This story was originally published on Pitchfork.
New York, NY – Entering Manhattan’s Bryant Park yesterday afternoon felt like walking through my computer screen. The mediated images of Zuccotti Park and other Occupy Wall Street activity I’d experienced through news reports and social media were reproduced perfectly before me, albeit markedly more calm.
Here were more cops and reporters and drummers than I could feasibly count. Here were more camouflage and cargo prints than I’d seen in a single compact area since attending the New York Anarchist Book Fair in 2010. Here was that free library, the Occupy Dessert Kitchen, and copies of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Not to mention picket signs saying things like “99 PERCENT” and “RISE” and “VOTE SOCIALISM,” among a netherworld of tie-dyed hippies and radicals.
I came to Bryant Park for a practice session for the Occupy Guitarmy, organized by Occupy’s Music Working Group. At 2 p.m., Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine was to lead a pack of guitar-equipped protesters down 30 blocks to Union Square. Upon their arrival, at 4 p.m., Union Square would host a concert featuring Dan Deacon, Das Racist, Immortal Technique, Morello with Guitarmy members, and more, interspersed with speakers from various labor and immigration rights groups. Later, at 7 p.m., Le Tigre‘s JD Samson and her band MEN would perform near Wall Street.
But first: the Guitarmy.
Enclaves of musicians practiced by running through the day’s designated protest songs: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, Sergio Ortega’s “El Pueblo Unido”, Willie Nile’s “One Guitar”, Morello’s “World Wide Rebel Song”, Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?”, and the traditional “We Shall Not Be Moved”. Throughout the park, photographers seemed to outnumber the several hundred participants. There were banjos, fiddles, ukeleles, saxophones. One pack, a marching band, held horns with signs taped on: “Come Strike With Me,” “Tax the Rich.” I counted at least one Martin Luther King mask, and at least one man distributing a bouquet of pink daisies. Someone was most definitely burning sage.
And then I found the Zombies, a daughter and her mother in pale, blood-streaked face paint. “I represent middle America,” the daughter Zombie said. “Americans are zombies.” She aired her frustrations, already, with May Day. “In other countries they actually shut things down. There are no trains. I had to rollerblade to school in France in the early 90s. This is just entertainment.”
“And they should have had GWAR performing in the streets,” she said, “chopping Obama’s head off.” The man with the pink bouquet delivered her a flower; she ate it. Nearby, a guy asked, “Anyone without an instrument want to make some egg shakers? Egg shakers! Make ’em here!”
The daughter Zombie, whose named was Shantay, rolled her eyes. “It’s like kindergarten.”
“Last year in Chile, 3,000 students marched and re-enacted ‘Thriller’, protesting for education reform,” she said. “That was a real statement. I don’t know what this is.”
But the small, ad hoc group of Occupy Wall Street organizers behind the musical May Day strike had a clear and ultimately well-realized vision of how to keep the movement’s biggest moment in the spotlight since 2011 centered on optimism over chaos and brutality. The Guitarmy practices were largely led by Alphonzo Terrell, 29, and an organizer named Goldi, who wore a bandana around his head and other hippie garb. According to Goldi, the idea for Guitarmy first came from an Occupier named Winn Cola at Zuccotti in October. “Guitarmy is a direct action and a great way to diffuse tensions with the police,” Goldi said, “Because you can’t arrest a song! Right?”
At 1:30 p.m., Terrell performed the first of many human mic-checks to explain how the march would function: seven color-coded sections were each headed by a designated leader with a pirate-like flag. “The key to victory is staying united with your section,” Terrell said. “We don’t want anyone to get lost or hurt. Or arrested.”
“This is Guitarmy,” he continued. “We are about music, love, and unity.” He warned that many people from the coinciding Direct Action protest were intent on taking the streets, but that Guitarmy should remain on the sidewalks, to avoid confrontation with the police.
Morello finally emerged just before the Guitarmy was set to depart from the park. He told the crowd he’d traveled 3,000 miles; that it was an honor to share the streets and songs. “History is not made by Presidents,” Morello began. “It’s not made by billionaires or bankers, wondering who can be bought.” Within minutes of Morello’s arrival it became clear that one of the Guitarmy’s primary functions would be: travelling Tom Morello photo shoot. And although he seemed slightly confused during the march, Morello was enthusiastic, shaking hands profusely and thanking fans who thanked him.
The marching musical performance soon gave way to more traditional Occupy chants: “We! Are! The 99 Percent!” and “The system! Must die! Hella, hella, occupy!” We’d ventured fewer than ten blocks from Bryant Park when a raging “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!” broke out. The march took over the width of Fifth Avenue for the remainder of the hour-long trek. At 31st Street, Morello was approached by a friend, who then apologized for disrupting. “Oh,” he said, “no one can hear a note anyway.”
That was made up for by Morello’s spirited performance in Union Square, where he took the stage with his makeshift Guitarmy group. Occupy’s Will Gusakov, who stage-managed, noted that having protesters on stage emphasized “an ethos of participation and non-hierarchy” that is intrinsic to the movement, which he hoped the performers would all take on. Morello prefaced “World Wide Rebel Song” with a story about a group of Korean guitar-makers who were fired for unionizing (for whom he’d held a benefit concert). He encouraged the crowd to sing along, noting, “If you can’t remember the words, raise a militant fist in the air, and go ‘na na na’!” The group’s second song was “This Land Is Your Land,” complete with an acknowledgment that Woody Guthrie would have headlined the show, were he still alive.
Next on the bill was Bobby Sanabria, the Latin jazz singer and drummer, after a number of speakers who embodied May Day’s appeal to renew revolutionary spirits broadly. Sanabria encouraged everyone to protest the Grammys’ decision this year to cut 31 categories that “represented diversity,” like Latin jazz, Cajun, and Native American music.
Das Racist followed with fairly straight-ahead performances of Relax‘s “Michael Jackson” and “Rainbow in the Dark” that they cut with May Day shouts. The sound went out towards the end of “Rainbow” but the group continued on with help from a handful of die-hards in the front row. I couldn’t help the thought that a performance of Heems’ anti-authoritative reinterpretation of the Strokes’ “New York City Cops” would have been fitting here.
Dan Deacon somehow successfully controlled a packed Union Square, requesting a circle formation as he usually does in live settings, performing from within the audience. “I know, I don’t look like the most trustworthy person,” he said, encouraging an interpretative dance to “Of the Mountains.” He called it a “Body Mic Check,” which felt appropriate– in an interview last week, Deacon told me, “The first time I saw the mic-check stuff, I was like, ‘Holy shit. That’s exactly what I’d like to do.'”
The sea of picket signs (“Legalize Organize Unionize”) bobbed up and down to the beat of Deacon’s song. He next performed “Truth Rush” and asked the crowd to “part the sea!” for “a Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’-type dance-off.” “Both [sides of the crowd] are explicitly the same,” he said, “It’s important to remember that in life.”
“If I have one goal [at Union Square], it’s to change the way people think about the role of the individual,” Deacon told me last week. He expressed frustration with how media (like political cartoons) often “represent the wealthy as these Goliaths” and the 99% as much smaller people. “It’s a mistake to see your enemy as anything different than yourself,” Deacon said. “These are basic concepts, but they’re often looked over in regards to politics and power.” He said many of the lyrics on his forthcoming record, out by this fall, “are very much anti-corporation or pro-radical environmentalism,” including one “post-civilization” track.
On that note, Deacon said, “It’s insane for people to think we’re not returning to an age of kings, that the powers that be don’t want to go back to being pharaohs, having us build their pyramids. We’re existing in a time that’s post-Declaration of Independence, that’s post-Magna Carta. We exist in a twinkle of an eye of what some consider freedom. People are like, ‘Slavery was abolished.’ No, slavery was just outsourced.”
While Morello, Deacon, and Das Racist were the biggest musical draws of the day, it was refreshing to later witness topical sets from Immortal Technique and JD Samson, given the setting. Immortal Technique offered lines like “capitalism and democracy are not synonymous” and “the U.S. is a better country than the people who are running it.” JD’s set with MEN, later in the evening down at 2 Broadway, was perhaps the day’s most inspiring musical moment. The self-identified “protest band” of “feminists and queers” performed a dance-punk song written about the Occupy movement, “Make Him Pay”, as the crowd emerged on Wall Street. It felt triumphant.
Something I hear a lot as a music writer is “can’t expect every band to be Fugazi,” excusing the perpetual dearth of well-executed political songwriting. But this day served as a reminder that new protest music can still be purposeful. That same sentiment came up earlier in conversation with Shane Patrick, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s press team who helped organize the May Day events. “As much as the conversation with Occupy was a result of broad populist outrage over economic corruption, and the lack of accountability, so many of these things literally run through the narrative of music,” he said. “Is Occupy doing anything in terms of protest that’s really that distinct of anything Fugazi and Dischord did? Not really. It would be nice if you didn’t have to expect that Fugazi was the only one.”
– Jenn Pelly –
Check out all our May Day coverage here.