Free University in Madison Square Park. Five or six classes going on at the same time in various locations on various benches marked with a flag labeled ‘A’ or ‘B’ and so on. We attend ‘Student Activism at CCNY in the 1930s: Lessons for Today’ with former student activist Carol from the Professional Staff Congress at City University of New York (PSC-CUNY). Carol has archived many fascinating images and stories on the Virtual New York City website.
Carol spoke about the many large student actions through the 1930s, many of which were the first such actions by students in the country. She spoke about the National Student League which formed in 1931. Over the hour that Carol spoke she painted a vivid portrait of a time of great activism and public awareness of public problems and the role of the government in purposefully carrying out actions and policies that hurt people. She spoke of CUNY’s President Frederick B. Robinson, who persecuted students for political beliefs and expressions without relent, and among many repressive actions invited an official delegation of Italian fascist students representing Mussolini to honor the fascists on October 9, 1934. At the assembly with the Italian fascists the student audience rebelled and made their displeasure heard and felt; a fist-fight broke out on the stage; another couple dozen students were expelled, not unusual for Robinson’s administration. One expelled student, late in his life, had told Carol that ‘that was the best day of my life.’
One of the audience members spoke of how during lulls in activism, like the last forty years, activists still need to struggle and to present to the world possibilities for changes that could be made, to keep the radical imagination alive in public consciousness.
In Union Square there were thousands assembled and assembling. A large portion of them were immigration activists advocating ‘ICE Free NYC’ and ‘Legalization for all’ and ‘Stop the Deportations.’ Elsewhere in the park were Occupy folks, Nestora Salgado activists, anti-charter school people, $15 minimum wage activists, Hammer & Sickle flags, Bob Avakian’s RevCom members…
On Broadway we saw the myriad horns that must be the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and followed them and hundreds of others to The Children’s Place, where activists used the People’s Mic to talk about how The Children’s Place brand clothing was one of the main brands made at the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in ‘the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry.’ The People’s Mic said that they had visited the home of The Children’s Place CEO, Jane Elfers, to deliver their demand that the company pay compensation to the families of the workers killed in the collapse – 1,138 people, and 2,500 were injured. So they decided to deliver their demand to a store location of The Children’s Place, the one on Broadway & 16th St.
A few activists went into the store, followed by a stream of police. Out on the sidewalk we all chanted ‘From Bangladesh to NYC / Worker solidarity!’ before they emerged from the store and we crossed over into the northern end of the park to end the tour. The action was the end of the Immigrant Worker Justice Tour organized by Immigrants Occupy NYC.
The marches left from the south end of the park. We intended to march with those heading west on 14th St. who intended to stop at various fast food places and show support and solidarity with the workers inside. But somehow we ended up in the march going east on 14th St. then south town 1st and over to 2nd and finally down to Foley Sq. A permitted and heavily police monitored march. Police on their police-dirtbikes (or whatever they are) lining the outside of the march between marchers and traffic; police at every street directing traffic; police on foot in the street and on the sidewalks; police in a suit played the part usually played by march organizers by instructing us to not get separated and move along which of course made us not want to do that; police everywhere looking like they wanted the march to end as soon as possible so they could go home. To be so heavily surveilled and monitored for expressing political ideas gives the impression that the marchers are the ones who commit the most violence and harm in the society. What protester ever shot Kimani Grey? What protester ever invaded Vietnam? What protester ever dropped an atom bomb?
The news on May Day always has actions in countries like Thailand and Venezuela and India that make a march in NYC look like a power-sanctioned park-walk. But the marchers showed up. Made beautiful inspiring artwork to express the often repressed and oppressed and intangible longings for self-determination and equality: posters, signs, sculptures, banners, costumes. And of course the endless newspapers and flyers and leaflets; and the music of percussion everywhere, as well as a Rara band. On the brink of environmental destruction, ever-present nuclear catastrophe, the millions of deportations, the drones, they’ve got a weekly kill list meeting for Christ’s sakes – how could one not want to get out and try to do something to get involved on the good side of things? On May Day I love everyone as I do every day, but I love those who can and do decide to come out just a little more because they are here with me, trying to do something to make something better. The best of May Day comes the next day and the days after when the people who marched and the people who saw the march get together and organize something worth celebrating.