Tales from May Day’s demonstrations.
It’s raining in Bryant Park, and several dozen protestors duck under the eaves of a sandwich shop. One protestor asks his friend if he has any duct tape so he can tape the tips of his shoes to keep his feet dry. Another man writes an acrostic on a piece of cardboard. Down the left side, in red Sharpie, he writes “HSBC.” Next to it, in black, he writes “uge tinking ucket of rap.” Someone asks him what he does for a living.
“I’m a grad student at Columbia,” he says. “I study communications.”
A woman named Kelly wants to picket GE, but is having trouble recruiting other protestors.
“I’m doing Fox News because I know what they look like,” a man tells her. “Bill O’Reilly? I know his face. GE? Lot of nebulous faces. Evil, sure, but very vague.”
Kelly and a small contingent of sign-bearers walk over to the General Electric Building at 570 Lexington. Later, she comes back. A security guard told her that GE actually moved their headquarters to Connecticut in the late 90s. But there were a whole bunch of awful retailers in the building, so they picketed those.
One woman says she’s picketing Pfizer because she’s bi-polar. “As someone who’s been on multiple anti-psychotics,” she says, “this is personal. Geodone almost ruined my life.”
On her shirt is a button proclaiming, “There is no excuse and never an invitation to rape.”
“Mic check!” a woman yells. “There is a Vietnam War hero, who is fighting for his country, this time in the right way, about to be arrested!”
“I’m pretty much the 1%,” says an anesthesiologist from Pittsburgh. “But I think this is great, totally great. I grew up working poor, but I got where I am because of Pell grants, cheap student loans. And what I make now comes from the middle-class, people who have health insurance because the unions got it for them. Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not forgetting that.”
Jesse says when he started college in 2001, everyone in his industrial design program found $50/$60 thousand jobs right out of school. But when it was his turn to graduate, that just wasn’t happening anymore. For a couple years, he worked for a company that organized rich people’s closets. (“You ever see Cribs, on MTV? Closets like that.”) Then two-thirds of the company got laid off and Jesse went on unemployment for a while.
Eventually, he got hired by his friend’s landscaping business. Last year, his friend and his wife had a couple of kids, and the wife informed his friend that he had to get a real job, not just landscaping. So his friend went to work for the post office and let Jesse manage the business. Jesse’s clearing pretty good money now—not enough to cover his student loans, but a few months ago he got a few assignments from the owners of mansions out near Radnor and was finally able to pay off his bills.
As a treat, Jesse bought himself a beard trimmer for $19.99 at Wal-Mart.“When you’re dreaming about buying yourself a gift,” he says, “that’s the kind of gift you’re dreaming about: a beard trimmer from Wal-Mart.”
An Indian man smokes a cigarette, watching a scrum of protestors on the sidewalk. A marching band plays and the protestors dance. The man says he’s a banker for a Japanese bank.
“The Japanese banks,” he says, “are nothing like the American banks. Financially, they’re very conservative, almost socialist. There’s almost none of the speculation stuff you see here. It’s a very low-risk, low-reward model.”
The banker finishes his cigarette, stubs it out on the ground, and walks it over to a trash bin.
“Actually,” he says, “I don’t think most of the protestors even know what banks do.”
A TV crew interviews a UPS driver. “This is real America,” the UPS driver says. “America needs more of this shit.” The interviewer winces.
A cop and a young man walk beside each other in the street.
“You need to get back on the sidewalk,” a cop says.
“I’m just walking.”
“Sir, I’m going to need you to get back on the sidewalk.”
“Please,” the cops says. “Just walk on the sidewalk.”
“I’m marching. I have a right to march.”
“You want to march? Get a permit like everyone else.”
“No,” the man says. “No. I pay for the streets; it’s my right to walk on them. It’s the law. Read the law. You’re the one who’s violating the law right now.”
The cop veers towards the young man. A woman runs up and whispers in his ear. Silently, he steps up on the sidewalk.
A cop handcuffs a protestor, a middle-aged woman. The woman has her hands behind her back and looks scared. A legal observer in a neon hat runs up and asks the cop something inaudible.
The cop shakes his head. “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.”
Three protestors link arms and chant, “NYPD! KKK! How many kids did you kill today!”
A reporter asks protestors to describe, in one sentence, what the purpose of the protest is. The responses vary:
A 22-year-old student from Crown Heights, Brooklyn: “To reclaim the movement as a peaceful and constructive process.”
A 23-year-old promoter from Sunset Park, Brooklyn: “To bring light to and find a way to stop oppression of every kind.”
A 28-year-old artist from South Williamsburg, Brooklyn: “To exercise freedom with or without a purpose.”
A 25-year-old restaurant busser from Manassas, VA: “To restore dignity to the worker.”
A 44-year-old graphic designer from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn: “To try to relieve the polarity between the halves and the have-nots.”
A transporter from Kensington, Brooklyn: “To make the 1% understand that greed kills.”
A 30-year-old salon manager from Greenpoint, Brooklyn: “To be present.”
A 27-year-old helicopter pilot from Stavanger, Norway: “It’s about free speech.”
A 22-year-old dancer from the East Village: “I can only answer for myself, but I’m an artist and I don’t like that I can’t live here any longer and I find myself having to do things I don’t want to do.”
A 34-year-old-public relations writer from Ft. Greene, Brooklyn: “You know, I was in Bryant Park and I saw someone with a sign that said, ‘Theater for the 99%,’ and I go back and forth on that. It just seems like 1,000 different soapboxes.”
Matthew Wolfe is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared online and in print for The Nation, Salon, and Dissent. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Per Liljas is a journalist and photographer who has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent around the world for Swedish publications. He is now based in New York, where he is an M.A. candidate at NYU’s Literary Reportage program. ww.perliljas.net.