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Taking Occupy Wall Street from May Day to Every Day

Chris Longenecker May 22, 2012

The fallout from May Day can be felt in every sector of Occupy Wall Street. Some people say it was one of the greatest days since the movement began and are excited for what comes next. Others left with a sour taste in their mouths, whether by the lack of aggressive actions, or by the police state erected in Lower Manhattan, or by simply being worn down from overwork. In some cases, relationships with one another have strained and frayed. Having helped see the project through from conception to reality, my own feelings are mixed. I’m burnt out, taking a break to get perspective, and scared for what might come next. But I also saw May Day as a project that fulfilled the main objectives we had for it and meanwhile created a model for how to organize long-term projects in the future.

May Day had a few primary purposes. The first goal, to bring out enough numbers to show that Occupy Wall Street is vibrant and thriving, was more than achieved. Following a winter and early spring that saw the General Assembly and Spokes Council disbanded and attendance at actions topping out at around 500, May Day brought as many as 30,000 protesters into the streets, joining New York’s November 17 actions and Oakland’s ”general strike” on November 2 as among the largest actions in Occupy’s short history. It should be considered a more than adequate kick-off for our summer offensive. And, unlike N17 here in New York, the unions did not drive turnout for May Day. There were many union contingents on the march, but none other than the Transportation Workers Union had more than a few dozen marchers each; even TWU fell well short of the 3,000 people they estimated that they could turn out. Occupy mobilized the overwhelming majority of protesters. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands who took part showed that a model is being created in which Occupy assemblies, labor unions, immigrant worker justice organizations and other groups can collaborate and begin to jumpstart the catatonic left.

In the past, large OWS actions with sizeable labor contingents, like those on October 5 and November 17, have left many Occupy activists feeling disempowered. Union marshals would stand between police and protesters, telling activists where to go and making sure they didn’t get “out of line,” ostensibly doing the job of the police for them. Collaborating with the state is against many core principles of the Occupy movement, however, and for May Day great pains were taken to ensure this would not happen again. All unions and community groups specifically directed their marshals to stay with their union contingent and not to marshal anyone else. I marched under a giant blue tarp which read “No Bosses, No Borders, No Bullshit!” and nary a marshal or “peacekeeper” was to be found.

May Day has set a precedent for working with unions and other groups, helping to ensure that our unique methods and comfort levels with various tactics of resistance are respected. In order to reverse decades of decline, the labor movement must begin to adopt the more aggressive resistance Occupy has made commonplace, and not censoring or policing us is a start. Maybe next time we can have marches splinter into “red” and “green” risk levels, pulling off some rank-and-file with us to the more aggressive actions. As David Graeber wrote, by aligning our movement with May Day’s rich history of radical resistance, we may have finally distanced ourselves from the ineffective habits of so many reformist institutions. It’s time for unions to start doing the same, and helping unlock their own revolutionary potential.

Perhaps the most important lesson from May Day, though, is the organizing effort itself. On this project I worked alongside liberals and radicals, reformists and anarchists, labor organizers and hackers — a broad range of voices that represent the diversity of the Occupy movement. Without the GA and Spokes Council, inclusive and open projects like May Day can build solidarity and bring us together. Unlike a lot of other OWS actions, including many that I have worked on, May Day had buy-in from across the Occupy community. It belonged to all of us, and everyone felt it. People did what they could, whether that was organizing their workplace, making stickers, organizing autonomous actions, wheatpasting posters or talking to their church group.

Future long-term organizing efforts should follow this open, inclusive model. By connecting everyone’s unique skill sets and tactics, while being in solidarity with those who may choose to adopt different approaches, we can begin laying the groundwork for establishing alternative institutions. Over time, people will begin to have more faith in the alternatives than in the old order, which will cease to be relevant and fade away. If Occupy Wall Street is to survive as a radical movement, it must strive to produce tangible results, making life better for people across New York, outside of capitalism. This means focusing on tasks like foreclosure defense, successful home occupations, mutual aid and — finally — establishing a new home base for the movement.

We have now spent six months without a central place for our movement to thrive, for us to work and meet one another, for new people to know where to come to get involved, or for us to provide services to the community. Those long, hard months have taught us that the police state will never tolerate public occupations again, having seen the strength of our alternatives. Like the model for an Oakland Commune emerging out of Occupy Oakland, a New York Commune would be a way for the movement to live, grow and thrive. For this, we need to find a way to acquire space, whether it’s by defending a new indoor occupation, or purchasing one through a fundraising campaign, which OWS is more than capable of mounting.

In a New York Commune, we can practice mutual aid by providing a place for a free school, a really really free market, meeting spaces, food-banking, time-banking — the possibilities are endless. Renovating a large building would give us an ongoing community project to which thousands of people can apply their unique skills and talents. We can offer rent-free workspace to a variety of horizontal worker co-ops emerging from the Occupy movement, like the OccuCopy print shop. Our community center can put on display alternatives to the state and capitalism, and give people a way to envision a world without these forces of oppression, as Liberty Square once did.

Alternative institutions and sources of dual-power cannot just exist in one building, however. We must work actively to promote and support community assemblies, encourage the formation of new worker-owned cooperatives, and proliferate similiar community centers and projects all over the city. When communities begin to see that they, themselves, can create alternatives to the state, we may very well see a wave of resistence and mutual aid that makes last fall look like practice.

It’s time to absorb the lessons in the successes and frustrations of May Day, and move on toward new long-term projects and goals. It’s time to begin building real power that challenges the legitimacy of state and capitalist institutions, putting the very reason of their existence into question. Let’s continue the feeling of solidarity we had with each other during the May Day organizing process and use our combined strength to begin challenging the state head-on. I can think of no better way to start than by securing a new home for Occupy Wall Street and working to keep people all across New York inside of theirs.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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