Immortal Technique, one of the acts that performed at New York City's Union Square yesterday as part of the May Day protests, had some choice words about the comeback of the 99 percent: "When people say we're back, we say we never left."
Of course, that's not really true. The spirited, swelling movement of last fall's Occupy Wall Street had been reduced to a few aggro, shivering martyrs during the winter after Zuccotti Park and other sites across the country were forcibly evicted. Now a new park was spilling with people young and old; hipster, union and buttoned-up; and of all skintones. Pot smoke was wafting inches away from the faces of cops, body paint abounded, Corona Light bottles clinked, protesters donned clever signs and peace signs and papier-mache masks of Chavez and Castro. The MTA workers who were on my bus to go to Union Square good-naturedly schooled fellow passengers about what the protests were about—"job cuts and service cuts," they said. "Celebrating the American worker."
The atmosphere was indeed celebratory—which made me wish the protests had been centered in Union Square all along. It was a relief not to have the tension of a mounting battle over space like at Zuccotti park (though I eventually came around to the symbolism of it, the squabble was distracting, to say the least). A local union belted out a stunning, gospel version of the old stuffy standard "Solidarity Forever," and other of-the-moment musicians like Das Racist and Dan Deacon gave energetic performances despite technical difficulties. Captain America looked down at us from a window. Despite a few arrests, cops were pretty chill. There was no official count, but protesters estimated numbers of 20,000 to 30,000 by the time we all started marching down Broadway towards Wall Street.
This was genuinely a comeback. Unfortunately, the message was more muddled than ever. Now we had Trayvon Martin, the memory of last season's police brutality, immigration and the imminence of the election added to the tally of issues. Yesterday's festivities also had that uncomfortable tinge of class privilege the movement has always been plagued with—the people there were the ones who could afford to ditch work and school. (To their credit, some performers gave pointed shoutouts to the people who weren't able to play hooky.) Perhaps that's why it had such a college-y, Coachella feel, and why the crowd swelled and got more diverse when the clock struck five. But during the day, I felt just as indignant as I did when I first witnessed the around-the-clock activism of Zuccotti Park. Because of this, there wasn't much urgency. It felt like a day to cheer and march and get mildly angry.
There was one comforting thing about the mass of bodies: It had a shorthand that survived the winter. It was reassuring to know from this celebratory homecoming that the phrases "Occupy Wall Street" and the ever-evocative "99 Percent" can bring thousands of people together. That energy will be crucial this year, with SB1070's ruling, the student loan fight, and the election, although for better or worse, Occupy Wall Street has never been about collecting political allies. It may not have had the freshness or spontaneity of the fall, but it definitely had the numbers. Hopefully those numbers can be depended upon again.
Photos by Sadye Vassil