From the Streets of Chicago Spring: May Day and Beyond

May Day March (Photo: Occupy Chicago)
May Day March (Photo: Occupy Chicago)
“You can stomp the flowers, but you can’t stop the Spring.” —Anonymous, on the first of May

CHICAGO—“On May 1, 50,000 people from all over the world will flock to Chicago, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month.”

That declaration was released in a communiqué by Adbusters on January 25th. Reminiscent of the Vancouver culture jamming magazine’s initial call last summer to #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, this “Tactical Briefing #25” sought to awaken the Occupy movement out of its Winter hibernation. As if to recreate the historic moment that began last year on September 17 in Lower Manhattan, and which captured the global imagination, the “Showdown in Chicago” announcement was accompanied by a photograph of police beating protesters outside the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The briefing invoked “the tradition of the Chicago 8” but against the G8 and NATO summits which, at the time, were both scheduled here the third week of May. After a list of potential demands, and the promise of resistance if/when they are ignored by political and economic elites, it concluded: “Jammers, pack your tents, muster up your courage and prepare for a big bang in Chicago this Spring. If we don’t stand up now and fight now for a different kind of future we may not have much of a future…so let’s live without dead time for a month in May and see what happens…”

So now that May has arrived, what has happened so far? Did tens of thousands of people flock to Chicago on the first of the month? Is this the latest focal point of the Occupy movement? And what lies ahead now as the anticipation for NATO builds?

I remember reading this message from Adbusters during a lunch break at my job the day they sent it out. My initial response was excitement mixed with skepticism. At the time I was unaware that NATO and the G8 were both meeting in Chicago the same week. That potential of this mobilization, and the resulting intersections in analysis between militarism and capitalist globalization, seemed promising. I also liked the idea of people converging on May Day in the city where it is historically rooted.

At the same time it seemed like an outdated strategy as “summit-hopping” was the territory of last decade’s global justice movement. It is widely acknowledged that after the state’s brutal crackdown on activists in Miami during the FTAA meetings in 2003 that new forms of protest are required. And as Alexander Cockburn put it soon after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, it’s not very often that we can only take the ruling class by surprise. Would Occupy Wall Street have been so effective and influential if it had only been a convergence in one part of one city, in reaction to one particular event?

Despite these mixed feelings about the initial call to action, I found myself in Chicago on May 1st marching through the streets. I quit my job to come out here and cover the fight for a different future, what local organizers are calling “Chicago Spring.”

From #OCCUPYCHICAGO to Chicago Spring

“My problem is that a strong organization known as Occupy Chicago already exists. It has a functioning GA, planned actions, and allies all over Chicago. By Adbusters failing to contact us, it was a lack of respect for the months of work we had put into this movement.” That Egy Guy, “A Chicagoan on Adbusters’ call for #OccupyChicago” January 29, 2012

In an article published the following week after Adbusters’ incendiary press release on the local news website Gapers Block, independent journalist Joe Macaré reported on the response of activists from Occupy Chicago. “Adbusters jumped onboard the NATO/G8 protest bandwagon last week, and in the process pushed Occupy Chicago further into the national (and international) spotlight.” However, Macaré continued, the magazine did so “unilaterally…without contacting Occupy Chicago beforehand.”

This generated a lot of frustration and even anger (such as That Egy Guy’s blog post, above) amongst local organizers, but as occupier Serena Himmelfarb told In These Times that same week, “Communication is key…We all just want to be on the same page, and have been working towards that really successfully. Bottom line is, [Adbusters] made a mistake. Hopefully communication from here on in will be better.”

Macaré’s article also pointed out that Occupy Chicago, along with allied organizations, had already been planning a city-wide day of action for April 7th to begin Chicago Spring, which also would include events around May Day, culminating in massive protests against the G8 and NATO summits.

The April 7th kickoff was declared a success and as “the re-emergence of the economic and political justice movement that was mostly dormant over the winter.” Early that day, nearly a dozen simultaneous actions were held in different neighborhoods across the city from Occupy Rogers Park on the north side to Occupy el Barrio in Pilsen, before converging in the heart of the financial district where Occupy Chicago first began in the Fall. This was followed by a march to Grant Park where panel discussions on NATO and workshops on “urban agriculture, the crisis of capitalism, general strikes and nonviolent direct action” were held for the rest of the day.

Jake Olzen’s report on the Chicago Spring kickoff for Waging Nonviolence cited a statement from Occupy expressing the goals of this opening day of action to, “form a new network of allies, and strengthen existing bonds, to build the broad coalition we need to take power back from the 1%, putting it into the hands of Chicago’s people and communities.”

April 7th set things in motion for what some in the Occupy movement have dubbed a “Spring offensive.” It was, in a sense, a preview of May Day and beyond.

One month before the Chicago Spring kickoff, an unprecedented announcement regarding the G8 economic summit made international headlines and forced a shift in protest strategy for the month of May. On March 5th, the White House made it official that the meeting of world leaders would no longer be held in Chicago and would now take place at the untouchable Camp David in Maryland. This move was widely hailed as a victory for the movement despite claims by officials that the decision had nothing to do with the planned protests. The Occupy Chicago direct action committee threw an impromptu victory party that night declaring that the 1% are “running scared.” With the G8 retreating, organizers began to focus their efforts on NATO, whose summit remained scheduled in Chicago May 20-21st.  But the next day of action for Chicago Spring would be May Day.

May Day and the March for the 99%

“May Day is the day we perceive anew who we are and what we want. We dissolve the “I” into the “we” on this glorious and revolutionary day of unity, and by our words and actions we decide what kind of union we desire to build…May 1 is a practical day; we discover who are our brothers and sisters and in so doing we forge solidarity. This is how we create the future: with collectivity and cooperation… Awaken! Arouse! Arise! Occupy for May Day!” —Peter Linebaugh, “Ypsilanti Vampire May Day”

Over the Winter, in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, I was at a dinner party where someone randomly asked, “What’s everyone doing for May Day?” Even during a bizarrely mild February, it was comforting to think about Spring time and our plans for this most radical of holidays, one not recognized by most people in the United States despite its historical roots here.

“I’d like to quit my job,” I responded. Not giving it much thought, this was the first thing that came to my mind. Working an alienating service job since late December was making me miserable and quitting seemed like a proper way to celebrate May Day. But it was just a thought. Three weeks later, I decided to go for it and began making plans to come to Chicago for most of May.

So here I found myself on May 1st, marching with over 2,000 other people through the rainy streets of this city where May Day, or International Workers Day, first began. That day was far from the scene that Adbusters imagined in January, but powerful nonetheless. There were not tens of thousands from all over the world, but it was very organized and represented a wide array of social justice struggles across Chicago and the region.

That morning the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) held a ceremony at the Haymarket memorial statue, the site of the 1886 labor struggle that ignited international outrage after dozens were killed by police and the subsequent hanging anarchist labor leaders a few years later. On this May Day, 126 years later, people gathered here to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs and their fight for the eight-hour work day and workers’ rights. The ILHS also posted a plaque to honor the current struggles of the Authentic Workers’ Front (FAT) in Mexico. Benedicto Martinez Orozco, a leader of the Mexican union, was there for the occasion.

At the same time, activists from Occupy Chicago marched through the city’s financial district. The group of about 150, led by a large “Chicago Spring” banner, targeted various Bank of America branches downtown. When I arrived at the intersection of State and Adams streets they had been blocking the entrance of the branch there, effectively shutting it down. About a dozen Chicago police officers on bikes followed the group as they stopped at another Bank of America branch a mere two blocks away chanting, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”

With no incidents of violence or arrests, this group eventually made its way to Union Park to join the May Day rally. Connecting current struggles with the past, one speaker cited a movement in the 1930’s against evictions of homes that held similar rallies in this same park. They connected this history with today’s Occupy Homes movement, in houses foreclosed by institutions like Bank of America, here and around the country.

The speakers at the Union Park rally reflected the multiplicity of the May Day march itself. Organizers from various local movements, from immigrant rights to the Coalition Against NATO and G8, spoke about the work they have been doing. The march itself had large contingents from organized labor and student groups raising awareness about student debt and recent cuts in education funding. I saw this multiplicity of issues as important, essential even, as it helps amplify their intersections within a systemic framework. The Occupy movement has no doubt helped illuminate these connections. This is a radical approach to effecting change as it gets to the root of the multiple crises we currently face. They are part of the same system.

As I stood there listening to speakers, I was handed flyers for the upcoming march against NATO on the 20th and the People’s Summit on the 12th and 13th. It was clear that Chicago Spring was just beginning and that the momentum would be building as the month went on and as people from out of town showed up for these mobilizations.

After the long march to Federal Plaza, just a couple blocks from where Bank of America had been shut down early that morning, another rally was held against the backdrop of a trailer donated by the Teamsters. After speeches by the Chicago Warehouse Workers, an Occupy Chicago member talking about the fight to save the mental health centers that the city is trying to close, and a performance by political hip hop group Rebel Diaz, the remaining crowd began to chant under a steady rain:

One—we are the people, Two—we are united, Three—the occupation is not leaving!

This May Day march in Chicago was also in solidarity with actions happening across the country and around the world. In New York, where Occupy Wall Street called for a general strike or “Day Without the 99%”, upwards of 30,000 gathered in Union Square and marched to Wall Street. Cindy Milstein, who was in New York for May Day, helps us put these events into perspective as the Occupy movement enters into its latest stage. In the essay “May Day Matters,” Milstein writes:

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.

In Chicago, where May Day organizers opted for a “March for the 99%” rather than calling for a general strike, this was just the start of something bigger.

* * *

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia where he staffs at the Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. He is also a graduate student at Goddard College. This article is the first in his series about Chicago Spring.