On Occupy Wall Street’s second anniversary, revisiting the expectations and disappointments of the general strike meant to reignite the movement.
Image from Flickr via Asterio Tecson
“I’m totally in love with the general strike,” said Jerry Goralnick, a middle-aged artist and actor, at a Sunday afternoon visioning meeting for the coming year. It was January 8, 2012, and by then Occupy Wall Street’s die-hard meeting-goers could think of little other than May 1st. Jerry understood the impulse, and it made him nervous. His experience in the sixties had taught him the allure of the unattainable as well as its fallout.
“To me,” Jerry said, “it’s analogous to seeing the face of God.”
The idea of a general strike had been circulating in the movement since who-knows-when. There was a woman who called for it back on September 17th. Occupy Oakland tried to mount one on November 2nd, with some success and a few broken windows. Soon after, Occupy LA took the lead in announcing a target that seemed sufficiently far off to be feasible, and sufficiently traditional to seem plausible: May Day.
At that afternoon meeting in January, a hundred or so people were crowded together, standing or sitting in an oval at a radical art space on the fourth floor of 16 Beaver Street, just a few blocks south of Wall Street. “We’re somewhere between a movement and a revolution,” estimated an organizer in his early thirties named Austin Guest, who had recently shaved the sideburns off one side of what had been a full beard. There was talk about bringing down Bank of America, resisting home evictions, and providing child care. But the discussion kept coming back to May Day, to the general strike.
Just a few days later, in the basement of the Communication Workers of America Local 1180’s Tribeca office, the May Day planning process began in earnest. The meeting, which included people from unions and immigrant justice groups as well as Occupiers, had a carefully-composed mandate only to “discuss possibly explore supporting” Occupy LA’s call for a May Day general strike. The caution was a politic move to get potential allies involved early, to ensure they’d be as fully invested in the general strike as possible.
Facilitating that night was the Direct Action Working Group’s Chris Longenecker, a lanky twenty-four-year-old from Long Island. His dark brown hair was still shaggy from his months in Zuccotti, and he had stringy pink bracelets on his wrist. He led the meeting deftly, making sure all the curmudgeonly union members got their chance to speak, even while inserting delicate and occasional interventions about the need to “smash state and capital.”
The topic of discussion was the big picture: what would a general strike even mean, and did it make any sense to call for one? The union members tended to think they knew exactly what a general strike meant, that one was not likely to happen anytime soon, and that it would be a terrible idea to call for one. The Occupiers tended toward optimism and subtlety. They wanted to try out, as art critic and organizer Yates McKee put it, “imagining and dreaming what a city of and for the 99 percent would look like.”
OWS had done impossible things before, so why couldn’t it again?
For the Occupiers, it was clear, “strike” conjured little of the industrial imagery of workers walking off the job in lockstep; many had probably never seen the inside of a factory or had an opportunity to join a union. Rather, to them, a city on strike would look like a gigantic Liberty Square, only better—a non-stop festival of salvific creativity through ungovernable acts of defiance, an inescapable mass annoyance to the 1 percent with the side effect of bringing the financial system to its knees. OWS had done impossible things before, so why couldn’t it again?
After the meeting, I stood outside the union building under a scaffold with Yates and Chris, together with Natasha Singh and Amin Husain, a pair of artists who’d been around since the earliest meetings even before the occupation. As we talked, trading half-serious nonsense about what May Day might amount to, and Natasha scanned around the circle with an accusing glare. “Look at us!” she announced. “We all have crazy eyes!”
The morning of that visioning meeting at 16 Beaver, I killed some time beforehand by going to a large, depressing electronics store in the Financial District to satisfy a consumerist obsession I’d been harboring. I was caught red-handed there by Bill Dobbs, elder doyen of the Press Relations Working Group, a lawyer who cut his activist teeth in ACT UP and various anti-war mobilizations, and a New Yorker of the variety one would expect in a cameo on Seinfeld. He was feeling triumphant that morning because he’d dropped his keys down a subway grate and, after some misadventures, managed to recover them with a string and a magnet. But as always, Bill was also on the job. He made sure to serve me the latest meta-narrative he was trying to feed into the news cycle.
“We’re like a novelist whose first book was a bestseller,” he said. “Now we have to write another one that’s even better.”
At the time there were far smarter, more connected, and more experienced organizers working in OWS than during the planning of the original September 17th occupation. Yet somehow everybody knew this was no guarantee that the movement would get anywhere near making a blip on the national radar again.
The more I thought about it over the subsequent months—at the twice-weekly-or-more planning meetings for May Day, and in countless walks and meals whose sole and constant subject of conversation was revolution—what Bill had said seemed right. He was right, in particular, to imagine the movement as analogous to a work of art. Maybe more than analogous, actually.
The realization was creeping upon me, or in some cases creeping me out, that this political movement I’d been mixed up in for months was really, truly, and above all best understood as a gigantic art project, which unwittingly I had been helping to carry out.
Think about it. Where did all of this begin but with a poster in the centerfold of an art magazine and a corresponding email blast? Georgia Sagri, who played such a usefully disruptive role in the early Tompkins Square Park meetings, was a performance artist, part of the latest Whitney Museum Biennial. Could it be that she was just doing her art? Was I just participating in her art by writing about her? What about Amin and Natasha and Yates, who had known each other before through a program at the Whitney?
The paradigm vocation of the civil rights movement was the pastor; for the Occupy movement, it’s the artist.
From the beginning of the occupation onward, artists like them spread out among the working groups and facilitated the General Assemblies. They managed the finances. For major days of action, art studios around the city were used for staging and storage, and works of art were key props for the movement’s most consequential direct actions. Insurrectionist and anarchist books circulating in art schools had prepared a critical mass in the movement to demand only the impossible and became the basis of its theoretical leading edge. Famous artists became some of the movement’s major funders and public advocates. And nothing was more artsy than the prospect of a May Day that would turn the whole city into a canvas.
The usual expectation in a protest movement is that political people set the agenda and artists come in and decorate it. But with OWS, the more empirically accurate story is the reverse. The paradigm vocation of the civil rights movement was the pastor; for the Occupy movement, it’s the artist.
Obviously this has been tried before. One thinks, for instance, of the Situationists who inspired the students of May 1968 in Paris; the slogans of artists and critics nearly brought down the government. Kalle Lasn at Adbusters told me that he fancied himself their successor. Politicians make movements through organizations and memberships and coalitions, but artists spread their political works by inspiration, promulgation, and replication—which is to say, by making them go viral.
There’s decent strategic logic, actually, to having a movement conceived of and run by artists, and to thinking of it as a work of art. Lots of people join movements not principally because of an ideology, or by political calculation, but because the movement is cool, or beautiful, or fun. They join a march for a lot of the same reasons that they pay exorbitant prices to stuff themselves into packed stadium concerts or camp out for the chance to catch a glimpse of a celebrity. If the artist, or the movement, can create that magnetism, that experience, that effervescence, then people will come and sacrifice in order to take part. Thus it was a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, that helped launch Czechoslovakia’s resistance against Soviet rule and a playwright, Václav Havel, who followed through. Artists specialize in making us imagine and realize a different kind of world.
The artists’ strategy, though, also faces a recurring danger. The Situationists might have inspired French students to rise up and scrawl absurdist slogans on the walls of their occupied university buildings, but it was the unions that finally stepped in to mount a general strike and negotiate with the government. The outcome ended up bolstering the unions and leaving the students choking on tear gas. It happens in every upheaval that comes from reckless enthusiasm and fragile unity; the French Revolution went to Napoleon, and the Iranian one went to Khomeini, just as the uprising at Tahrir Square devolved into another skirmish between the military and the Islamists. If Occupiers created a truly Tahrir-sized rupture, who would really benefit? Corporations and megachurches would be my guess. Again and again, the idealists create an opening, but those who are actually organized move in to fill it.
The meetings went on. A wrenching standoff between anarchists and unionists had produced a short and cautious yet spirited text, which was presented to Occupy Wall Street’s moribund General Assembly on Valentine’s Day and approved, to cheers and heart-themed balloons:
Occupy Wall Street stands in solidarity with the calls for a day without the 99 percent, a general strike and more!! On May Day, wherever you are, we are calling for:
TAKE THE STREETS!!!!!
There’s that slippery word, “solidarity,” and the just as open-ended “a general strike and more!!”—plausible deniability. No, OWS didn’t call for a general strike. Yes, it sort of did. Unions could say no, anarchists could say yes. Both of them could “TAKE THE STREETS!!!!!”
What had been accomplished politically, meanwhile, was actually quite significant. OWS had brought into one fold unions and immigrants’ rights groups, which have often-diverging agendas and typically hold separate May Day rallies. There would be a “solidarity” march from Union Square, where the immigrants usually gather, which would move downtown past Foley Square, where the unions normally do. The details were being worked out in “4×4” meetings, with representatives from Occupy, unions, immigrants, and community organizations. But Occupiers insisted on treating these as spokescouncils, making their decisions by consensus rather than empowering representatives. They boasted to each other that their horizontality was rubbing off on the coalition partners, at least a little.
There were moments, glimpses, when something truly radical and huge seemed to be happening. The immigrants from the Laundry Workers Center, when they told their stories in bits and pieces of English, but mostly tears—those were for real. “Any campaign you have is our campaign,” one of them told the coalition. In turn, Occupiers were showing up to actions at Hot & Crusty stores where the workers were fighting abusive bosses. Occupiers and transit workers tied open the gates at subway stations around the city one day in March, alongside posters for May Day, causing celebration and rage on the organizing email threads. But these scenes of escalation toward May 1st weren’t always distinguishable from the mirages.
Occupiers made a point of investigating the history of general strikes, pouring through old radical texts and archival films, and making zines of their own. But the historical indications were as foreboding as they were encouraging. A century earlier, the great agitator Rosa Luxemburg chided, “The mass strike is not artificially ‘made,’ not ‘decided’ at random, not ‘propagated,’ but … results from social conditions with historical inevitability.” The social movement scholar Frances Fox Piven, speaking in February at NYU, noted a contradiction in what was being called for; she said, “A general strike doesn’t last for a day—that’s a demonstration.”
It made possible a unity that wasn’t possible before. It made big, crazy-eyed promises.
Regardless, there were more meetings. The process continued. In the coalition, Occupy Wall Street brought the energy, and the youth, and it had changed the game. It made possible a unity that wasn’t possible before. It made big, crazy-eyed promises. May Day meetings became OWS’s most vibrant and populous gatherings, especially after the General Assembly and the Spokes Council went from moribund to deceased. But without access to funds of their own through those bodies, Occupiers had to rely on the coalition to foot a lot of the necessary bills, and it took work to keep their partners happy. Such politics had a consumptive effect.
Yates McKee, who’d entered the May Day process as a prophet of weird, became one of the most patient and persistent negotiators, balancing week after week the non-negotiables of various stakeholders in order to ensure their backing for the all-important cultural extravaganza that would precede the big solidarity march. His time was consumed not only in booking acts for the stage at Union Square, but in painstaking consensus-building with the coalition about the most basic content of flyers and websites. He continued wearing neon green every day I saw him—a neon green knit cap and shoelaces, especially—because aliens from the future are green, he’d whisper, and in the hopes of turning climate change into a uniting issue for Occupy.
Late in March, Yates emailed me: “just had a deep convo with Michael Azzerad about why Sun Ra is the secret avatar of OWS.” And the like. The wilder the ambitions the better. But as the weeks went on, more and more of the Occupiers’ energy went toward the business of haggling with unions.
In the mix of all this, the idea of the general strike was spoken of less and less in the May Day meetings. First, the Strike Cluster became folded into Action, which in turn became bogged down in planning the big permitted solidarity march that, by virtue of being permitted, lots of Occupiers weren’t interested in anyway. The strike was at worst taboo, or at best forgotten. This outcome could’ve seemed, and in fact seemed to some, like a dastardly plan on the part of liberals to quash the prospects (such as they were) of the radicals’ general strike. The historic coalition came at a cost.
Georgia Sagri occasionally came to the May Day meetings, mostly with the apparent intent of defying the coalition-building process. I remember one time in particular, in mid-March. The long, light hair she’d worn at the Tompkins Square Park meetings was now close-cropped and dark. She was not frantic or pacing, as before, but mostly quiet, sitting on a table in the back. During announcements at the end, she said, innocently enough, “I’m part of this new group called the Occupy Central Park Exploratory Committee.” They were having strolling meetings on Tuesdays, starting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She said, “We’re gonna farm, we’re gonna build houses.” A quarter-page flyer was meanwhile being passed around the room, with a picture of a shantytown in a snow-covered Central Park, with high-rise Upper West Side apartment buildings in the background. “NEW YORK IS ON INFINITE STRIKE,” it said. “MAY 1st WE OCCUPY CENTRAL PARK FOREVER.”
One of several anthropologists participant-observing the meeting confessed to me at the end, as we were heading up the stairs and out to Fourteenth Street, “I literally had a dream about Central Park, about us occupying Central Park.”
One could have in the movement something like the same kind of faith one tends to have in automobiles—that every year, a new model will come out better than its predecessor, in unexpected and habit-forming ways. Except here it seemed to arise out of nowhere.
All the frustrations and shortsightedness and limitations could feel overcome, at least then and there in the midst of it, by this movement’s fecundity. One could have in it something like the same kind of faith one tends to have in automobiles—that every year, a new model will come out better than its predecessor, in unexpected and habit-forming ways. Except here it seemed to arise out of nowhere. Someone would always come up with the next salvific poster, the next feat of mutual aid, the next viral video, the next website, the next committee to serve the next need. Of course so many necessary things went undone, and one had reservations about the general direction of the whole movement and every detail therein. But at least there was something always new and creative and unexpected, always somehow better than the last.
So it was with May Day. One couldn’t keep track of everything if one tried. There was May Day radio, the maypole, the Guitarmy, the Free University, the Wildcat March, mutual aid, and the 99 Pickets—which was a litany in itself, with dozens of unions and community groups planning actions in Midtown related to their various ongoing struggles. “And more,” as the call to action promised. At night, we were to expect mysterious, militant, affinity-group-led actions in the Financial District area, the kind of thing it was better not to know about in advance.
“We shouldn’t make a lot of plans,” said Mike Andrews from the Direct Action working group, “because if May Day fulfills our wildest dreams, what follows will come naturally.”
Mid-April brought with it the anxiety that May Day might not be everything it would need to be to rescue the world—much less, the movement, which had been for months glaringly absent from headlines. The city evidently wasn’t bracing for an impending general strike. People in the streets and on the subway looked innocent of any such thing. The list of unions and organizations endorsing the solidarity march was growing, perhaps, but workplaces weren’t gearing up for a work stoppage. On the InterOccupy conference calls, the national situation seemed even more bleak; Oakland and LA had interesting plans, perhaps, but Honolulu, for instance, wasn’t up to anything more than “art and labor related fun.” Among the true believers, drastic measures seemed more and more necessary.
On April 14th, for instance, OWS-affiliated participants in the anarchist book fair at Judson Church earned the unfortunate Gawker headline, “Feeble Anarchists Fail to Smash New York City Starbucks Window,” as well as some serious criminal charges.
Where before I had been thinking about art, now I was thinking about apocalypse. This theological frame of mind might have been simply because in the midst of it all I was also scrambling to finish my book manuscript about proofs for the existence of God. Yet it was also plainly true that those of us in the midst of this process were staring constantly in the face of the end of the world. The intention, of course, was to end the world of systemic oppression, the world of the 1 percent, the world made of debt. Whether or not they deep-down believed it, Occupiers talked as if such an end might be near. The likeliest explanation for such terrific credulity, however, was the recognition that the real end we were in danger of experiencing was that of the movement itself.
There was a mood of collective insomnia—or of a lucid dream, in which you know you are asleep, and dreaming, and that knowledge makes you feel in control.
“Everybody knows that May Day is kind of Occupy Wall Street’s last hurrah,” said organizer Diego Ibañez at one of the last May Day meetings, in a moment of desperation while trying to push through the passage of a controversial proposal. But then Diego corrected himself: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say it that way.” Too close for comfort.
There was a mood of collective insomnia—or of a lucid dream, in which you know you are asleep, and dreaming, and that knowledge makes you feel in control. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be in the middle of a work of art, as neither the model nor the artist but the brush and the paint.
One of the kinder, gentler Occupiers I knew—an original one, from the planning meetings before the occupation began—had a banner atop his Facebook timeline from the History Channel series “Life After People”: an artist’s rendition of a cityscape after which all the humans in it somehow disappear. Trees are growing out from the sides of crumbling buildings. The scene is quiet, and still, with life, but not our kind of life.
I used to wonder myself during the original occupation whether a plaque might someday commemorate its kitchen, or its library, or the General Assembly. One night in late April I sat with a group of Occupiers on the steps of the Federal Hall memorial on Wall Street, surrounded by barricades. One of them was Amin Husain, who pointed to a fist-sized gash in the side of a building across the street. Looking at his phone, he read aloud from a Wikipedia page that explained its cause: a 1920 bombing by Italian anarchists that killed thirty-eight people. It was a quiet reminder that Wall Street had had enemies before. The gash was unmarked and unmapped; I’d passed by it many times and had never even noticed.
I came late to the last of the big May Day meetings. It was wrapping up already, and people were busily moving from cluster to cluster, making last-minute plans. One person told me the meeting had been powerful and moving and deep; another said it was boring.
I was in time, at least, to get a copy of a new zine that Yates said I should definitely look at—one among tables full of posters and flyers and booklets and stickers on display. It stated nothing about its authorship. On the cover, sandwiching a photo of riot police beating people with a man in a suit looking on, it said, “Mayday 1971 or, How to Lose Street Battles and Alienate People.”
Inside the ninety-two-page, photocopied zine was a series of period documents directly or indirectly related to the massive 1971 May Day action in Washington, D.C. Affinity groups from around the country converged in an attempt to shut the city down and, in the government’s stead, declare the Vietnam War over. I’d never heard of this before. The zine included the complete “May Day Tactical Manual” used for the action, as well as an article from the time about how impressed Pentagon officials were by it. There were news reports about the “comic trek” as affinity groups briefly clogged the federal workers’ commute and suffered thousands of arrests for their trouble. Activists’ reports told much the same depressing story in a different voice. The last quarter or so of the zine consisted of a 1979 article by a pair of sociologists recounting the demise of the sixties counterculture over the course of the subsequent decade. They described disappointment with “the freak vision of an anarchist communard post-scarcity society” that carried people into such “post-movement groups” as the Hari Krishnas, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the World Christian Liberation Army, and Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, which came to its suicidal end in 1978.
They couldn’t take away the feeling of having gone to a palm reader and been told that we were causing our own undoing, Oedipally enough, precisely by trying to escape it.
I read the whole zine that night, from beginning to end, in a trance of déjà vu. And while people I knew who had been there in ’71 contested the implication that whatever happened on May Day had destroyed their movement once and for all with its ambition-cum-cataclysm, they couldn’t take away the feeling of having gone to a palm reader and been told that we were causing our own undoing, Oedipally enough, precisely by trying to escape it.
When May Day finally came, I woke up to the news on Twitter that letters containing white powder had been sent to bank offices and City Hall. No one claimed responsibility. Some more militant people had received preemptive visits from the NYPD. Soon, the FBI would announce that five men had been arrested in Cleveland for attempting to blow up a bridge—entirely thanks to goading from an undercover agent. Somebody was evidently out to ensure that May Day would look like terrorism.
In New York, the day’s first arrest was of a white-bearded Veteran for Peace who momentarily blocked the intersection at Forty-Second Street and Sixth Avenue, waving a yellow flag. Just then, the 99 Pickets were beginning, and a pack of black-clad youngsters went off to shout down “fucking Disney.” A few hundred people slogging their way through pickets on a rainy Midtown morning swelled into closer to a thousand filling Bryant Park at midday. Hard-boiled eggs, first-aid, and the movement’s latest publications were on offer, while across the park Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello led a rehearsal for the Occupy Guitarmy, the hundred-strong orchestra of stickered-up guitars playing old protest songs, a Morello original and a particularly hypnotic arrangement of Willie Nile’s “One Guitar.” After marching down to Union Square, they were greeted by the maypole, with dancers weaving together ribbons marked with the movements’ grievances.
The May Day coalition had secured permits for actions in Union Square and the subsequent march down Broadway to the Financial District, ensuring that the whole area was surrounded by metal barricades. Bystanders couldn’t enter, and marchers couldn’t exit, except at designated points. Police protected this gigantic pen with zeal, suffocating scooter exhaust, helicopters overhead, and occasional arrests. They also managed to split the OWS contingent, trapping thousands of marchers in Union Square and refusing to let them enter Broadway.
It was during the permitted march that the day’s numbers reached their peak—around 30,000. The unions themselves didn’t seem to turn out great masses of their own, nor did they even try to mount any kind of strike. But by arranging for a permit, as Occupiers would never do themselves, the more institutional allies did provide space for a considerable show of support for the Occupy movement’s concerns, which Occupy itself hadn’t been able to even approach since the fall. The vast majority of people came for the permitted portion of the day and left after it was over.
They missed, for instance, the improvised after-party, which dissipated as police chased black-masked marchers through the Financial District’s narrow streets, clubbing some of them bloody. Mini-assemblies formed on sidewalks to plan what to do next, and were broken up, too, when discovered. All roads eventually led to Zuccotti Park, where the two hundred or so people remaining assembled, rested, and left. Come for the dream, trudge through the reality.
Calls for a general strike and mass economic noncompliance went mostly unheeded. The financial markets followed a trapezoidal journey over the course of the day spiking in the morning and crashing back down to where they started by late afternoon. The mainstream press wasn’t much impressed either, which may or may not have had anything to do with the morning pickets at News Corp. and the New York Times Building.
“I’d say this was the best day of the year,” I heard one person say in a small circle of Occupiers near Zuccotti Park, debriefing over kebabs from a street vendor. “Just this year, though.”
The subway car that finally arrived to take me from the platform smelled terrible. A revolution would have been nice right about then and there, but, for my part, the best I could think to do was move to a different car at the next station.
At around two in the morning, I got on the subway to head home—befriending, on the walk there, a Methodist minister from Korea who’d also been around for the actions. The subway car that finally arrived to take me from the platform smelled terrible. Inside was a man, half-clothed in rags and hunched over himself, neither alive nor dead. In a city where we all depend on one another, as cells of the same organism, this was our shared failure. A revolution would have been nice right about then and there, but, for my part, the best I could think to do was move to a different car at the next station.
When the Second Coming of Jesus failed to occur on October 22, 1844, as thousands of Americans expected it to—this was the “Great Disappointment”—their reactions varied. Some picked another date. Others reinterpreted failure as success. Others returned to less excitable congregations, while still others became Shakers.
If May Day was disappointing, the disappointment was disappointing too. A lot of those who’d planned it were simply tired. Some skipped town for a while to rest. Others started turning to other movement projects, like the actions against austerity in the middle of May. Still others redoubled their revolutionary efforts but with less attachment to the “Occupy” label. For many of us who had been living in an alternate universe since September, it was a time to pay mind to our jobs and families and regular lives a bit more again; I finally turned in my year-and-a-half-overdue book manuscript.
Maybe nobody really believed the transcendental expectations in the first place. But I know that from time to time I did—in glimpses, like passing a seductive canvas in a gallery.
The disappointment was there but not exactly “great.” Maybe it was less a matter of having failed to see the promised face of God than of having produced a work of art that was good but not exactly a masterpiece. Maybe nobody really believed the transcendental expectations in the first place. But I know that from time to time I did—in glimpses, like passing a seductive canvas in a gallery.
A few days after May Day, I got a call from Marisa Holmes, a dark-haired, dark-eyed film student in her mid-twenties, one of the original Occupiers whom I’d known since the earliest planning meetings. She wanted, it seemed, to set the record straight about certain details of the events of that night.
“I’m not completely satisfied by anything that’s going on right now,” she confessed. “I’m not happy, overall.”
Marisa continued, “We have to go beyond the symbolic. What does it really mean to Occupy Wall Street?” Hearing her, I felt ashamed for all my reveries about art and about the end of worlds. She didn’t want to talk about imagination this time, and she didn’t even want to talk about process.
She said: “People want to see, like, actual results.”
Adapted from Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (University of California Press, Fall 2013)
Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, which is based on reporting he did on Occupy Wall Street for publications including Harper’s, The Nation, and Waging Nonviolence, of which he is an editor. His first book is God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet.