a little late for the good stuff. Everyone should know by now that when the night falls, generally, everything goes, and that if you remain, you do so at your peril. I was not into peril on that day. When I heard them announce unlawful assembly, then I knew it was coming soon. And sure enough, not ten minutes later, the line of police charged us en masse, in effect arresting everyone who was not fast enough to get away from them, and, in one fast and screaming crowd, we ran. Julie and I ducked down 19th Street away from them. We stopped at a bar on Broadway, and watched out the glass windows as lines of police and white riot vans passed by over the next several hours, together with periodic sirens, and groups of shabbily clad, backpack-bearing kids, moving in groups intent on a mission of some kind or another. Luka’s was just as busy as it should be on a Tuesday night. Apparently, the fear of Occupy’s May 1st re-birth wasn’t enough to keep the revelers away. Or maybe they weren’t aware that Occupy had been planning anything in the first place. At this point, I’m not sure which is the preferable truth.

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