Occupy LA’s May 1st General Strike: A Firsthand Account
Forget what you have heard: the Occupy movement is far from over, at least not in Los Angeles. During its May 1st General Strike activities, Occupy Los Angeles made sure to make its presence known throughout the city. With annual Immigrant Right marches and International Workers’ Day activities, Los Angeles is no stranger to political activism on May Day, but the thousands of Occupiers who took over the streets blocked enough traffic and brought enough workers out of their buildings for a gander for their various messages to not go unnoticed.
I have not seen too much national media coverage of yesterday’s events in Los Angeles, most likely because the event was largely peaceful, no tear gas was fired, and only three arrests were made downtown. But activism should not have to turn into a disaster zone to warrant attention.
At 7 am, I met up with Occupy Pasadena and was prepared to declare the whole strike a bust. The 20 or so protestors who were willing to brave the rain that early in the morning were largely being passed by indifferent commuters. If this day was supposed to be a massive strike, why was everyone still going to work? As the hours advanced and the rain let up, however, my perspective changed as well.
Los Angeles Occupiers started out in four geographical “winds” (North, South, East and West), each of which had a series of activities like marches, rallies and teach-ins in the morning. Presumably, the idea was to give people an opportunity to first engage in events relevant to their immediate communities before joining the massive demonstrations in the afternoon.
I joined the East Wind faction in Obregon Park in time to hear veterans admonish the U.S. military’s presence and recruitment processes in public schools. It was a relevant talk, as just minutes before, Occupiers had set up a drum circle outside of Esteban E. Torres High School in the hopes of luring students to walk out of school. A heavy police presence ready to issue truancy citations frightened interested teenagers from trying to escape, but pamphlets and posters were delivered through the gaps in the prison-like fences.
From there, the East wind caravanned to Mariachi Plaza for the Health Care Is a Human Right rally, which featured an entertaining display by giant boxing puppets (a health insurance company versus an underdog California family) that riled up the crowd — a crowd that was noticeably increasing in size with every stop along the route.
On the train ride to meet up with North wind participants, boisterous East-side Occupiers shouted invitations to fellow passengers. Seated next to me, four teenagers with skateboards were fascinated with the mob and said, “Why not? Let’s just check it out for a little bit.” I saw them again nearly four hours later holding signs and chanting, suggesting that even if they were only curious at the start, they were caught up in the movement before its conclusion.
A large group of Occupiers from the East and North winds had an unpermitted marched through the streets from Union Station to 6th and Main to join forces with the South and West wind. When all four factions united in a central location, celebration ensued. Occupiers shared vegan food, listened to progressive bands and posted signage in the nearby scaffolding. After about an hour of merriment, Occupiers chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” began mobilizing. Thousands of demonstrators took over the streets and marched past police lines toward the financial district.
Marchers swiftly hiked up a hill to the Bank of America building, but the police had preemptively heavily fortified the building, which had been the site of demonstrations and dozens of arrests last November. Occupiers chanted “Bank of America/Bad for America” outside of the partitions briefly before continuing on with the march, while several angrily shouted that the police were yet again showing their allegiance to the banks by devoting so many resources to it.
In fact, the police were everywhere, and not just on the ground. I counted at least seven simultaneous police helicopters hovering above the protesters; my friend was able to locate the constantly moving mass of people by following the direction of the helicopters. Although the police were minimally intervening in the Occupiers’ activities compared to other cities across the country, the intent of their omnipresence was clear: to not only make the demonstrators feel like criminals for voicing dissent, but also to separate and intimidate the Los Angeles residents from joining the Occupiers.
Ultimately, it might have worked in Occupy’s favor not to leave people behind for impromptu bank actions. United, the crowd was able to break through even more police barricades to march to Pershing Square and soon meet up with the Southern California Immigration Coalition’s Immigrant Rights March, a tradition in the city each May 1st.
Both marches’ populations comingled well, alternating between chants in Spanish about workers’ rights and English cries of “We are the 99%!” allowing for a sense of shared struggle. The Immigrant Rights March’s primary message was for swift legalization of all immigrants.
Notably, the march’s participants were highly critical of President Barack Obama’s frequent deportations. Although a pro-Obama march occurring nearby attracted hundreds, their numbers paled to the thousands who were vowing (in chant form) not to vote for Obama without specific promises about immigration. Their stance echoed Occupy’s own sentiments toward the president; while its largely liberal activists are often labeled Democrats, many refuse to align with the party. A number of third party representatives and candidates were on hand to court disenchanted voters, while some distributed flyers urging people to officially change their party affiliation from Republican or Democrat before the next election to send a message.
Following the march, Occupiers — new and old — reassembled at Pershing Square where they danced and socialized until 8pm when the General Assembly began. With thousands still present, it is likely the most highly attended Occupy LA General Assembly since the days leading up to the police’s raid of Occupy’s encampment at City Hall. Before the meeting began, a facilitator invited attendees to speak to their neighbors to help break down the divisions that are prevalent in Los Angeles. Introductions were made, opinions were shared, and new relationships were forged.
In that respect, I would declare May 1st a success. There is no point in pretending that the general strike aspect of the day was as significant as organizers had hoped: most Los Angeles workers and students went about their business as usual. But for a group whose demise has been exaggerated, it was a vocal reminder to the city that Occupy is still around. For a group who reaches out to people who feel disempowered by the system, it was a way to positively connect with new community members. For a group who has suffered hundreds of arrests for acts of civil disobedience, it was affirmation that when that many people stand behind them, even the police were helpless to stop them. And for a group who claims to represent the 99% but still lacks the numbers to make it a true populace movement, the increasing turnout was a sign that momentum is growing.
Spring is here indeed.