May Day in NYC

2 May 2024
Ben Hillier
New York University on May Day PHOTO: Ben Hillier

Several thousand protesters flooded Washington Square Park on May Day, demanding an end to the genocide in Gaza and in support of student protesters, several hundred of whom were arrested at Columbia and the City University the previous night.

Beginning in lower Manhattan, near 1 Police Plaza, where some arrestees were still to be released, the rally snaked north to Washington Square Park, before a section continued to the nearby New York University encampment outside the Paulson Centre.

It was clearly a day for the city’s far left, whose banners dominated the march, though none had contingents visibly bigger than 50 or 60. The event was spirited and energetic; a great display of solidarity.

“Today is May Day. It’s about linking the labour movement and the movement for Palestine”, one participant said. The left has to dream big but, unfortunately, his comment was fantasy land stuff. A smattering of people held union flags and placards, which only highlighted the lack of any real union presence.

The New York and national media have had round the clock reporting on the encampments. Almost all observers are labelling as “unprecedented” the police mobilisation to smash two student protest hubs in the city. In this context, for a city of more than 8 million people—or more than double that when measured by the greater metro area—a couple of thousand is a drop in the ocean. It was baffling to watch local ABC news later describe the event as “huge”.

At the same time, it is notable that there are no significant counter-mobilisations to the pro-Palestine events. When Zionists appear, they do so in quite small numbers but with a high level of confidence to approach protesting students or to lodge themselves among them for photo opportunities. It is probably a reflection of the balance of forces—why call counter-mobilisations when the cops and city authorities are on your side and are more than willing to act?

If anything, the situation should undermine the persistent narrative about Jewish students fearing for their safety. The corporate media doesn’t report on the obvious contradiction, however. Nor does it note that the mass violence of the NYPD is often directed against Jewish students protesting against Israeli and US government policies. The media instead generally repeats the mayor’s talking points about “outside protesters” being behind the occupations.

There are two encampments left in New York City: the New School and New York University.

Earlier in the afternoon at the New School, students marched in a circle on Fifth Avenue, chanting slogans in solidarity with Palestine. Two young women accosted one of the demonstrators. The exchange didn’t last long, the women leaving enraged. It turns out they were Zionists. What happened?

“My strategy, which works, is to be super polite”, the accosted student said. “I say, ‘Thanks for coming down and showing your support—it’s so nice to meet you!’. They have an agenda and a narrative that they want to pursue, but we don’t have to talk about what they want to talk about.”

Aisha, from the encampment’s media team, said that the raid on Columbia and CUNY left students feeling “enraged, not demoralised”. Indeed, at Fordham University’s Lincoln Centre campus, students began an occupation in direct response to the assault on Columbia and CUNY, but police were called in almost immediately and arrested participants.

There seems to be a push throughout the country in this direction, police being called in to clear more and more campuses of Palestine solidarity encampments.

At the New School, however, the administration has engaged in some negotiations. “They have been talking with us about the issues and we got partial disclosure, which means that they told us which companies the endowment funds have invested in”, Aisha said. “It turns out that thirteen of the fourteen companies that we want divestment from, the university is invested in.”

So the students know. Now, the challenge will be to force divestment, which Aisha says is the main thing­: “We don’t control the military or the Israeli government, but we should be able to have a say over how university endowments are invested”. The thirteen companies on their no-go list are engaged in weapons sales to Israel or are somehow linked to the country’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

As a result of the university’ partial disclosure, the students also reportedly found out that, despite the administration claiming that it no longer held investments in fossil fuel companies, it maintained shares in Chevron, a multinational oil and gas company. So there will be another campaign on that front as well.

As the day drew to a close at NYU, the mood was upbeat. Several hundred remained from the May Day march and stood chanting past nightfall. The dozen or so Zionists, one wearing an IDF hoodie, who came to counter-protest helped to keep the energy levels up. A line of orthodox Jews stood right in front of them, holding Palestinian flags and chanting: “Judaism, yes! Zionism, no! That state of Israel has got to go!”

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