Yesterday afternoon, thousands of people descended on downtown Manhattan to celebrate May Day (a.k.a. International Workers’ Day) and show that the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t die when they kicked everyone out of Zucotti Park. And we had some very high profile help! Despite the massively successful attempts of The Man (and the postmodern “whatever shrug”) to convince post-1960s people that combining music and politics isn’t cool, indie hiphop group Das Racist was there, as well as weirdo electronics wizard Dan Deacon, old school hip hoppers Immortal Technique, and that paragon of 90s consciousness raising, Tom Morello.
When I got to the city, Tom Morello’s “guitarmy” was already marching from Madison Square Park to Union Square, singing and playing protest songs along the way. It was a peaceful march that kept to the sidewalk, but I think were about as many cops as people watching from the street. I render-voused with my boyfriend and his friends, only to find that the wildcat march earlier that day had been crazy; snaking through the city as quickly as possible to avoid the cops, it had ended in the arrest of 13 of their comrades. Rumor had it, a computer attack from Anonymous had shut down government servers, which was theoretically cool, but was also making it take a really long time for the police to process people.
The first person to play at Union Square was Tom Morello, or as he calls himself now, The Night Watchman. Flanked by members of his guitarmy, he played a few heartfelt protest songs, starting with his own “Worldwide Rebel Song,” the chorus of which everyone quickly learned and sang along with. He then moved onto Woody Guthrie‘s American classic “This Land Is Your Land,” putting back in the verse about private property that’s generally missing from the version we learn as kids:
- There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
- Sign was painted, it said private property;
- But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
- This land was made for you and me
When I was a baby music listener in the 90s getting turned on to the idea of radical politics (if not their actual substance) by Rage Against The Machine, I never thought I’d see Tom Morello plug into an electro-acoustic guitar and let loose with a folk song, but it worked! Everyone was into it.
Tom closed with some words I tried to remember later in the day when things didn’t go quite as I’d hoped they would:
“Confront injustice wherever it rears its ugly head, but today we’re gonna have a good motherfucking time!”
Next, a few speakers talked about unions, undocumented students, and immigrants’ rights. Looking around, I saw the crowd was much more diverse than OWS has looked in the past, an encouraging sign that they’re starting to get better at bringing in people from many different communities. Speakers included reps from the domestic workers union, undocumented students, undocumented workers, the taxi drivers’ union, United Auto Workers, and the jazz musicians’ union (who also performed). The more this happens, the harder it’s going to be for enemies to paint the OWS movement as a bunch of white trust fund hippies causing trouble for fun and because we hate America.
Next, Das Racist dropped their usual make-fun-of-everyone attitude to deliver their most earnest performance I’ve ever seen. What kind of show they give depends a lot on their attitude towards where they’re playing/who they’re playing for, and the guys did an energetic rendition of recent single “Michael Jackson” to much waving of hands and rapping along. At several points, the backing track cut out but they kept going a capella, and when the mics cut out, they shouted. It was the same on “Rainbow In The Dark,” at the end of which Himanshu said, “what’s up May Day, how y’all doin…New York…it’s about y’all.”
Despite technical difficulties, the show went on, and Dan Deacon made the most of the time he had. As usual, he asked the group to act collectively, and as usual, everyone listened. He had us take several steps back to form a circle with one guy at the center. We then did a “physical mic check” (pictured above) wherein everyone copied the guy’s dance moves until his “moves” exploded into excited jumping and moshing. Someone threw a flower in the happy mosh pit just as it was starting.
Headliner Immortal Technique (a.k.a. Felipe Coronel) dominated the stage with politically conscious raps that made my hair stand on end despite the warm late afternoon sun. He began with “The Martyr,” a song that captures a lot of occupy’s revolutionary sentiments, and everyone shouted “motherfucker it’s on!” with gusto when it was time. He ended with “Toast To The Dead,” a requiem for fallen comrades that ends with “realize we’re one regardless of our birthplace.” I can get down with that!
“Revolutionary energy has no race, no religion,” Coronel reminded us. “All you need to be a part of Occupy Wall Street is a heart and soul.” So true. He also said capitalism and democracy are not synonymous, which is also true. Then he addressed the cops, telling them they’re part of the 99% whether they choose to accept it or not, which is both technically true and irrelevant to current circumstances. Immediately afterwards, a rep from communities in the Bronx gave a speech about how the Bronx is occupied already, and led the crowd in a chant of “fuck the police.” Diversity of tactics.
Later on, people gathered in a park on Water Street for a general assembly, which was followed by a short lived attempt at a rogue march after an army of cops kicked everyone out at 10pm. Unlike earlier, there were too many people and not enough planning for a snake march, and after a few minor skirmishes, people dispersed and re-grouped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial amphitheater. But despite what some might see as disorganization and docility in the face of a highly trained and heavily armed army of cops, I think yesterday was a huge success. It got people excited again, breathed life back into the movement, and showed the world that OWS is not a passing trend or a temporary letting off of steam. What it will be remains to be seen; at the risk of sounding cheesy, that’s up to you.