“May Day Matters” by Cindy Milstein
Written by our lovely author and comrade Cindy Milstein, author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations.
May Day Matters
By Cindy Milstein
Every since this occupy “movement” began, it has surprised me. Like a package I didn’t order appearing on my doorstep, gifting me some sweet little zines written by a near stranger I met long ago. And just when this occupy thing seems to stall or become tired—or as Take Back the Land’s Max Rameau put it so well recently, begins to feel like the film Groundhog Day—it surprises me yet again. Another package unexpectedly arrives, this time with hand-screened political posters from some anonymous friend.
May Day was one of those surprises.
Truth be told, though, the day itself was underwhelming.
Part of the reason for that, at least for me, lies in the fact that I had expectations. Great expectations. I went into May Day with the anarchist equivalent of “day-before-Christmas” excited anticipation, with all sorts of preconceived notions of what could or should happen swirling around in my head. Nothing ever lives up to such fantasies.
Yet the reason goes deeper than that: along with so many others, I keep thinking of occupy as a social movement—that is, an organized attempt at achieving a political goal. I’m not talking about the “What do they want?” straw argument leveled against us. I’m speaking of all the manifold hopes, desires, and aspirations that “we, as a movement,” articulate in innumerable actions and artifacts—and sometimes put into a day of action.
One of the biggest surprises of occupy, however, time and again, is that it defies categorizing or capturing, no matter how much those individuals who want to make a name off occupy keep trying to name it, or occasionally take credit for it; no matter how law enforcement, politicians and pundits, or the mainstream media try to label it; no matter how much well-meaning activists and agitators and anarchists try to give voice to it—or valiantly try to create processes and platforms to give many voices to it. Indeed, the more I dwell on it, the more I’m still not even sure what the “it” of occupy actually is, and that’s another surprise, and a beautiful one at that.
I’m not against organizing, or goals, or attempts at both. Certainly bits and pieces of occupy scattered across this continent, and spreading farther afield, do just that—or try to. The inspiration that is occupy, its still-logic-defying magic, is that so far, it is not only unpredictable; it is uncontainable. “We are unstoppable” (with an emphasis on the “so far”).
What I along with so many other people seem to keep missing is that occupy isn’t a movement but rather, hmmm, perhaps an eruption, or an undertow, an overflowing, an upsurge, an opening, fissures and cracks, piracy and pyrotechnics, and so much more. It’s a collective exuberance, so curious about so many things that it runs wild in all directions, chasing butterflies and flying kites and skipping stones and getting lost for the fun of it—and for the seriousness of it too.
Its power, to date, is that it can’t be pinned down, much less labeled; or rather, “occupy” becomes the label for an increasing variety of projects, organizing, and people, even if those projects, organizing, and people haven’t tagged themselves “occupy.”
I recently heard a woman talk about her days as an eight-year-old during the civil rights movement, and she explained how a thoroughly charismatic black man got her and her young friends to engage in what she now saw as dangerous—for kids—direct action: lie down in front of buses in protest. She mentioned that they did it because he was such a powerful person, and that in her judgment, the reason it was relatively so easy to destroy the civil rights and black power movements was because the government simply had to take out—imprison and/or kill—the charismatic, mostly male leaders and, bingo!
But the “benefit” of not being a movement isn’t merely to avoid government repression. That cat-and-mouse game tails any counter to hierarchical authority; it just looks different under different contestations. Why I increasingly am questioning the movement framework for occupy, thanks to May Day, is its elusive shape-shifting, in which just when someone predicts “Occupy 2.0,” say, they have to quickly readjust with “Occupy 3.0,” and will soon be mistaken again.
A little over a year ago, in an anarcho-queer study group made up of almost equal parts “insurrectionists” and “prefigurativists” (not to caricature any of us, since I love each nuanced individual), we engaged in a friendly debate after reading some of Crack Capitalism by John Holloway. Does “not making capitalism” begin with Holloway’s “No!” or instead a “Yes!”? You probably can guess which side our equal parts (and this posi anarchist) were on in this playful argument, which lasted for weeks, spilling into things like, “Does dinner begin with a ‘no’ or a ‘yes’?”
Occupy-months later, I now think that my “Yes!” was wrong, as is Holloway’s (and some of my comrades’) “No!” Yet another surprise of occupy is that, perhaps, it begins and so far continually begins again with a “Maybe!”
So rather than a movement, where I and others can anticipate and organize toward a May Day with grandiose visions of “general strikes” and “no work * no school * no chores * no banking * no no no,” I keep coming back to a plural depiction, much as even this falls short of describing occupy, which is as it should be.
Occupy as uprisings.
Like when one is transfixed on a beach, watching ocean waves crest or fall in unequal measure, grow or diminish, uncover shells or carry in garbage.
Occupy uprisings, in league with the Arab uprisings and Quebec uprisings and so many more uprisings around this world, all rising up, springing up, emergent.
All characterized by lavish, unpredictable, breathtaking, and heartbreaking too “Maybes!”
We don’t know. And this “not-knowing” is occupy’s power.
It’s as if most of the globe’s human inhabitants have thrown up their hands, coincidentally, at the same instant, and with a loud collective sigh, exclaimed to the godless heavens, “We don’t know how to fix this mess. But we know that we have to try.” So we’re experimenting. We’re taking risks and attempting to innovate, premised on pie-in-the-sky guesswork. We’re making mistakes, lots of ’em, and trying, trying again, with almost childlike wonderment at what our not-knowing will birth this time around. Maybe! Or maybe not! And back to another maybe, or a bunch of them!
That’s the best answer that any uprisings can honestly offer, much as revolutionaries have long pretended to know otherwise, to disastrous results.
Throughout this occupy thing, I keep forgetting to remember that none of us know what we’re doing, really, in this monumental global attempt to undo capitalism, undo states, undo hierarchies of all shapes and sizes, undo all the oppressions that cut so deeply and kill us too often. We also don’t know if we’ll figure it out this time—damn, we’re not even sure who the “we” is (99 percent? 87.5 percent? less, or more?) trying to figure “it” out. Through this murky mess, we do know that we must figure it, that it’s imperative, and that the only way to potentially do so is by throwing ourselves headstrong into the not-knowingness of what a world that isn’t capitalist, statist, hierarchical, or oppressive will look and feel like.
Ah, but I seem to have strayed from May Day. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been winding some strands around my own sort of maypole.
Occupy May Day mattered, but in a startling way that I didn’t get at the time.
My May Day in NYC was unremarkable—although remarkably lovely, spent with good friends and enjoying things like the Free University in Madison Square Park. Still, I thought it would be so much more—so many more people, so much more innovation and audacity. I figured this May Day had to be extraordinary, given the half-year-plus of occupy. Not that I believed a general strike would materialize, of course, but somehow I thought May Day 2012 would feel and be spectacular, would partially strike a blow at something (a la the West Coast port shutdowns), and not just in Manhattan, but in U.S. cities large and small.
I kept thinking back to other May Days. Like the two I spent in Berlin, with its enormous political parades by day, and equally enormous gleeful battles by night between the Polizei and Autonomen. Or San Francisco two years ago, packed from morning to midnight with a giant and diverse anti-anti-immigration march, then arguing with Minutemen and white supremacist troublemakers, followed by an anarchist May Day celebration in a public park with a theater piece and picnic, and on to a raucous queer-feminist-antiauthoritarian reclaim-the-streets dance, to a building takeover to try to initiate a neighborhood commune, during which the police confiscated a soccer ball, a window probably got broken, and some people got arrested. That’s what May Day should be—striking in its own particular way.
As night fell on this year’s May Day, and thousands of us (were) funneled into the tightly fenced-in police state of the OWS neighborhood, my heart fell. This is it? Texts and tweets—and some actual voices too—urged us all to scurry away from the cop cluster and reconvene at 55 Water Street. My friends and I got there a bit ahead of the many, many others, and as upbeat, noisy May Day rebels made through way toward us, I suddenly thought here was the moment when energy, initiative, and expectation would meld into a spontaneously marvelous finale to a nice but low-key day. Then the Groundhog Day moment took hold: “Mic check! Mic check!” Someone got everyone to quiet down, sit down, and “chat with your neighbor” as a prelude to a general assembly, rather than sensing that the mood was to keep being loud, proud, and take the streets. May Day went “thud.”
A few of us wandered to a bar, in hopes of finding friends, and then another bar, again with the same aim, but nothing much came of our search, or May 1. After hours in the sun and hours of walking, at snail’s pace, down miles of Manhattan, I felt the slumber of disappointment.
It’s a week and a half into May, and I still feel underwhelmed by my own personal experience of May Day, and indeed by all the indie stories and reports as well as personal accounts that I’ve heard. Yet it’s finally struck me that the underwhelming quality of May Day 2012 is our own good news: a single day didn’t overwhelm this uprising called occupy, and all the interconnected struggles, rebellions, disobediences, organizing efforts, sabotages, direct actions, acts of solidarity, and more. Love and rage and experimentation continue, unabated.
We are, maybe, or at least for now, past the “good old days” of the anticapitalist or global justice movement(s), when we spent months preparing for a single-day or short mobilization, followed by months afterward of trauma, low spirits, and regrouping, not to mention helping our comrades stay and/or get out of jail.
This May Day fit into a continuum of the rise and swell, the turbulence and swirl, of the still-alive surprise of occupy. The extended before and after of May Day, rather than this May Day itself, is where we took (and are taking) our not-knowing to new heights, which is not to say that those heights are always comfortable, easy, or afford clear vistas of where to go next.
As I jot down these thoughts, hundreds of thousands are filling the plazas and streets of Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and elsewhere in Spain, chanting slogans like “We want to live, not survive; We want to fight, not beg” and “They can steal our money, but our dignity is not for sale,” and engaging in assemblies, legal and illegal. Elsewhere, an event called “Occupons Montréal” took place this afternoon as punctuation in the weeks of increasingly strong and courageous student strikes, and it’s midway through “Another NYC” with today’s focus on food, ecology, and health, even as this marks the twenty-sixth day of the Mental Health Movement’s occupation of the besieged Northwest Clinic in Chicago, the same city where a Peoples’ Summit is happening this weekend as folks gear up for the inhumane NATO summit, and others are defending the “Take Back the Tract” farm in the Bay Area, and many others are lending solidarity in various ways to the brave and gravely sick Palestinian hunger strikers, and #12M15M is raising resistance and reconstruction in places ranging from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Addison, Texas, and so much more, shape-shifting yet again into who-knows-what imaginative forms of reclaiming our commons.
Probably “uprisings” is a wholly wrong term, too—another inadequate placeholder that needs to be displaced.
Maybe, sans labels, we’re just the ones—the many, many, many ones, in all corners of the earth—who know that we want a world from below. Maybe we’re the ones who believe that we can create this new world ourselves, but are smart enough to know that we have no guide, and that “movement” goals may limit what’s possible. Maybe our own feelings are the best guide: that the not-knowingness will lead us to practices, behaviors, places, and ethics that hitherto have been the stuff of sci-fi or utopian novels, or that inkling deep within our hearts that’s unstoppable: love.
Before I put too rosy a glow on this, I want to affirm that rather than being a “posi” anarchist, I’ve been transformed—humbled—by occupy into an anarchist with a tattered backpack full of maybes—maybes that still look pretty damned good, but maybes tempered by all that’s also going wrong in the world, all the wrong that’s being done to others (especially, this week, blacks, women, and queer/trans people), and all the ways it’s so much harder than any of us thought to extricate ourselves from this mess, via the mess of trying to construct a new world in the crap of the old.
May Day mattered because we dared to stitch it—as another idea that can’t be evicted—into our rebellious imagination stretching from the Haymarket martyrs to the immigrant marches to Occupy May Day to all that lies ahead. Because it was merely part of the fabric of this historical moment, which itself stretches across the past thirty or so years of a horizontalist zeitgeist, in which words and images, bottom-up practices and egalitarian ethics, autonomous experiments and reclamations and occupations, all have brought us to this May Day and beyond. So that today, this May 12, it’s a surprise and not a surprise that thousands won’t leave their squares in Spain when their permits ran out, and the rest of us can watch it on livestream and dream sweet dreams together.
It mattered because this of ours imagination translated into a tidal wave of ideas for what to do on May Day—so many ideas that they couldn’t really fit in one day, and thus spilled out before May Day and, even more, are pouring out afterward. So much more is going on now, in the few days after May Day, than seemed possible or probable, and so much more of it has promise.
It translated, too, into poetic and powerful call outs, which in turn spurred dialogues, debates, and popular education around understandings of capitalism, labor, work, strikes, and more.
It translated into a panoply of May Day posters that seemed to reflect all the beauty, humor, wisdom, talent, and flights of fancy that characterize occupy. This played out in a diversity of designs and slogans—rather than some hierarchical branding—the many notions we had in big towns and small of what a diversity of tactics, strategies, and strivings would look like: among many others, silhouette of a victorous port shutdown, the words “general strike” popping out of a wide-open mouth or being heralded by masses of people, black cats galore and also some LOLcats (meowing, “No jobs, no medicine, no house, no milk”), alarm clocks not going off, trees and flowers and seeds, and unicorns with fabulous powers battling cops and capitalism.
May Day mattered in the United States, because we needed to be able to reclaim this day of, by, and for radicals and, maybe in quiet(er) ways, celebrate together, because for all the problems of occupy and all the problems of other ongoing, longer-term, interrelated and separate struggles, we have a lot to celebrate. We may be late in coming to table of renewed rebellion globally, but now we’re here, slowly but surely finding our place. We needed to show the world that, yes, here’s where May Day began, we remember that, and here’s where we let May Day get lost or stolen, here’s where an anarchist(ic) left was vibrant and then seemed to disappear. We needed to display publicly, to ourselves and the world, that we could renew May Day, our day.
May Day mattered because it compelled us to reorient—such as toward contesting capitalism, toward more anarchistic practices, toward remembering that we’re in this for the long haul. But more than that, it compelled us to reorient outward. To shake off the narrowness of what occupy was or had become, to leave our “neighborhood” and our comfort zone; to listen and learn, and begin to venture into prior struggles with humility and as equals, and join into new struggles and organizing efforts and prefigurative possibilities with empathy and solidarity. “Occupy Spring” wasn’t simply a thing that we stood around waiting for, to suddenly be handed to us on May Day—or back to us, as in returning “home” to our encampments. And we didn’t invent resistance.
As people started organizing toward May Day, a harsh dose of needed reality set in. What are we doing? What should we be doing? We don’t know. So maybe, just maybe, we need to set out again, not-knowing, but this time with many others—and maybe many others who have already been “out there” struggling toward the not-knowing of changing their communities and cities, neighborhoods and villages, already.
When I look back on my underwhelming day on the streets and sidewalks and parks of NYC, I realize that I didn’t see the surprise right before my eyes. I was too busy wishing for what I knew wasn’t going to happen—something approximating a general strike—to see what was actually happening.
May Day was a day like any other since occupy began: a lot of time in spaces that we were creating, with old friends and new, prefiguring those practices, behaviors, and self-organizations that we want to see. So much so that I’ve almost forgotten that a “mere” seven months ago, most of the people engaging in these self-managed activities probably barely knew what May Day was, much less ever thought of doing anything on May Day. But unlike the start of occupy, the faces and ages and dress and concerns, the lived experiences and sufferings and struggles of who showed up for May 1, 2012—in NYC and elsewhere across this continent—looked remarkably different. Maybe not reflective enough, yet, of who is being disproportionately destroyed and targeted right now (many of them can’t make our May Days, yet, because they are locked behind the bars of prisons, precarious service-sector jobs, lack of papers, abusive relationships, mental wards, wars), but far more reflective than September 17, 2011.
May Day mattered because, ultimately, it didn’t matter all that much. If it had been one spectacular day, more than likely that would have meant that the many days surrounding it on either side would be unspectacularly normal, without meaning.
But the feisty-queer unicorns on my favorite May Day poster seem to have helped us drag a scrappy, crayon-drawn rainbow across the many, many days of this present opening on to history, stretching out toward the infinity of potential. And thus we’re so busy feverishly, fantastically, confusedly experimenting all over the place, at any moment, that we’re not even bothering to look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, we want to abolish pots of gold altogether! Sans occupy as a movement, happily, we’re busy making history out of the magical colors of “Sure, maybe. Yeah, maybe. Why not?”
I can’t wait to wake up to the next surprise.