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On May Day, Activists March for Labor, Immigration, Students

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Overheard view of a May Day rally in Union Square.

CREDIT: OccupyWallStNYC

Protesters from Occupy, labor unions, student and immigrant groups, and other organizations turned out for massive actions across the country last week to commemorate “May Day,” or International Workers’ Day.

The actions were billed as a “general strike,” but despite thousands of people blocking streets and causing some shops to close and a few radical elements destroying property, not much commerce actually came to a halt. Plans to close the Golden Gate Bridge and West Coast ports fell through and, contrary to rumors, major airport LAX did not close.

But the goal of the day seemed to be less a literal industry-wide strike—which labor unions are now effectively banned from supporting—than a reminder of the plight of working people and a day of huge energy and numbers to revitalize the Occupy movement.

With student debt in the United States surpassing $1 trillion and about half of recent grads under-employed, student issues took center stage on May 1, along with labor and immigrant issues, on the day focused on fighting for economic and social justice. In Portland, residents saw a large demonstration of students chanting  “Fund our future,” and students from schools such as New York University, Georgetown University, and American University were prominent figures in East Coast actions.

The May Day protests varied in scope and character. In New York City, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, tens of thousands marched on Broadway at one point during the day. In Washington, DC, a quieter pastoral celebration with games, speakers, and a maypole ended with hundreds of protesters marching down 14th Street to the White House. In Chicago, approximately 2,000 demonstrators rallied at Federal Plaza after stopping at the Haymarket Memorial to commemorate the deaths of labor activists from police bullets.

And in Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle, many peaceful protesters expressed dismay when small groups of “black bloc” anarchist protesters destroyed property and police deployed tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones was caught in one of those stinging rounds and observed this woman being knocked off her bike and arrested for no apparent reason.

Throughout the day in New York City, some occupiers led pickets, some nearly stormed a Chase bank location before being blocked by police, others joined a “guitarmy” led by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, and still other black bloc protesters held guerilla “wild cat” marches to lead police on wild goose chases.

Given the large crowds in New York, the day of action went relatively smoothly and peacefully, with some exceptions. Some black bloc protesters attacked photographers. A few journalists were harassed by police. At most recent count, 97 protesters were arrested throughout the day—some of whom, Allison Kilkenny of The Nation reported, seemed to be apprehended for dubious reasons such as jaywalking.

Such apparently arbitrary arrests fit a nationwide pattern of “snatch and grab” tactics, in which police attempt to “intervene early” against radical protest actions and avoid larger-scale arrests, according to Oakland Police Chief of Staff Sergeant Chris Bolton.  

However, such early intervention can lead to arrests of demonstrators who have committed no crime. And in the wake of reports that the NYPD raided activists’ homes on minor outstanding offenses to interrogate them about May Day, civil liberties advocates say they’re concerned about protesters retaining their full First Amendment rights.

Frustrations with black bloc and police crackdowns aside, though, occupiers seemed to consider May Day a great success and a sign of strong activism to come.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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