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Occupy Spring

C.S. Muncy

Almost from the moment Occupy Wall Street protesters were evicted from their camp in Zuccotti Park last November, observers have speculated whether the movement was finished, or if it would somehow rebound in the spring.

Dedicated Occupy activists dismissed the possibility that the movement had already run its course and promised an "American Spring," kicking off a new season of activism with May Day events coordinated across the country.

As it turns out, spring came early.

A March 17 rally downtown was originally conceived as a low-key way to mark the sixth anniversary of the movement, but as has happened so many times already in Occupy's history, police overreaction transformed the event into something more than it would have been on its own.

The NYPD responded with a chilling and disproportionate show of force, once again evicting the protesters from the 24-hour park and arresting scores of them with a level of violence Occupy veterans said they hadn't seen before.

Many of those who weren't arrested marched north that night, inaugurating a new camp in Union Square. In response, police have taken to barricading and garrisoning that park at midnight, prompting a nightly standoff with protesters.

Last fall, certain images—the unprovoked pepper-spraying of young women, the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge—threw Occupy Wall Street into the headlines. Already this spring has produced its own galvanizing scenes: the footage of Cecily McMillan, handcuffed and thrashing in a grand mal seizure that might have been brought on by her rough arrest, as police look on without offering medical attention; the video clip of police slamming a medic's head into a window so hard the plate glass spiderwebs; the shots of a 16-year-old girl, her shirt torn and pulled and pink bra exposed as police grab at her.

As much as occupiers still believe that police violence only makes their movement stronger, they also know that though street actions grab headlines, they're not always the best showcase for Occupy's message.

"This is a movement about economic and social injustice," occupier Aaron Black said last week. "We are not an organization that's here to battle the police department."

Protesters are adapting, increasingly countering police force with humor and wit rather than being drawn into dangerous and exhausting showdowns.

Even as street tactics are evolving, the bulk of occupier energy is still focused on planning for May Day.

Recent press accounts have questioned whether Occupy Wall Street has the sort of union support necessary to pull off a major action on May 1 and dismissed the movement's grandiose call for a citywide general strike. After all, the general strike is an artifact of another age of American labor—no U.S. city has seen one since the Taft-Hartley Act made them illegal 65 years ago.

But Occupy Wall Street's May Day organizers still say the day will be the single biggest action the movement has mounted yet. They're working with the May Day Coalition, whose massive 2006 Day Without Immigrants rally effectively revived the observation of May Day in New York. Major unions are on board as well: the Transit Workers Union, the Service Employees International Union, and New Jersey's Industrial Union Council.

"We've been really clear about using language that leaves a lot of different ways for people to take part," says Chris Longenecker, one of the organizers. "It's a 'Day Without the 99 Percent,' a 'Day of Economic Noncompliance.' That can mean not going to work, not buying anything, finding other ways to step out of the system."

During the day, protesters and their partners plan to blockade corporate offices in midtown and the financial district, regrouping in the afternoon for a rally in Union Square featuring musical guests whom organizers aren't ready to name. From there, a march and further disruptive action will carry on into the evening.

At the same time, other Occupy working groups will be setting up kitchens in New York's food deserts—neighborhoods where it's next to impossible to find anything fresh to eat. A team of lawyers and volunteers will be calling attention to the unfairness of the criminal-justice system by posting bail for arrestees moldering in Rikers because they can't afford the $500 to go home to their jobs and families while they await trial.

"There's going to be a lot going on," Longenecker says. "May Day is our coming-out party as a radical movement."

Spring is just starting. And as NYPD detective Rick "Hipster Cop" Lee observed wearily while escorting a march last week, "It's going to be a very long summer."

npinto@villagevoice.com


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