This is the first of two installments of a multimedia-accompanied creative feature recounting the events of Occupy Wall Street’s May Day General Strike, which took place on May 1, 2012. Be sure to come back for the second installment, which will be published on Monday, May 7th.
Men and women across New York City awoke on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 to two SMS messages on their cell phones:
These messages — sent through the emergency text message system set up by the movement last fall to defend against the NYPD moving in to uproot the occupation at Zuccotti Park — went out the night before as a reminder to protesters that the May Day General Strike, the culmination of the movement’s spring training efforts, had finally come.
Spring had sprung. The time was nigh. The streets weren’t going to take to themselves.
Bryant Park at 8:00 a.m. was dark, cold and blanketed in freezing rain. Very few had shown up for the morning’s pickets. Perhaps two hundred men and women mulled around the western end of the park, gnawing on bagels under umbrellas, chatting and wrapping picket signs in plastic. Armed with rain boots and parkas, the protesters barely outnumbered the police officers, who barely outnumbered the reporters. People continued to trickle in as the minutes passed, but protesters glanced around with concerned looks, and one young woman noted that a number of central protest figures were missing.
Nevertheless, at 8:15 a.m., the occupiers began to break off into groups for the morning pickets. Around 200 men and women began to congeal under various signs as organizers yelled out the names of the businesses to be picketed.
“HSBC — over here!” “News Corp! Follow me, News Corp!” “Bank of America! Let’s go – Bank of America!”
Lines of 20-50 streamed out to the sidewalks and a brass band with members clad in green flared up with marching music as protesters began their chants. One final organizer waited, holding a sign high in the air. “New York Times!” they yelled. “We need ten people to go to the New York Times.”
A long line of protesters under umbrellas moved north on Avenue of the Americas to picket at the Bank of America building, where dozens of NYPD officers waited patiently in the rain, barricades firmly in place.
The protesters proceeded to circle around the building’s southeast entrance, taking care not to poke one another with their umbrellas. They broke into some of the occupy movement’s staple chants amid a swarm of reporters and cameramen.
Meanwhile, on the corner of Avenue of the Americas and 42nd, a Vietnam veteran walked into the middle of the street waving a yellow flag in his right hand and flashing the peace symbol with his left. As officers prepared to whisk him off for processing, a red-haired reporter in a yellow poncho asked him to provide a reason for his actions.
“Bank of America,” he said. “That’s why I did it.”
The rain tapered to a drizzle, and then to a mist, but that didn’t serve to strengthen the protesters’ numbers. By the morning’s end, many journalists had already taken off to edit footage or to pull reaction interviews from professionals commenting on why Occupy Wall Street’s May Day was a dud. Pickets continued around Manhattan for much of the morning, but they weren’t particularly impactful. The picket at the New York Times building had effectively turned into two Occupy Wall Street members serving free Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast to passersby on the corner of 39th and 8th.
The cold morning wore on and protesters trickled back into the west end of Bryant Park, where things were beginning to look a bit more like the Zuccotti Park of last fall. About 15 police officers stood idly to the side of some 200 protesters and reporters. Just south of the park’s fountain, occupiers had set up the OWS Kitchen. Near the entrance, a couple of protesters manned the information table, and a few feet away a young lady had set up the OWS Library.
The chilled air was filled with idle chatter and the splashes of the park’s fountain. It was still overcast — the air still damp — and low-hanging, gray clouds melded with the edges of Manhattan’s skyline. Compared to the noise-polluted streets, Bryant Park’s tree-lined walkways were empty and quiet. Even with the protest at the west end, the park’s edges still served as an eerie, verdant refuge to Manhattan’s din.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” a young man yelled.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked again.
The man was in his twenties. He wore glasses under a dark stocking cap, and a black jacket covered with patches and a bright orange “OWS” written across the top of his back. The gas mask on his left arm bounced as he bared yellowing teeth at a couple of overweight men in business suits who had been watching the protesters.
One of the large, well-dressed men responded in turn with a question.
“Who do you think paid for that lawn?” he said.
“The taxpayers of New York City.”
The two bickered for a short time before both parties retreated somewhat to their respective corners. The young man, who had earlier joked that there was a terrorist in the protesters’ midst as he pointed at a police officer, went off to alert other protesters of the presence of two men in suits in the park. None of the other protesters seemed to care, however, and the situation soon fizzled out.
The day’s afternoon heralded in with the sound of drums. Faces familiar to many present in Zuccotti Park in the fall began showing up to Bryant Park as the sun beat away at the last of the morning’s clouds. A drum circle formed, starting weakly, but soon building to take on the role of the demonstration’s heartbeat. Men jerked, bobbed and grunted to the tribal rumblings of their own instruments. Others joined in on the dance and, almost without notice, the drum circle was infiltrated by the green-clad brass band — the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.
Men and women of all stripes began to set up around the park. Economists. Ex-hippies. Artists, actors and improv groups. One mother carried on a Harry Potter-themed day in the sun with a small group of children. A young man wearing a faded Dead Kennedys hoodie sat raptly reading from a Jorge Luis Borges anthology. A few feet to the south, a group of people talked quietly about meditation.
The drums grew louder. The costumes more elaborate. Chatter turned to creative chaos, and a tension began to swell. The western end of the park grew dense, and one could see that, across the lawn to the east, the Occupy Guitarmy had begun to form near the Gertrude Stein statue in preparation for its march down 5th Avenue to Union Square alongside Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
The Occupy Guitarmy, an amalgam of musicians and protesters pulled together to march in solidarity with the day’s General Strike events, prepared for the day by practicing the songs that they would be singing on their march to Union Square. Protesters continued to arrive on the western end of the park while these 200 men and women prepared for their contribution by tuning their guitars. They practiced the songs they would be playing that day — Morello’s very own “World Wide Rebel Songs” and Willie Niles’ “One Guitar.”
As the protesters on the west end of the park began forming ranks for the march through Manhattan, the Occupy Guitarmy started up its rendition of “One Guitar,” passing out flowers to one another, singing softly and strumming the simple A and D chords in as much unison as they could muster:
The music faded, and cheers rose up. A call then came for the Occupy Guitarmy to organize. The march had begun.