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Occupy Wall Street Bridges the May Day Divide

May Day, part of a storied tradition of labor organizing elsewhere in the world, has yet to catch fire in America. This May 1, Occupy Wall Street is ready to change that.

May Day represents the long and brutally repressed history of the worker’s struggle for dignity, equality and fairness. The general strike is the most powerful tool we have inherited from the organized labor movement, a tool designed at its inception as a vehicle through which the boldest of revolutionary dreams can come to fruition. So fitting, then, that in this year of continued upheaval and global revolt, we see these two histories joined as one.

On November 17, Occupy L.A. and Occupy Long Beach issued a joint call for a nationwide general strike, to occur on May Day 2012. Over the course of the last few months, general assemblies in New York, Oakland, Tampa, Minneapolis, Boston and dozens more have adopted the call. Occupy activists around the country are now organizing for a national day of complete economic noncompliance.

Occupy supporters and members of the 99% are being urged to stay away from workplaces, walk out of school, refuse to perform domestic labor and refuse to purchase any goods. Without participating in capitalism, there are a variety of ways we can take care of each other using mutual aid: Folks are encouraged to set up mobile street kitchens, free stores and free medical clinics, as well as occupy their schools and workplaces and make their goods and services available to all who need them. A general strike is the people’s opportunity to prove that while capitalism and the state require our complacency to function, we do not need them to survive.

May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day, is the world’s Labor Day. Workers and students across the planet celebrate their solidarity, strength and proud history of struggle on the first of May. This internationally recognized holiday, long suppressed in the United States, is typically earned through aggressive resistance, frequent May Day general strikes and pressure on the state. It is celebrated as a national holiday in countries the world over, including  Spain, Turkey, South Africa, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, Nepal, Greece and Croatia, to name just a few. By choosing this date as the launch of its spring offensive, the Occupy movement has aligned itself with, and can stand humbly beside, the long history of struggle for social and economic justice.

May Day is actually an American holiday, originating from the global anti-capitalist movement as a solemn commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. The United States government has actively worked to censor this history over the course of many decades, even having the audacity to re-name May 1st “Americanization Day” in 1921. In 1958, May 1 was re-named Loyalty Day and proclaimed an official government holiday. (May 1 is also Law Day, but like Earth Day it isn’t recognized by the government and few outside the legal community know about it.) Needless to say, none of these state-sponsored, state-celebrating holidays has caught on. But they have done an excellent job at preventing champions of social justice from celebrating the day themselves.

Until 2006, that is.

“Day Without the 99%” (this May 1) pays homage to 2006’s “Day Without Immigrants,” when millions of migrant workers and allies left their schools and workplaces and took to the streets to challenge an economic system that doesn’t serve them, and a political system that either ignores or scapegoats them. The action was the closest any city in the U.S. has come to a general strike since Oakland in 1946, with an estimated one-to-two million people marching in Los Angeles, more than 200,000 in both San Francisco and New York and hundreds of thousands more in cities and towns across the nation. 2006 reclaimed May Day in the United States, and has provided Occupy with an unprecedented opportunity to sow of seeds of a coalition with true revolutionary potential. May Day belongs to workers—be they unionized or precarious, documented or without papers.

It is to this end that Occupy activists across the nation have spent the winter building bases of support in their communities. We have been working with local organizers, students, labor unions and immigrant worker justice movement organizers to forge a coalition capable of challenging the state and capitalism head-on. Through these relationships, Occupy activists have spoken to union rank and file, church congregations, student groups and neighborhood general assemblies. We have been sharing stories about the history of May Day, the precious revolutionary moment the entire world now finds itself in and the collective power we possess to shape our destinies when we withdraw our consent from economic and political systems that exclusively serve the 1%.

In New York City, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, the inclusive strategy of outreach to potential coalition partners has already paid incredible dividends. The May 1st Coalition, which was the driving force behind New York City’s May Day in 2006, has endorsed the call for a Day Without the 99%, and has been actively organizing alongside OWS activists for months, observing our meetings every week and inviting us to participate in theirs.

For years, there have been two May Day actions in New York annually: one for the immigrant worker community and one for organized labor. This year, Occupy Wall Street has helped bridge the divide between these communities. There will be one major solidarity march in New York towards the end of the day, with Occupy Wall Street, organized labor, the May 1st Coalition and immigrant worker justice movement groups standing shoulder to shoulder against a political and economic system that does nothing but oppress them and prey on the groups’ differences to prevent the formation of a single coalition that can really affect systemic change.

Building on Occupy’s wildly successful and inclusive horizontal decision-making model, all parties involved agreed that this solidarity action would be planned in a series of open meetings, using a two-thirds modified consensus system. The proliferation and adaptation of consensus tools is perhaps the most important goal of the Occupy movement, as it allows communities to organize themselves outside of the state, and to prefigure a world where the state no longer exists. A true general strike is only possible if we have systems to take care of each other following the mass repudiation of the state and capitalism. If we hope to not recreate the same oppressions we all currently struggle to overcome, these systems must be non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian and practice mutual aid.

The Day Without the 99% will give us a vision of a world free of the twin oppressions of capitalism and the state. Autonomous groups of individuals will be disrupting the flow of capital and the functioning of the state in creative ways all across the country. Other groups will be more interested in opening things up rather than shutting them down. Interested in doing both at once? How about a free kitchen in the middle of an intersection that you’ve shut down for the day? Turning a hospital or factory that the state and capitalism have left to rot into a lively community center? Coordinating with unionized labor to make subways and buses free for the day? The possibilities are limited only by our collective imagination. The general strike is a tool for us, as autonomous beings participating in a collective experiment, to imagine an entirely new world.

Despite our success at forming coalitions over the winter, a general strike will not come from a few general assemblies and organizations coordinating together. We need everyone’s participation, with various levels of engagement and risk.  Why not create a pamphlet on the history of May Day and the general strike, distribute it in your community, your school and your workplace? Help start a consensus-based general assembly in your neighborhood to deal with local issues. Organize the rank and file in your union to have a sick out. Turn the abandoned school down the street into a vibrant community center. Form an affinity group of like-minded folks and plan a strategic autonomous action on that day. The May Day general strike can be the vehicle through which all of our individual, bold and revolutionary dreams can be realized.

We are all workers, regardless of how the capitalist system values our contributions to society. Let May Day be a day when we re-conceptualize what a general strike can be. Let us cheer wildly as students pour out of their schools, and when unionized workers occupy their workplaces, creating a general assembly. Let us stand shoulder to shoulder as precarious workers find the strength join us in the streets, and to form a union. The eyes of the world will be on us as we reject the state and capitalism and take the models of direct democracy and mutual aid we practiced in hundreds of occupied parks across the country to the streets of the cities and towns in which we live.

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