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Occupy May Day protesters sense chance to regain autumn momentum

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About 80 Occupy Wall Street organisers are gathered in the stuffy basement of a lower Manhattan office building to discuss the final stages of the movement’s most anticipated action this year.

On a pair of tables in the corner of the room sit stacks of Occupy literature – magazines and newspapers produced by protesters – as well as stickers, posters and fliers: all propaganda for May Day, a nationwide day of action calling on the public to abstain from work, school, shopping, banking and household chores.

Large strips of paper are tacked to the walls, listing tasks to be done, needs to be met, along with an hour-by-hour schedule of the events taking place on Tuesday. “College walkout”, “picnic” and “wildcat march” are just some activities corresponding to times on the schedule. At the bottom of the lengthy page, in all capital letters, are the words: “SHIT HAS GOT TO GO”.

The May 1 “general strike”, the result of months of planning and coordination between groups across the US, is Occupy’s big chance to regain the momentum lost when a combination of police crackdowns and the harsh winter weather shut down the protest at the end of last year.

A reminder of the uneasy relationship Occupiers have had with police came on Monday, as a group of New York lawmakers and journalists sued the city over its handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests. The lawsuit accuses police and the authorities of violating demonstrators’ rights to free speech, using excessive force, and interfering with journalists’ and council members’ efforts to observe protests and arrests.

At the meeting of protesters in New York last Wednesday, the focus was on plans for what they hope will be a nationwide day of action.

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In New York, protesters will meet at 8am in Bryant Park, which will serve as a base for much of the day. There will be an afternoon march to Union Square, and a concert, followed by another march to the financial district. Plans for the evening remain loose, perhaps intentionally so, but were described by one Occupier as a “radical afterparty”.

Activists had been meeting like this every week since January, prompted by a December 12 call to action from fellow Occupiers in Los Angeles for a nationwide general strike on May 1, international workers day.

LA’s Occupiers have grand plans, as well. In the morning, protesters will split into four groups, and travel into the centre of the city from north, south, east and west, stopping at prominent points to protest on the way and aiming to shut down the centre of LA.

One of those involved, Ruth Iorio, said Occupy protesters have teamed up with groups including the Black Panthers, the Black Riders, and the Brown Berets for the general strike, which she said “had never really happened before”. Protesters have spent $10,000 on provisions specifically for May 1, on uniforms for some demonstrators, food, and trucks that will act as ‘caravans’.

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“The aim of the caravan is to shut down Capital Ave for the day, so people can’t get to work and will hopefully join in with us,” Iorio said. “We’re not shutting down rush hour because we know what LA is like in rush hour, and if we shut LA down at 8 o’clock in the morning they would kill us. We would have no public support at all.”

Iorio said she said she had “no idea of numbers”, but expected a strong showing. Unlike some actions in some other cities, the plans have not been negotiated with the police.

Occupy Oakland has already conducted a localised general strike, on November 2, when thousands of protesters marched to the city’s port and closed it down. Activists in the city were at the centre of some of the most dramatic scenes of the autumn. Injuries sustained by an Iraq war veteran, Scott Olsen, as police cleared the camp, were viewed around the world. On Tuesday, protesters plan “strike actions” around Oakland.

Protesters in Chicago have called for a joint labour-immigrant march on Tuesday.

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The initial call for a general strike – a term loaded with legal specificity and practical challenges – led to consternation within the movement and scepticism from the public. Still, New York signed on to the action and other groups in the US followed suit. There are now at least 40 Occupy demonstrations planned for Tuesday, though many participants have adjusted their language to frame the action as “a day without the 99%” rather than a general strike.

“As we brought in labour and immigrant groups, it became obvious that not everyone was down with the general strike, but they were down for a day of action and maybe pockets of strike,” said Marissa Holmes, an Occupy Wall Street participant who was involved in the movement’s planning stages in New York last summer.

While she says doesn’t believe the conditions are right for a nationwide general strike, Holmes says she views May Day as springboard for actions to come.

“Right now I’m really excited about laying the groundwork for a long-term struggle,” Holmes explained. “That’s what I see May Day as being”.

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“I’m really looking at May 1 as a catalyst for the rest of the month,” she added.

The outcome of these plans rests on the extent to which May Day can mobilise support and instil a sense that the Occupy movement is still relevant. In recent months, following occasionally violent police evictions of Occupy encampments and a cold winter, the movement has struggled to turn out the large numbers of last year.

In LA, Iorio says Occupy’s approach to social change has evolved. “When we first started it was all really feverish, and we had huge amounts of people coming down,” Iorio said. “Now I think Occupy has lost its colonial mentality. We don’t want to build Occupys in every neighbourhood – what we want to do is work with existing community organisations who are doing really great work and don’t get the same kind of press we do.”

For Laura Long, who has been involved in Occupy Oakland from the beginning, the picture is slightly different.

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“Things never really died down in the Bay area,” Long told the Guardian.

“It slowed down, but it didn’t go nearly as dormant as New York did. We’ve already had events building up [to 1 May],” she added.

“It’s hard to say that we’re coming back because no one really went away in the Bay area. San Francisco has gotten even stronger in the last few months,” she said.

“We’re seeing people doing smaller things but on a much more regular basis. There’s been a lot more outreach and a lot more development of rank-and-file union members, and trying to figure out how to organise workers who are not necessarily unionised, and trying to find new and creative ways to do the same thing,” she said.

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“That’s not always the big spectacle actions that we were having in the fall.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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