Occupy's May Day: Tens of Thousands Protest the Mess that's Being Made of the Planet

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

Just last week, the celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson asked Grist why there weren't more "young people out protesting the mess that’s being made of the planet." Plenty of others have wondered the same thing, including ex-Vice President Al Gore.

But Wilson needed only to wait a few more days, until May Day, to receive a definitive response—tens of thousands of young people are out in the streets. And they are seething about the mess that's being made of the planet.

I began May Day by scanning the news and the Occupy blogs for word on the earliest actions. It was raining, and turnout looked sparse. There were some smaller picket actions at high-profile banks throughout New York City, and a bit of a crowd was gathering at Bryant Park. It was around that time, I suppose, that Reuters had the audacity to declare the day a "dud" for Occupy—right before thousands began arriving at the midtown green space to prepare for the day.

When I arrived around noon, there were already a crowd of hundreds swarming the park. On one side, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello was mingling with hundreds of guitar-wielding occupiers, assembling a so-called Guitarmy that would later spearhead the march down 5th Avenue to Union Square. On the other, hundreds more busied themselves scrawling signs, chatting, attending teach-ins, staging mini-dramas, and organizing other actions.

The march, which was permitted for the 5th Ave sidewalk for the approximately 30 blocks between parks, began as a lively shuffle. The Guitarmy played Guthrie's ''This Land is Your Land" in unison as it went, the familiar tune wafting through pounding drums and shouted chants. There was simply too much kinetic energy to keep the march contained to the sidewalk, however, and it spilled onto the streets, as occupiers called out, "Whose street? Our street!"

The police relented—perhaps after quickly considering the logistics of trying to arrest 1,500 people at once—and the march picked up steam, noisily making its way to Union Square. There, a massive rally commenced; union reps gave speeches, free food was distributed, and performers like Das Racist and Immortal Technique took the stage. Then, at 5:30, tens of thousands of laborers, students, health care workers, transit workers, environmentalists, and concerned citizens of all stripes flooded Broadway for the biggest march in Occupy's short history—estimates put the number around 30,000.

The Eyes of New York via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

All of this was a relatively long-winded way of noting that people have been taking to the streets. Enthusiastically. They're doing it right now. Not enough of them, perhaps, but they're there. And Occupy has indeed become a powerful vessel for environmental outrage.

The best-communicated message of OWS is no doubt that 'we are the 99% percent' (and that police react brutally to peaceful protest), which primarily highlights the gulf of income inequality that continues to widen between the nation's richest citizens and everyone else. But the vast majority of Occupy participants and supporters are keenly aware that the the axiom has a discrete parallel to environmental stewardship. They know that the bulk of the nation's citizens want to protect the natural environment, but that much of the pollution, despoiling, deforestation, and greenhouse gas-emitting is done at the behest of the 1%. (As with income inequality, the ratio depicted in the slogan is over-simplified, but still)

Those environmental woes are regularly cited in OWS speechifying; they're routinely pointed to as ills sprouting from the undue dominance that the 1% holds over our politics and communities. It's crude, but true. Example: No corporation exudes 1%-ness like Exxon—or any number of oil, coal, and gas companies, for that matter. The vast majority of Americans want more clean energy, but Exxon and co. lobby to defeat policies that would aid renewables. The majority of Americans want their government to address climate change, but polluting industries dump funds into campaigns to make sure it doesn't. Everybody and their mother hates oil subsidies, but oil companies donate heaps of cash to congressmen who vote to protect them.

You get the picture.

And these aren't just my observations. The entire occupy movement has by and large absorbed this reasoning, and incorporates it into their actions. Take May Day—I spotted at least dozens of signs boasting slogans akin to 'Protect the Earth from the 1%'. I heard speakers reference climate change numerous times. I heard talk of environmental justice. The fact that the 1% are preventing progress in the climate arena is nearly as well-accepted as the fact that they're blocking financial reform. It's a part of the equation. Stopping environmental abuse is part of how we unfuck the world.

And while there have been a couple encouraging upstart efforts to do exactly that, the time is ripe for a broader extension of Occupy to venture more explicitly into the environmental arena, adopting its most successful tactics. Barring that, perhaps the best path forward is to simply let Occupy grow—for that, it may need to accommodate new organizing tactics and strategies, but that's a discussion for another day. The larger and more sympathetic Occupy is, the more of a force it becomes in influencing public opinion and policy. And the environmental undercurrent reverberating through the movement would certainly manifest if it were, for example, to mobilize in a way that the Tea Party did—electing leaders to government to champion policies friendly to the 99%.

Either way, the dissent is there, and it's electric. Someone just needs to figure out how best to harness it.

Tags: Activism

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