After a dormant winter, the Ithaca-based Occupy movements returned with a day of marches to honor May Day, an international celebration of the labor movement.
Occupy Cornell participants converged on the Commons with members of Occupy Ithaca after a march from Ho Plaza. They engaged in a series of conversations about racial and wealth inequality, the uncomfortable marriage between Cornell and Ithaca and an array of other local and national issues.
The day culminated in a protest against the minimum wage in Tompkins County and the occupation of Goldwin Smith Hall on campus.The racial tensions surrounding the murder of Shawn Greenwood — a black Ithaca resident who was shot and killed by a white Ithaca Police officer in February 2010 — was an issue that community members revisited throughout the day. In one breakout seminar, attended by Greenwood’s family and friends, participants reenacted the two conflicting accounts of Greenwood’s murder: the police report and eyewitness testimonies of the shooting.
In the two years since the incident, members of the Ithaca community close to Greenwood have contested the verdict granted to Sgt. Bryan Bangs — a member of the Ithaca Police Department — and called for more accountability from the IPD.
Claire Grady, a seminar facilitator, said that race played a critical role in the community’s conflicting interpretations of Greenwood’s death.
“Depending on what your skin color was and where you live, there were two different stories about what happened on that day,” Grady said. “They were so strikingly different, and, for me, as a white person, I feel like my work is to educate fellow white people how hurtful, damaging and violent it is when we refuse to ask the questions and be open to the conversation.”
The ensuing discussion of Greenwood’s murder led Occupy participants to suggest solutions — such as alternative policing methods — to persistent community issues. Participants also said that the seminar marked the first time the public openly discussed Greenwood’s death.
“That conversation today is the first time it has been in a public space, in a wide circle just like that, with the real human beings involved: Shawn’s mother, Shawn’s brother, Shawn’s nephew, Shawn’s friends [and] Shawn’s community,” Grady said.
Occupy participants also proposed increasing the minimum wage in Tompkins County to a “living wage,” or the lowest wage necessary to support basic needs. Participants marched to the Tompkins County Courthouse with members of the Ithaca Worker’s Center to advocate raising the minimum wage in New York State from $7.25 an hour to $12.78 per hour.
Consensus briefly evaded Occupy participants during the General Assembly Meeting in the evening, when members of Occupy Cornell proposed a “direct action” to march up the Hill to occupy Goldwin Smith Hall for the night. The two Occupy groups agreed to proceed with the action after openly debating a number of issues –– including the risk and reward of an occupation, the significance of the stance and the differing rights of Cornell students and Ithaca residents to remain in the building overnight.
The concern of police officers’ reaction to the movement stayed in participants’ minds throughout the day. Two legal advisors from the National Lawyers Guild — a public interest association — hovered around the movement to provide legal advice to participants, should they find themselves placed under arrest.
Despite the imminent possibility of arrest, the May Day events ended in a peaceful irony. Police told the Occupiers –– who played drums, chanted and conversed in the foyer of Goldwin Smith –– to quiet down. They could, police said, be distracting a lecture on Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the auditorium down the hall.