Following forceful evictions from both City Square and Martin Place, the Occupy movement in Australia is at a crossroads. With vision of heavy-handed police tactics across news media and Facebook, many are flocking to the General Assemblies and rallies held in both cities. The original occupiers are now joined by a motley crew of community activists, public servants, trade unionists travellers, punk kids and city workers appalled by the use of capsicum spray, fists and police horses to evict the occupants. In Melbourne, at least, the main forum for discussion is social media: the Occupy Melbourne facebook and Twitter streams scroll by past so fast, it’s hard to keep up.
So what now? With the national spotlight well and truly on the movement, how can they capitalise on the attention to press their demands and have the best possible shot at winning some concessions from government and corporations?
Well, first they need to clearly identify those concessions. A clear definition of what the movement stands for is its greatest priority.
Many seeking to deflate the movement have reiterated that we have it good here in Australia. Compared to the 400 Americans who have more wealth than the poorest 150,000,000, here in Australia the gap is much narrower – our 11 richest individuals having more than the poorest 800,000. So with a relatively, healthy economy, what have we got to complain about?
I’d venture that the movement should publicly reiterate their focus as being a watchdog on issues of corporate citizenship, of ensuring that some of Australia’s largest companies are held to account for their treatment of Australian workers. Build greater relationships with trade unions and groups working for the rights of workers. Hammer and hammer again on wage disparity between men and women.
The local Occupy movement needs to publicly write a narrative of – as loathe as I am to raise the desiccated corpse of the Australian Democrats – ‘keeping the bastards honest’.
I’ve advocated elsewhere that the Occupy movement needs to focus on local issues of social justice in order to build public support, to mollify some of the bad press it has received. I am well aware that the movement is one of political and societal change. It’s not supposed to be a charitable organisation. However, in order to maintain a prolonged, sustainable occupation, the movement needs to provide opportunities to demonstrate how their vision of the world is a more humane one. Occupy Melbourne fed the homeless during their week at City Square. Now, they should do the same and exploit every form of accessible media to get the message out – we’re not just angry, we’ve got something to offer.
On the topic of media, the movement must devote more time to consolidating and building a unique, local online media presence. Without the support of print and broadcast media, social media is the tool with which the Occupy movement must articulate its message. Gather the hackers, the culture jammers, the 4Chan brats and use them the craft videos, images and podcasts that articulate to those browsing social media, the causes that Occupy seeks to fight. We’re at the stage where anyone with a laptop and some free software can create material with a professional appearance – press the advantage.
There are many who have gathered behind the banner of the ‘99%’ amidst a climate of increased discontent and agitation. Many feel a need to vent and express their frustration with a broken, sick system. There is a certain mood of giddy expectation among the posts I’ve seen go up online. In order to move forward, to keep the discussion going, the Sydney and Melbourne groups need to pause, strategise and play smart in establishing their new occupations.
On 22 October, Mike Stuchberry wrote a blog post in which he explained why he was leaving the Occupy Movement. Mike had already, in a series of blogs and tweets during the previous week, gained some notoriety as a ‘voice of reason’, an objective eye who stood up for the idea of the movement, even against the immaturity of some of its members.
Having been to the rally and General Assembly on 22 October, Mike objected that the movement was not composed of the ‘99%’ but ‘those who’ve read a few books and have the freedom to spend their days in loud, public action.’ There were lots of kids ‘looking for trouble, without the sense to know when enough is enough.’ Others were ‘the folks I went to uni with, 10 years ago, who are still at uni and still holding the same old protests, using the same old tactics and wondering why they’re not getting anywhere. The same old cobblers about socialism saving the world. The same old drum circles.’
Mike’s criticisms are not something we should endorse.
Of course, like all movements Occupy Melbourne has its flaws. It is composed of all sorts of people, with diverse ideas about what the movement stands for, what its next steps should be. Strategy, tactics, demands – these are yet to be clarified. For this reason, the movement needs the General Assemblies and the ongoing discussion, as everyone has the right to speak, regardless of their position, knowledge or anything else. Many of the movement activists you will disagree with. That’s just what a democratic movement is.
It is also true that radical activists currently dominate the movement. Many are from the left (anarchists, socialists) or are ‘hippies’. This is not surprising, as these are people who have already been opposing the current social set-up for years. They are the ones who have been criticising corporate greed and the social relations that enable it. They may not yet have the complete support of the ‘99 per cent’, but they are there to represent that majority’s interests. The slogan of the 99 per cent, as Tad Tietze recently wrote, is symbolic of a systemic critique.
Unfortunately, in striving for more ‘respectability’, Mike panders to all those people who oppose the movement, as an idea as well as a reality. There is a long tradition of criticising the ‘left’ of a movement in order to discredit the movement as a whole. Those who criticise the movement for not being ‘respectable’ enough – shock jocks and the like – are usually trying to limit its radicalism, to absorb it into the status quo. The more successful the movement is, the more we should be wary of these criticisms.
Having said that, the movement must reach out and draw ever-greater numbers of people into it. This task should determine the strategy and tactics the movement undertakes. So far, the movement has done well at this. For example, when Mayor Doyle brought in police, Occupy Melbourne did an admirable job on ensuring that the responsibility for violence was on the police and Doyle.
More importantly, the movement’s organisational structures – consensus decision making, the working groups, and so on – have, despite their severe limitations, so far managed to maintain all significant elements of the movement together.
Any future decision about whether to re-occupy, and so on, must be measured by these questions: will it help to get more people involved and active? Will it turn the passive support for it into mass activity?