Before there was the NATO summit or the Occupy movement, there was May Day, born and bred in Chicago. This year, with leftists across the country crossing their fingers for an American Spring, Chicago’s May Day will be the opening act in a month of anger at the 1%.
But Chicago is one of the few locations and the largest major city whose Occupy movement did not vote for a general strike on May 1, opting instead for “A Day for the 99%.”
Kyla Bourne, a member of Occupy Chicago’s NATO Summit, May Day and Labor Working Groups, acknowledged in an email conversation with the Occupied Chicago Tribune that the OChi General Assembly’s decision to not endorse the general strike call “has been contentious to say the least.”
There are definitely those within Occupy Chicago who think the GA made the wrong call. James Cox, a member of the Social Media committee and prominent occupier who was arrested during both attempts to camp, has been vocal on Twitter. In a series of tweets on April 16, Cox said:
Occupy Oakland GA just voted to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge on May Day… I believe Occupy Chicago is having another march. I could be wrong. Pretty sure I’m not. #OverIt #ThisOccupationNeedsBiggerBalls … Chicago I’m calling for a General Strike on May Day. I am speaking on behalf of no persons or movement besides myself. … Many other cities are calling for a General Strike on May 1. We should join them. [some hashtags removed for clarity]
Today, Cox was a little more sanguine but still of the same opinion, stating “I wish @OccupyChicago called for a general strike but they didn’t. However, my ass won’t be at work tomorrow. I’ll be in the streets.”
The irony here is that, while Cox was not alone in wishing that Occupy Chicago could have either called a General Strike and/or planned an action as large and ambitious as the planned Golden Gate Bridge shutdown, that action is now not happening: It was downgraded to a “labor rally at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza” at the request of the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition on April 28, a rally that was today cancelled. (For more insight into the complications involved in this planned action, as well as insight into what will be happening in the Bay Area, check out this report by Susie Cagle.)
An awareness of Occupy’s complex and not always unproblematic relationship with labor groups, especially when it comes to what a strike means and who gets to call one, seems to have informed the Chicago GA’s thinking. Bourne explained it thus:
A general strike is something very different than just calling into sick for work for one day to march, blockade, etc. This opinion is by no means unanimous, but many felt that it would be a disservice to the history of labor struggle to call for something that would be impossible: a genuine general strike, that involves a halt in the means of production as the labor force refuses to work, indefinitely. I think the excitement around the ‘general strike’ speaks to a lack of education of the history of labor struggle in this country, an ignorance that corporate universities are only too eager to perpetuate. That said, I love how many people are now learning about the history of May 1st thanks to this call.
Redefining Strikes – and Scabs?
Changing the definition of what a general strike could mean, however, seems to have been very much in the forefront of minds at Occupy Wall Street and in other cities which have joined the call. As Sarah Jaffe at AlterNet observes:
Organizers and activists, aware that actually pulling off a nationwide general strike will take years, not months, of work, have planned direct actions and mass rallies, marches and blockades, as well as mutual aid, concerts, and other events to include as wide a swath of the population as possible, providing workers who can’t strike with other ways to take part.
In These Times’ Bhaskar Sunkara provides a good overview of the debate about whether this constitutes more than just a “day of action” in a post entitled What’s a General Strike, Anyway? Sunkara quotes one of the writers who has written most eloquently about the idea of rethinking expectations for what a general strike could mean, Salon contributor Natasha Lennard.
Lennard is perhaps the most prominent of those activists and journalists who are striking from recording May Day’s events, and calling for media members and citizen journalists to abstain from filming, reporting, photographing or even tweeting on the day. Her argument for an unmediated May Day experience is compelling, but others have issued this call in a decidedly more confrontational manner. Malcolm Harris, Editor at The New Inquiry, has gone so far as to say “If you’re publishing on May 1, you’re scabs.” (Presumably this applies only to publications based in cities where a General Strike has been called or endorsed by the local Occupy branch, and thus the Occupied Chicago Tribune is exempt.) Even more extreme is the claim by Brooklyn-based @what_a_fiasco that “Watching a livestream channel on Mayday equates to scabbing.”
Perhaps this is the kind of rhetoric Chicago activists Brit Schulte and Matthew Camp were thinking of when they wrote the following:
”The failure of propaganda in this circumstance may also result in moralist injunctions against those workers who do not come out because of a perceived inherent conservatism. Theories that breed hostility toward the last vestiges of the existing unions in this country make no attempts to reach out to the tens of thousands of sympathetic workers within them.”
The blog post from which this is taken contains a thorough and fairly specific argument against Occupy’s General Strike, with some fairly specific, scathing references to “cute, or ironic images using cats or unicorns” being used to promote the May 1 General Strike. Schulte and Camp don’t claim to speak for anyone else involved with Occupy Chicago, but their piece has articulated most explicitly reservations that Occupy’s General Strike could even risk alienating the wider population rather than radicalizing them. Instead, they’d like to see Occupy take its lead from workplace organizing: “Struggles within the workplace are bound to rise in the wake of Occupy and it is on these struggles that our movement should pivot.”
Speaking by email, Brit Schulte was a little more positive about the broader Occupy movement’s plans for May Day: “It’s a good and exciting thing that different cities and the Occupy movement are carrying on with the radical tradition of holding demonstrations on May Day.” (Bourne feels the same, saying personally she’s “excited and stands in solidarity with the actions going on around the country.”) But Schulte isn’t compromising on definitions:
“A General Strike is a very specific thing… it requires a level class organization and militancy that must be held… well, generally among the civic population in which it is occurring. In Chicago, we know that we haven’t achieved this; that is why we are holding a demonstration for the 99% and not calling for a city-wide General Strike.”
The main event tomorrow in Chicago is of course itself more than just another march, as Kyla Bourne says, and just because it has a permit doesn’t mean it won’t have power:
“I felt a march here would be significant in building the movement in the city, especially given that Occupy was able to bring together labor and immigrant marchers for the first time in years. Given that those marching may be undocumented or unarrestable, this march was always planned to be permitted, insured and with no surprises.”
Talking to Curtis Black at Newstips, Occupy el Barrio‘s Orlando Sepulvida credited Occupy Chicago’s Labor Committee and “interest on the part of rank-and-file union members participating in Occupy” for the “strong union involvement in the march.”
For those who prefer their action a little less permitted and a little more direct, a planned bank shutdown action is now listed on the Occupy Chicago Facebook event page for May Day. Before the permitted march from Union Sqaure at 12 PM, “We will assemble at 10:00 AM at Lasalle & Jackson, departing from HQ to visit and close the banks which abused their bailout funds.” That mix of permitted march and riskier direct action is the same that will be taking place in New York and elsewhere.
And if Occupy Chicago has been less swept up by the build-up for May Day, it’s not because the movement has been dormant. On the contrary, Occupy Chicago’s attention for the past two weeks has been focused on the ongoing fight to keep the Woodlawn Mental Health Center open in a pushback against Rahm Emanuel’s austerity plan. The clinic is one of six that the mayor plans to close, leaving Chicago with half the number of mental health clinics that it started the year with.
That made Chicago one of the busiest cities for Occupy-affiliated action today: Banner drops around the city listed the phone number for the Mayor’s office and asked Chicagoans to call and request funding be spent on mental health services, not accommodating NATO’s visit. Activists took the protest to the front door of Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters demanding that the president intervene, and then occupied the lobby outside Mayor Emanuel’s office in City Hall, with six protesters rumored to be arrested in total over the course of the day.
Of course, as Bourne points out, Chicago has an arguably even bigger event on the horizon: the NATO summit. That’s not until May 20-21, but the “NATO Week” of actions and events begins with the People’s Summit organized by Occupy Chicago and the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8) on May 12-13.
At one point, May 1 was also the day Adbusters had called (without talking with Occupy Chicago first) for people to descend upon Chicago and pitch tents as part of a month-long protest against the G8 and NATO summits (although that seems to have been supplanted in the minds of the Vancouver design magazine by plans for a “Laughriot,” whatever that may be). Now, NATO is likely to cast a shadow over May Day in Chicago for a different reason: Because by Tuesday, heavily armed federal agents may be patrolling the “Red Zone,” encompassing some of the march route as well as Occupy Chicago’s first home at LaSalle and Jackson.
So Bourne says she’s “gearing up for NATO” and therefore sticking to a permitted march on May Day on account of “Revolutionary patience, if you will.” As she says: “I’m not much good at NATO if I’ve been arrested on May Day.”
By Joe Macaré