John Halle Report on Occupy May Day

by The North Star on May 3, 2012

First published by Unrepentant Marxist.

So it looks like the corporate media has declared a blackout on reporting the huge Occupy May Day rally in New York yesterday. That means we’ll need to supply our own reports to find out what went on. Unfortunately, I’m buried under school work so this will have to be short and unedited — so with than in mind, here goes.

I decided to take my six-year-old Ben, figuring this would be a much better education than anything he would be likely to get in his first grade class — no disrespect to his excellent teacher Mrs. Bell. Having Ben limited my options a bit.

We got there at around 12:45. At Grand Central there were large numbers of cops stationed at the subway turnstiles with signs itemizing the charges which turnstile hoppers would face. So that quashed one possible form of civil disobedience which had been discussed.

My plan was to go to a few of the Open University sessions at Madison Park on 23rd street but these seemed to be winding down. Also, while Parents for Occupy Wall Street had set themselves up in the playground, Ben was the only big kid there. (It seems I was among a relatively small number of parents encouraging their kids to boycott their classes!). They told us that Parents for Occupy had set up a Hogwarth’s academy in Bryant Park. Harry Potter. Cool! So we got in a cab and headed 18 blocks north. The cab driver — possibly in a show of solidarity — didn’t start the meter. We had a nice chat about May Day.

Bryant Park when we got there was crowded with what seemed to be a throng of about 2,000-3,000 people at least and which swelled larger after feeder marches from other demonstrations ended up there. After checking out some of the Hogwarth academy classes, including Defense Against the Dark Arts (Capitalism), we went over to the rehearsal for the Guitarmy which was to start its march to Union Square at 2 p.m. Ben sat on the shoulders of the Gertrude Stein statue and listened intently taking pictures on my I phone of his new favorite rock star Tom Morello. After a bit of milling around we headed south on sixth avenue. It was hard to get a sense of the size of the crowd though clearly enough to create a traffic problem (other reports indicated something like 20,000-30,000). Ben sat on my shoulders most of the way (oh my aching back!) taking videos and joined in with the chants including an excellent new one “One — we are the people. Two — we are united. Three — this occupation is not leaving.”

At around 28th street(?), after the demonstration had spilled into the streets, blocking traffic, the cops managed to separate the crowd into at least two groups. We were right at the separation point and it appeared that a physical confrontation might be in the offing so we kept walking downtown, pretending we were normal pedestrians. Not sure if there were any arrests of demonstrators trying to break through the police lines. What we did see was a procession of probably 60-70 police cars come down Broadway on the now-vacant street ending up, as we were to discover, at Union Square.

By the time Ben and I got to Union Square, we were hungry, so we slid into a coffee shop on the west side of the park, sitting at a booth next to two cops, and getting two excellent though overpriced cheeseburgers. After a brief lesson on radical history, Ben was appropriately prepared to attend his first major demonstration. His reading lesson for the day consisted of various signs denouncing capitalism functioning as his “See Jane run.” primers. Hope that’s OK, Mrs. Bell!

We managed to set ourselves up on stairs about 100 feet from the stage but Ben insisted on getting closer to the stage to see his new friend Tom Morello (who had given us a thumbs up when we were next to him during the march down). So, at the cost of what remains of my hearing, we moved to to the front of the stage, in the midst of a throng of mostly 20-something fans of the various bands who would appear. And so began the main lesson for the day turned out to be, of all things, a music lesson — for me and Ben. The speeches from the stage turned out to be for the most part boiler plate union and immigrant rights blather. (Incidentally, did it occur to anyone that Wall Street, for the most part, is in favor of unlimited immigration? Goldman Sachs, for example, spends millions of dollars in legal fees attempting to secure O visas for Bengalore Institute of Technology grads to work on their trading algorithms, but let’s let that pass).

What was absolutely awesome were the musical acts. Tom Morello, who I had high hopes for, was pretty good at getting the crowd going in a post Guthrie-Seeger singalong. But he was overshadowed by the other acts. Percussionist Bobby Sanabria of Local 802, after a rather peculiar and incoherent rant about the Grammies having withdrawn the “Latin jazz” category with a surprisingly engaging salsa arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s now three quarter century old anthem “Be-bop”. The saxophonist (who I didn’t know — I guess this means I’m finally off that scene) managed to breath new life into now age old Coltrane licks.

Next came Das Racist, who I of course, had never heard of, but everyone else had, as most of the crowd somehow managed to recite along with them quasi dadaist, rhythmicized texts — this is what the youngsters call “rap” or “hip-hop” I’m told. (That’s a joke, but not so much of one.)

They were followed by Dan Deacon, who I had heard of since he had just collaborated on a piece for the group the Now Ensemble (on whose board I sit). This was truly weird and truly wonderful — I suppose this is what is called Electronica and consisted of two up-tempo happy pieces being channeled through the sound system as someone named Greg (I think) was dispatched to the crowd to lead us all (including Ben who is normally hugely resistant to this kind of thing) in a kind of Grateful Dead-style interpretive dance. Now that sounds absolutely horrible but it was truly wonderful-a triumph of nerd musical populism. If there’s any aesthetic I can get behind, its that. And to top it off, Deacon was able to make it relevant to Occupy in his introduction-maybe even mentioning (though I’m not sure) the recent Associated Press report on 53% unemployment among recent college grads. Lord knows they need this ultra-optimist, soothing and crowd friendly music desperately. Post-Webern atonalism was perhaps the appropriate music for the affluent society, come to think of it.

Next came the now geriatric New York labor chorus and my heart sank expecting the worst — an out of tune rendition of some old labor chestnut which would have no meaning or resonance to the demographic assembled in front of the stage. But you can’t imagine my joy and relief when they pulled of a spectacular gospel version of Solidarity Forever with a black church lady soloing in the classic Mahalia Jackson style. We all sang along — I’ll be damned.

The best came last: Immortal Technique. I don’t know anything about this guy, of course. All I know is that this was utterly compelling on all of the levels on which it was operating: rhetorical, musical and political. Again, as with das Racist, hundreds of audience members reciting the words in unison, seemingly page after page of direct, passionate and uncompromising class politics. So everything that was lacking in the political content of the speeches was there in spades in the music. If this movement takes off, just as was the case in the sixties, its foundation will be not in this or that ideological tract produced by some dissident intellectual, its foundation will, apparently be in the music it has spawned and which is giving rise to it.

The bottom line was that this felt like a new Woodstock-with the difference being that the New York Times sent its reporters to Woodstock. Times readers, and those whose reality is defined by it, are now completely unable to see a reality which is taken shape under their noses.

Finally, Immortal Technique left the stage to those who were responsible for the whole thing to begin with — the core organizers from the New York General Assembly and who had set up the infrastructure which would become Occupy Wall Street last September. I had tagged along with my friend David Graeber to the organizing meeting where what they would say on stage how they would say it was being discussed last Friday. I was a bit apprehensive that they would be able to pull something together that would both engage the crowd and would provide the right kind of direction for the march downtown to Wall Street which would materialize immediately after. But again, I’ll be damned if they pulled it off, introducing the lexicon of civil disobedience techniques which the crowd could make use of in the march to follow and leading the crowd in some of what are now the defining chants of the movement.

I would have loved to be a part of the march which followed which was supposed to go straight down Broadway, terminating at 2 Broadway, wherever that was. The cops, apparently, blocked the march, preventing it from getting started, bottling up a throng of what must have been at least 50,000 people, some of whom were plenty capable of doing what was necessary to break through the police lines — a potentially tense scene was starting to materialize.

At this point, however, Ben was completely burned out, and told me so. And so, we got on the subway, headed to Grand Central and got on the 6:12 express train back home.

Thanks for reading what is, I’m sure, a complete mess. I’ve got to go grade harmony exams!

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