Occupy 2012: Day 1 of protests yields a mixed review (+video)

Turnout for the Occupy movement's May Day protests was respectable in New York and Chicago. In some West Coast cities, police resorted to tear gas or pepper spray. Did the movement do itself any favors during its relaunch on Tuesday?

By , Staff writer

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    Graffiti is seen covering a BART elevator during a May Day protest on Tuesday, May 1, in Oakland, Calif. Hundreds of activists across the US joined the worldwide May Day protests on Tuesday, with Occupy Wall Street members in several cities leading demonstrations.
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The Occupy movement joined the world's busy May Day schedule Tuesday, in hopes of jump-starting a movement that had languished over the winter months.

In their quest to regain the media buzz of their early tent-powered days, Occupyers in Chicago chanted anticorporate slogans at a downtown Bank of America office, and in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, intellectuals held a “free university.” Police in Oakland, Calif., fired tear gas and in Seattle they pepper-sprayed protesters. 

While crowds were sizable in cities from New York to Oakland, analysts say the Occupy movement faces an uphill battle, in part because some protest groups have adopted tactics that confront law enforcement officers or disrupt the lives of average people. 

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“I would give the effort a B,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of politics and history at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Although turnout was more than respectable in major cities such as New York and Chicago, the Occupy activists “will have to work hard to overcome the media images of such things as the bridge bomb plot in Ohio and the various skirmishes with police,” he says.

In all, about 66 people were arrested during the Occupy protests nationwide – 30 of those arrests in New York City.

The movement has challenges going forward, says Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “From the use of tear gas on Occupy supporters in Oakland to vandalism in the streets of Seattle, the May Day events showcased a range of skirmishes between movement participants and law enforcement,” she says via e-mail, adding that there were incidences of disrupting traffic and ferry service in other parts of the nation.

“While some of the incidences point to legitimate cases of civil disobedience,” she notes, “others like vandalism demonstrate the difficulty of monitoring the actions of those who may have ulterior motives in 'showing up' to rallies and other direct actions advanced by social movements."

While turnout Tuesday was less than at demonstrations last fall, the solidarity actions across the country hint at where the movement goes from here, says Professor Wilson. In partnering with labor and immigrant rights activists on May Day, “the Occupy movement displayed its interest in expanding his core group of allies,” she says. This expansion is a necessary feature of coalition advocacy, she notes, in which like-minded groups work alongside one another to advance each other's causes.

In Los Angeles, several thousand protesters marched from the four compass points of the city to converge in downtown Pershing Square Park. At the same time, Occupy activists joined a union local in trying to shut down Los Angeles International Airport. The action closed Terminal 4 for about an hour – an underachievement compared with the aim. But media spokeswoman Lisa Clapier nonetheless characterized the event as “hugely successful," noting that it "reminded people of the reasons Occupy began in the first place, namely income inequality and corporate greed.”

“This is a good strategy for Occupy moving forward as the movement has realized that its survival depends on movement expansion,” says Wilson.

The movement also must pay attention to the younger demographic in the US, she says. “If Occupy can get that group on board in increasing numbers, then the movement has the potential to better influence the American mainstream.”

Despite minor skirmishes in cities such as Oakland, where reports indicate that at least 23 people were arrested, the day was remarkable for its nonviolence, says Heather Gautney, a social scientist at Fordham University who spent the day mingling with activists in Manhattan. “There were at least 20,000 people,” she says, “but the mood was more festive than violent.” She says families brought their children, “and they were stopping and taking pictures of the protests.”

Several of her fellow professors brought their classes to the spontaneously organized “free university,” she notes. “If it hadn’t been my day off, I would probably have brought my own class here.” 

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