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Opening day for Occupy Wall Street: Act 2

Starting Tuesday morning, May Day, the Occupy Movement in 100 cities will begin what it is terming “spring awakening,” with marches, rhetoric, and civil disobedience.

The Occupy Season is kicking off.

Starting Tuesday morning, May Day, the Occupy Movement in 100 cities will begin what it is terming “spring awakening,” with marches, rhetoric, and probably some old-fashioned civil disobedience. The organizers are calling for a general strike although union support for a work moratorium appears low. And after a day of unpermitted, pop-up protests, educational picket lines, “free university” teach-ins, and other events there will be an “after party,” with bands and speeches.

Many of the issues will seem familiar from last fall when the protests began: income inequality (think 99 percent vs. 1 percent), high levels of student debt, and anger at foreclosures. But this spring the disparate groups that make up Occupy are “zeroing in” on some specific issues, such as breaking up the Bank of America, campaigning against right-wing groups, and a new focus on the issues facing people of color.

“I think it was inevitable, various groups are focusing on issues they feel they can have impact on,” says Karanja Gacuca, a spokesman for Occupy. “Income inequality is still our focus but now we are drumming down on specific issues that solidify the 1 percent.”

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Among the new issues, according to Mr. Gacuca: 

  • Breaking up the Bank of America. “Every month there will be actions targeting both the Bank of America and Merrill Lynch (owned by B of A),” he says. “We think it ought to be broken up into smaller, more manageable banks.”
  • A campaign against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that drafts research and policy papers as well as local laws. “As we make the public more aware of them, they are losing some of their corporate support,” says Gacuca.
  • A campaign against the major spending by companies for the presidential campaign. “We will be targeting super PACs and presidential candidates and following both candidates at fundraisers in New York and other big cities,” says Gacuca.

Narrowing the focus is a good plan, says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “It’s good if you can get reforms even if the goal is more radical,” he says. “Having short-term goals that are achievable is good.”

However, political scientist Edward Morgan of Lehigh University says to transition into actual legislative actions “requires lots of outreach to the rest of America as well as sharpening the critique.”

Making contact with the public has been increasingly difficult for the Occupy movement, since police departments have cracked down on their encampments in most cities.

For example, on Monday in downtown Manhattan, only one Occupy Wall Street protester, Christopher Guerra, was sitting in Zuccotti Park, where protestors started the movement Sept. 17. Seated behind a sign that says, “Prosecute the Fraud,” referring to the 2008 bank bailouts, he says the Occupy protesters are now spread out around the city, not just in one location.

One of those new locations is on the steps outside of Federal Hall National Memorial, which is across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. The protesters are on the stairs to the left of a statute of George Washington — the site where he took his oath of office as first president. However, even in that location, there are limits: the police are limiting the protests to 25 people at any given time. A sign on the steps reads, “NYPD created these barricades to mentally and physically separate us. Let’s be one — talk to me.”

One of the protesters behind the barricades is Michael Pellagatti, an antiwar activist who has been protesting since last September. He says he was not surprised when the movement shrank this winter with the cold weather and universities back in session. Now, with publicity about sharp budget cutbacks for education and social programs in such countries as Greece, he says, “It looks like the movement is starting to grow again.”

One of those attracted to the protest on Tuesday is Brandon Crozier, a cook, from Sarasota, Fla. He says one of the key moments for him was watching the YouTube version of the NYPD pepper-spraying female protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge last fall. Mr. Crozier is part of an effort to live-stream the protest on UStream.

In the late afternoon, 114 people were watching. “When we have big events we could have as many as 1,000 people watching from this and other websites that are simulcasting it.”

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On Tuesday, he says there will be “way more viewers,” than on Monday. “There is a huge interest in it,” he says.

On Tuesday, Mr. Guerra says there could be 40,000 protesters, who will meet at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan for several hours before marching to Union Square. “This time there will be a lot of angry people if they try to shut us down,” he says.

One of those marchers will be a clean-cut graphic artist by the name of Joe, who stopped by Guerra’s outpost at Zuccotti Park. He says he plans to call in sick to participate in the events. “It’s this whole capitalism thing,” he says, explaining why he plans to participate. “We have to let the big bosses know we are a big influence on their profits.”

Guerra says there are many unions who plan to walk off the job on Tuesday as well as students who plan on leaving school early.

However, Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steel Workers in Washington, says a general strike by unions is not going to happen. “We have a thing called contracts,” says Mr. Hubbard. “A general strike is not a simple task to do.”

Mr. Hubbard recalls that the unions called a “national day of protest” in Canada in Oct. 14, 1976, led by the steel and auto workers unions. “According to the memoirs of Lynn Williams [president of the USW from 1984 to 1992], it took a number of months to unravel the mess — things such as discharges and contract issues,” he recalls.

In San Francisco, Professor Zunes says there has been some talk about shutting down the city’s bridges as well as protests in the financial district. “Closing the bridges probably won’t go over well,” he says, since it will inconvenience tens of thousands of commuters.

After May Day, the Occupy movement will turn its attention to Chicago where the US is hosting a meeting of NATO nations. Zunes thinks the venue will be a good one for the groups to protest the level of military spending. “You might even ask: Why is there a NATO with the cold war over?” he says.

However, Professor Morgan says that the group has to be careful not to become too sidetracked. He thinks the group needs to focus on building a broader coalition of supporters. “The main thing the movement has going for it is that a lot of Americans don’t feel the system is working,” he says.