May Day, 2012.
I have always enjoyed the fact that my birthday falls on May Day. In my younger years, I felt that it carried both reason and resonance, setting the tone for a life I hoped would be marked by the hippie spirit of the pagan flower and fertility rituals that inspired the holiday. That is, I believed that being born on May Day meant I had some affinity–perhaps hidden but running deep– with nature, peace, and music. My reasons for all of this were vague, symbolic, and somewhat sentimental. Accompanying these beliefs were hazy daydreams of walking barefoot through tall, fragrant grass, being able to approach and befriend wild deer and foxes, and circle-dances with blossom-laden maidens. I also harbored the secret pride of having a birthday on a special day, one marked on calendars and remarked upon by friends, but not big enough to usurp the attention from myself, a fate for those poor fools born on Christmas, Thanksgiving, or another major holiday.
Once I hit college and began to understand history as more than the excuse for commemorative holidays, and collective action as more than the wave at a football game, I found another reason to celebrate my birthday as auspicious and meaningful: International Workers’ Day. Originally memorializing the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, where police violently dispersed a public assembly during a general strike, the holiday has become a worldwide event for the working class to voice their frustrations, hopes, and demands. Demonstrations and strikes on International Workers’ Day are usually hosted by labor, socialist, communist, and anarchist groups. More recently, immigrant groups in the U.S. have rallied around May Day to call for immigrant rights, workers rights, and amnesty for undocumented workers, protesting Arizona’s anti-immigration bill and other draconian immigration reform legislation. So I added justice, resistance to oppression, and social equality to the list of principles enshrined in my birthday, and by proxy, I hoped, in myself.
But let’s be honest, my birthday has usually been about cake, presents, and parties. And for the most part, I was fine with that.
But yesterday, on my 25th birthday, I found myself in New York City, jobless (by choice as I pursue a passion project) and homeless (by that I mean living with a friend for free), my worries about the future looming large against the backdrop of a nearly-finished Freedom Tower on the Manhattan skyline, more than a decade after 9/11 clouded the city in dust and ash and sent us reeling into a future of war and recession that none of us had imagined. And I was on my way to a protest where I’d chant in solidarity with the 99%.
If I had to describe the last ten years of my life, I would first say that they have been beautiful and untroubled. This is despite the fact that in this span I’ve lost friends to violence, I’ve had my heart broken, I nearly died in a motorcycle accident, I couldn’t walk for almost a year, and I’ve seen poverty and death too intimately to remember without feeling, again, the way you can’t breathe or speak or even cry when confronted with true suffering. But this is what makes us human, this resilience. Some might call it strength, to find in oneself the ability to recover from the catastrophes and tragedies of life. I’ve come to believe it’s merely how we survive, the only way to keep going in the face of the abyss. It is both a blessing and a curse. It’s this same capacity to continue and normalize that can lull us to sleep, to forgetting, to complacence and acceptance of an imperfect world that needs to be better, and will only improve if we fight for it. But it’s easier to play the cynic or the child, to pretend the problems are either inevitable or too complicated to understand.
So when I told my friends that I planned to “Occupy Wall Street” on my birthday, I did so with a heavy dose of irony. An implied wink and a smile that said, “I’m in on the joke, but I’m not its punchline.” They smiled, too, because they know me as that May Day baby, a mix of flowers and revolution, the child of hippies who is prone to taking up causes but never taking them too far. For weeks, we’d seen signs and posters around the city announcing the May Day General Strike. Some of them said, “STOP EVERYTHING. May Day 2012.” Well, that’s broad, we said. What exactly are they going for? we wanted to know. We joked about the planned “Guitarmy,” a riff on “This Machine Kills Fascists,” which Woody Guthrie famously penned on his guitar. A revolutionary statement, sure, but trite and contrived as a cutely-named event. I made a sign that said, “It’s my birthday and I’ll Occupy if I want to,” a parody of my own to show that I wasn’t taking myself (or the movement) too seriously.
Around noon on the big day, Union Square was mostly deserted. Organizers were there with signs wrapped in plastic to protect them in case of rain. They said things like, “Justice For Trayvon: End Racial Profiling“; “Full Rights for Immigrants“; and “End Mass Incarceration.” A woman dressed as a circus ringmaster with long coat-tails and a top-hap ushered self-conscious bystanders onto a makeshift “runway” outlined on the ground in yellow tape while her partner took their photos and held aloft a sign that said, “Your Capitalism doesn’t go with my outfit.” Someone was burning patchouli incense and the sky was a pale shade of flat gray.
My friend Jillian met me for lunch by the square, but by the time we left there still wasn’t much action. I half-heartedly suggested we come back later and we parted ways. I had a meeting far uptown and rode the subway without reading or looking at my phone. I was looking for signs among the passengers of discontent, hints that they might throw down their newspapers, take off their ties, and insist we storm Wall Street together. Instead they shuffled in and out, pushed glasses up their noses as they thumbed through books, or stared straight ahead as music leaked out from their earphones.
My meeting, with a sound engineer I’d cold-called about advice for the Radio Tanzania project, was mostly about the technicalities of audio preservation and open reel technology. I listened and took copious notes. I hadn’t told him that it was my birthday, or that I sometimes worry I’m too old to be embarking on a massive project with no guarantee of success or salary and at the same time too young to know what I’m doing. But as we said goodbye outside of the coffee shop, he looked at me and said, “Stay stupid. You’re young enough to think you can do things that you can’t– so you’ll do them. When you get older you’ll get tired and realistic. And you’ll stop doing impossible things. But right now you have the energy to be stupid and to do things that matter. Don’t stop.”
On the way back downtown I paused before getting out at Union Square. I considered staying on the train back to Brooklyn, collapsing into bed, and taking a nap. But I had my sign and my youth and my stupidity, so I got off the train and hurried up the stairs. The sky had cleared and it was hot and blue and bright. Hundreds had arrived in the square, and I could barely edge my way into the crowd and toward the stage set up on the South side of the park. Representatives from various labor unions were taking the mic in turn, delivering fiery speeches that lasted a few minutes each. I’d heard that the Occupy protesters didn’t know what, exactly, they were protesting about. But these individuals knew. They represented the NYC yellow cab drivers, the street vendors, the heath care workers. They wanted equal pay, they wanted education for their kids, they wanted the right to unionize. They thanked the people who were there, they thanked the people who weren’t because they feared retribution from their employers. They called into question the capitalist ethic that greed is good. They demanded a better way.
I had chills listening to these speeches. I wanted to be one of them, but wasn’t sure if I deserved it. Do I have a right to be among the dissatisfied and the righteously angry? If I had a microphone in front of me, and a crowd infront of it, what would I shout out to them? Would I have anything I’m passionate about enough to say? More than that, do I know enough about any injustice (and I know there are many) to coherently argue why it exists and how to right it? And what does it say about me if the answer is no? I pride myself in knowing about the world and caring about its people. But does my life–my actions and my choices–show it?
After the speeches and the singing of some union songs, the march to Wall Street began. Dozens of NYPD officers lined the route, and people near me shouted out to them, “Join us! You’re one of us! You are the the 99 percent!” Another yelled, “Racist pigs! All cops are racist pigs!” and ran away. Spectators took photos with iPhones. I fell in step with a group led by a fiery old man with a megaphone. He prompted the call and response chants, changing the tune or rhythm every so often to keep the marchers lively.
They got bailed out. / We got sold out.
Whose street? / Our street!
We. Are. The ninety-nine percent!
Olé, olé, olé, olé. Olé, olé!
The people. United. Will never be defeated.
“It’s your birthday?! Well, have a very happy birthday!” a young guy marching next to me said as he read my sign. He sang and danced down the street, seeming more like a second-liner in New Orleans than a hardened New York protester. He didn’t have a sign or a cause– I think he was just there for the singing and the company. On my other side, a woman was telling her companions about getting arrested in front of the Stock Exchange last Fall. She told the story with a certain type of veiled bravado. An elderly couple carried carefully crafted signs that said, “Old people for Occupy Wall Street.” They looked giddy and proud to be there. The Veterans for Peace carried a sign with the outline of a white dove. A man dressed as Captain America waved to protestors from a third-story window. Latino teenagers dressed in black held a banner that read, “Undocumented and Unafraid.” A group of men dressed as baseball players swung bats and pointed to the team logos on their chest: Tax Dodgers.
Halfway to Wall Street, I saw my friend Brad taking photos from the sidewalk. I split from the parade and stood with him as the crowd went marching by, a wide river of humanity, part carnival, part campaign, part cry to be heard. Only by stepping away from the masses did I realize I had been one among thousands.
I didn’t make it to Wall Street and Zuccotti Park last night. I doubled back toward Union Square, met with friends, and walked to my birthday dinner. Later, we danced to 80s hits at a bar with other young, free, beautiful, and imperfect people. It might have been any other birthday night. But I knew something had changed.
But what was it? Among the many signs I saw, one sticks with me. It said: Unoccupy yourself. No injustice exists without the implicit support of those who allow it to exist. Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “It is always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.” Have I been sleeping? Or feigning sleep?
The real question, though, is what to do once you are awake.