As one of the judges for the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards for this year, I’ve been surprised in the past 24 hours to hear myself referred to as a ‘professional protester’ by the Lord Mayor – an ‘arrogant liar’ who had had their ‘little self-indulgent moment in the sunshine’ and ‘caused at least $15,000 damage’ to City Square. Because I have been active in Occupy Melbourne. I was part of the occupation yesterday that was forcibly evicted and I joined the post-eviction protest. I wonder, how I can be capable of deciding the best writing in Melbourne, while simultaneously fitting the above descriptors?
After notice of the eviction of Occupy Melbourne hit, the speculation was that arrests were imminent if protesters didn’t vacate the Square. I hadn’t been sleeping in the Square, in fact, I hadn’t even been there every day; still I was committed to the Occupy protest. Something was evolving in that space – in all the Occupy spaces – and it had a right to continue to evolve out in the open.
I arrived on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane at 9.05. Police cars flanked Swanston Street, along with council trucks and a huge rectangular police vehicle that looked like an ice-truck. The visible police presence was moderate, despite the number of vehicles. I estimated about 70 officers in various hues of yellow and blue surrounding the cyclone-wire perimeter caging the Square.
It was unclear whether they were actually planning mass arrests at that stage, or merely illustrating that was a possibility if they so desired. Most likely, their reaction would depend on the show of support for Occupy Melbourne throughout the morning. The sky was overcast, the ground was wet with morning rain and, despite the number of passersby paused, watching the fence erection still taking place across the road, I wasn’t certain how many more supporters would show up.
The morning before, Clare and I had spent some time at ‘the Democratic Republic of the Tent City’, delivering scrolls and fruit for breakfast for the campers at the Square – a gesture of solidarity in a material sense.
The camaraderie. Because City Square had been transformed by the Occupy movement. City Square used to be a public space. It used to be the hub of protest action, a performance space, a used space, where people sat and met and congregated. Long before those businesses that have complained about the occupation arrived – the ones I assume Doyle is referring to with his estimates of $15000 damage – protest happened in that space.
But under neoliberalism, like so many other things that used to belong to the people, public spaces are marketised and really, in many ways, no longer public.
While Occupy Melbourne was an action in solidarity with the thousand other Occupy movements around the world, it was also something else: a resistance to the idea that every space needs to be commercialised – a shop where you buy something or a space that will eventually charge you to rest your weary feet.
That’s why I needed to get in the Square, and I did, by sidling up to the fence and walking past the security contactors at the middle stairs. I recognised a few faces, from other protests, but mostly I didn’t. The other occupiers spanned ages and ideologies.
When it was clear that the police intended to use the kettling technique, a tactic perfected by London police, we moved into an odd triangle shape encircling the kitchen area, which we tried to defend as it had come to symbolise the collective nature of the camp. We tried to maintain a three-row deep line of protesters on each side, and we stood that way, rain falling most of the time, for almost three hours, as the camp around us was swept away. I stood, arms linked with the person either side of me, chanting for all that time in a standoff with an increasing number of Victoria Police. Some were missing name badges. Many donned rubber gloves and had their batons at the ready. Riot police arrived, in the Square and out.
It was impossible to tell what was taking place outside your line of sight: mine was the row in front, the police behind them, the tentless space behind that and the growing protesters outside on Swanston Street. I saw the street protesters try to move the protest onto Swanston Street itself; I saw tactical response officers (in dark blue with blue caps) use legs and fists and batons to drive them back.
For the first hour, I was convinced every time a new line of officers arrived that they were going to arrest us and that it was going to be violent. As more supporters arrived, some of whom we could hear but couldn’t see on the other side of the fence, it seemed unlikely that they would arrest us and that it would instead be a standoff between us and the police to see who broke first. (We all presumed it would be us as we couldn’t truck in reinforcements and would eventually need to use the bathroom.)
I want to talk about the sense of solidarity among the protesters in that Square. Everyone there thought that camp meant something important and we worked collectively and – I must stress non-violently – to keep that small patch of square we had left. No-one attacked the police. No-one attacked each other. We continued voting. We continued our human chain. We used the People’s Mic (thanks OWS) throughout the occupation to convey messages and proposals. We also used it to sing ‘I will survive’, which I won’t forget in a hurry. But it’s hard to describe it in words.
Many observers and critics seem confused by the reasons for these occupations outside the US. Karl Quinn wrote today that protesters don’t know what they’re protesting about as evidenced by this exchange he witnessed:
‘It’s about poverty,’ said one.
‘It’s about greed,’ said another.
‘It’s about democracy and the right to protest,’ said a third.
Aren’t all these things related? I think the people I occupied and marched with yesterday would agree that their vision of a democratic world is not one in which a tiny percentage of the world’s population is obscenely wealthy, while so many others go without. In a true democracy, I think they would agree, this kind of inequality wouldn’t exist. And in that true democracy, your opinion would be heard, just like it is in the Occupy camps when decisions are reached by consensus.
We used to call something similar the anti-capitalist movement. While the Occupy movement is different in some respects, it shares the similarities above. We know how corporations make a profit and we don’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong. In my opinion, a list of demands is essential. But when so many things seem broken, perhaps you just need a space where you can try something new.
It moves my heart to see your awakened faces;
the look of ‘aha!’
shining, finally, in
wide open eyes.
Yes, we are the 99%
all of us
refusing to forget
no matter, in our hunger, what crumbs
are dropped by
It was distressing when the lines of police moved in and started tearing fellow protesters from our lines. They were behind me and I had to keep glancing over my shoulder to see what was happening but it was hard because of the violent shoving by the police on both sides. But I saw those tactical police, working as a pack, some of them laughing as they targeted individual protesters, and I was afraid. Part of what was so shocking was that the occupation had been so peaceful, even in the standoff, and the contrast with the police behaviour was so harsh.
Lucky for me, I wasn’t physically violated because at the last second, the younger occupier beside me and I opted to walk out, rather than be punched and dragged from the Square.
It has been some time since I’ve witnessed this level of police brutality.
Seriously, how much money was spent on the resources used on evicting 100-odd protesters from the Square yesterday? And how long will we be left with the ironic image of a fenced in empty public square?
As the wise silencewedge wrote on twitter last night:
When you send in riot police against unarmed citizens, it doesn’t matter what their agenda is. I know which side I’m on. #occupymelb
As does everybody else. If Doyle and Baillieu were hoping to prove the futility of this movement, they’ve done the opposite. And the size of the protest in yesterday’s street immediately following the eviction –
– which grew into the evening, with the backing of the unions and many concerned Melburnians have shown that.
There’s a protest today to take back City Square. I’m guessing there will be a lot of people in the street.