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Occupy Melbourne: some initial thoughts

photoThe Melbourne City Square was once a public space before the various private bars and hotels and restaurants that now dominate the area claimed it for their own. In that respect, it provided a fitting venue for Occupy Melbourne to reclaim.

By my count, there were about a thousand people in the square today: a thousand people talking with each other about politics and social change.

This is unequivocally a good thing.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the Occupy Oz protests, most of it remarkably vapid.

Yes, everyone knows that, as every pundit tediously repeated last week, the situation here’s not the same as the US: the economy’s more stable and unemployment’s lower. But so what?

Actually, the similarities are much greater than the differences. Australia, too, faces economic turmoil, of a severity that no-one can judge. Just as in the US, there’s widespread cynicism about mainstream politics and the mainstream media, a sense of disconnection from the parliamentary process and the insider nattering that passes for public debate. As everywhere else, the major parties remain entirely devoted to neoliberalism, even as the bankruptcy of that philosophy becomes more and more obvious.

If all the ‘Occupy Everywhere’ movement represented was a refusal of the status quo that in itself would be sufficient justification of today’s event. Saying ‘no’ is a necessary precondition for any change, a negation a million times more progressive – and, for that matter, a million times less utopian – than the liberal insistence that somehow the world will just muddle through its current problems entirely unchanged.

The demands for ‘Occupy Everywhere’ to put forward a manifesto are largely hypocritical, given the entire absence of solutions to the global economic crisis coming from mainstream politicians or pundits. Yes, the movement needs to develop a program but that will take time — and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about acknowledging that.

But here’s the thing. More than anything, Occupy Melbourne consisted of people talking to each other about political alternatives. There were stalls all across the square, representing every tendency on the far Left. But it wasn’t all just the usual suspects. What was remarkable was how many new people were there, reading and talking and debating about political ideas, in a way that simply doesn’t happen to most people in day-to-day life.

Naturally, there were cranks: people touting perpetual motion machines over the open mic or handing out photocopied tracts about the Rockefellers or muttering darkly about 9/11 truth.

But so what? That’s inevitable when you open up for debate, particular given the erosion of the Left milieu. Lots of ideas get raised and, initially at least, many of them are loopy. What’s important is the process. Discussion’s got to start somewhere, and once it’s underway, there’s no telling where it will end.

Besides, for every wild-eyed tinfoil hatwearer in the square today, there were scores of ordinary people – most of them young – engaged in good-humoured discussions about the mess we’re in and how we might get out of it. Though the city was crawling with police – on horses, in cars, on bikes and in every capacity possibly – the event was entirely peaceable, as much a festival as a traditional rally. Under the circumstances, the organisers did a remarkable job.

It’s easy to snark on Twitter or Facebook, to justify your own apathy with half-witted cracks about anti-corporate protesters who – gasp! – buy things from corporations (a jibe about as moronic as denouncing campaigners against world hunger for continuing to eat).

But what took place today is, perhaps, a beginning. It’s certainly not an end.

What happens next?

It’s hard to know how many protesters will stay the night, nor what the numbers will be like by Monday. There’s all sorts of tensions simmering at Occupy Melbourne: about the next step, about the involvement of political parties, about the decision-making process, about relations with the police and so on. Notably, the Max Brenner protest that took place this afternoon looked quite different to the Occupy Melbourne crowd, suggesting that the integration of the existing Left with the newer activists might prove somewhat ticklish.

Again, that’s inevitable, just as it’s inevitable that there will be flare-ups and arguments.

Will these be resolved? Who knows?

We need to be honest that the Australian Left has been on the backfoot for a long time now and so this new movement – if that’s what it is – starts from a pretty low base.

Nonetheless, the seed of something was sowed today. Let’s see what might grow from it.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Nice post Jeff. Hearing politics on the streets was fantastic. As a young(ish?), black woman though, I felt decidedly out of place in the Occupy Melbourne crowd. How can we get the disadvantaged and marginalised communities of Australia, which are arguably the most f*cked up by many of the policies and politics the Occupy Melbourne crowd gathered to protest against, actively involved?

    As I walked down to Occupy, coincidentally at the back end of the Palestine lot, I heard street-shoppers muttering, laughing about ‘hippies’ and ‘terrorists’. I came fromthe ‘burbs via Melbourne Central, which was jam-packed with youngsters loaded up with Sportsgirl, David Jones and General Pants shopping bags. I counted forty one yellow-vested ‘safety officers’ milling around the shops, and new posters declaring that anyone who disrupted business or disrupted the public for any reason would be removed from the area: corporations paid for Safety Officers to protect consumers against peaceful protestors of corporate greed.

    Unfortunately, there is still the unshakeable mainstream view that the Australian Occupy crowd are nose-ringed, dread-locked, bare-footed anarchist far-lefties with no real grasp of politics and a hidden agenda of inciting riots.

    • I’ve been to quite a few protests and the like, and I’ve never before seen the numbers of ethnic minorities, queers, disabled people, women and people of all varieties who’ve attended as I did yesterday. There’s an obvious bias, as in all things, and having a solid reachout to our respective groups is an important thing, but I think its off to a good start.

      As a disabled transsexual lesbian, I know what it is to be dumped from the political process, and to feel the general cynicism of anything that comes along, and I think that work must be done, largely by word of mouth, to make it known that we are not some fashionable hip new club, but that we’re ALL disillusioned with the system, and we’re looking for real opportunities and alternatives for all of us.

      • “As a disabled transsexual lesbian, I know what it is to be dumped from the political process, ….”

        Non sequitur!

  2. Yeah. I undersand the same issue — about whiteness, I mean — came up in OWS. But perhaps it’s inevitable in the early phases of a campaign. Hopefully, if it persists, it will become broader, drawing not only people from marginalised communities but also folks from the suburbs.

    • I had a ball today, and I think the really important facet was face-to-face communication.

      There are a plethora of fora for Lefties on the web now- but like many, I spend precious little time having these conversations in person. Instantly, isolation is reduced, and cooperation is propelled forward.

      Being a 2 hour trip from Melbourne, I hope today is not the only day I get to spend Occupying.

    • Compared to a lot of rallies that I’ve been to, I thought today was quite diverse. And I understand there has been greater diversity at Wall Street than was initially claimed (as reported in the cross-post we had earlier this week).

      But yes, there were a number of groups not yet represented. Can’t wait to see what the next week brings!

  3. I agree with pretty much everything in this article. I think there was a great atmosphere and organisers have done an amazing job. I think the first few days are going to be hard. There is pressure to come up with an agenda. There is the danger of the movement diluting. There is the risk of the debate being hijacked by one group or another. There’s a lot to debate, negotiate, and work out. But so far they have done a great job.

    I also, think that as the days go by more people will join. This is what’s happened everywhere else. The important thing is not to lose focus and to reach out to other people – because there are many more who should be there.

  4. Nice right-up. A few of us there are not quite so young any more as well ;)

    My first thought on the way to the city square by train today was the utter contrast between the reason why I was travelling there, and the many people I was sharing the train carriage with all dressed up on their way to the races.

    Overall, the thing that struck me the most about this gathering in the Melbourne City Square today was firstly – the welcoming atmosphere where people were able to meet and TALK, and secondly – that for the first time I have seen (with a VERY few exceptions), all these until now diverse protest groups with apparently varying agendas DID appear to finally be getting the hang of the fact that they core issues underlying just about ALL their problems are really one and the same.

    Many, many of the more marginalised in our community still missing, though…

    We do live in a globalised community now, and any issue so strongly affecting the USA must also reverberate increasingly in Australia also.

    I hope these diverse groups will still grow, be able to maintain their unity and remain PEACEFUL, no matter what. Time will tell on that one.

    At least the many police stationed all around had the grace to by and large look decidedly uncomfortable and out of place.

    • The video leaves me with the impression that this was a bunch of Americans protesting about American issues… in Melbourne.

        • That the video leaves me with that impression is an indisputable fact. It does.

          Maybe the videographers could interview Australians talking about Australian issues at an Australian event next time.

      • What we will need!
        Is a bucket load of energy!
        A bucket load of commitment!
        And a bucket load of chicken!

        Idiot with dreadlocks, you have the right to a vote. That’s your say.

  5. I wasn’t there today – should’ve been – but somehow after heaps of movements and protests that inspired hope that change was coming if only we stood united, I’ve become disheartened, cynical and disappointed. I don’t do protests anymore.

    But then I read this post – ‘… what took place today is, perhaps, a beginning. It’s certainly not an end’- and watch the videos and realise I wish I’d been there after all.

    So thanks to all who were there today keeping hope for a different world alive.

  6. I was there today and I was blown away by how friendly and engaging everyone was. I talked with many people, some who I got along with and some who I didn’t, but it was fantastic to have a common ideology and a place for everyone to come together.

    Your review was spot on and I agree with your analysis. I wasn’t quite brave enough for the elements tonight but I’ll be back tomorrow.

    And regarding people who bag the movement for not having enough focus they need to understand that this is just the start, everyone is still finding their feet. Now that I’ve experienced today, have a better understanding of what is happening and have had a few hours to think about things I feel better placed in how I can contribute to the movement.

    Kia kaha #OccupyMelbourne,
    Benet

  7. I’ve found it frustrating that the Australian media (and most people in the actual movement it seems) think that today’s events are a simple copycat of the US Occupy Wallstreet action. (ie: “Wallstreet actions spread to Australia”) Yet the global callout to ‘Take your Square’ on Oct15th was first put out back in May in inspiration of the occupations of the Indignant in Spain, and after Greece and Israel began mass occupations. Adbusters, separately, called for a Sept 17th Occupy Wallstreet which jumped the gun so to speak. OWS adopted much from La Puerta del Sol, including the general assemblies. And in turn the resilience and attention gained by OWS – boosted today’s global ‘Take your Square’ moment in history. Its all merged now – but the misreading of today as inspired by OWS alone is a media simplification that undermines the truly global nature of October 15th…
    http://15october.net/

    • Exactly my sentiment. I came to the site by mid day on the first day, so I might have missed it, but there was NO mention of La Puerta del sol, Arab Spring, Greece occupation and so on… it seemed that the whole vibe was in solidarity with OWS.

      Strange.

  8. Great to hear and see these accounts of what’s going on in Melbourne. In past week I’ve seen occupations in both Austin TX and Boston MA here in America. The chance to mix with, talk to and gather information from diverse occupiers was quite humbling – certainly put any skepticism about an ill-considered grab bag agenda to bed. There are very distinctive elements at the sites here in the US, including the anger directed specifically at banks, and the moral high ground given to veterans which is striking to these Australian eyes, but as Jeff and other commenters here have noted, the many resonances and points of common ground are more significant than the differences. The openness of engagement with passersby and casual visitors was a really invigorating and encouraging aspect. Lets hope the Melbourne occupation continues in like vein, a mobilisation for new ideas and alliances, the start of something.

  9. You’re right Jeff – this is the start of something new. The occupation movement is different and it will change the world. We just don’t know how yet.

    I think there are same basic principles in terms of the way that the occupations are organised which means they will ultimately lead to change – I’ve written a longer article here http://wp.me/pb4Hp-5u

  10. Great article Jeff, I think it’s great that so many different people have found a voice again. It was a different style, model to what many of us have become accustomed to but we need to do things differently otherwise we wont get were we want to be. I hope that people take inspiration of there own power when individuals work together. Hopefully we can all learn from each other and engage in a creative movement again.

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  12. good post jeff. I like the ending with its hope and possibilities. ‘Nonetheless, the seed of something was sowed today. Let’s see what might grow from it.’

  13. Just speaking to the numbers, although I agree that there would have been about a thousand in the square at any given time, there was a lot of people flowing in and out over the course of the day. I’d say closer to 3,000 people participated on day one, but not all at the same time. There was a bit of a spike when Socialist Alternative rammed their Max Brenner march into the square, which struck me as a nasty bit of showboating (and also brought a lot of mounted police.)

    • Well, I joined the Brenner protest, which began in the square, followed by speeches at the State Library, then marched on Max Brenner, before returning to the Square. Not really sure what you’re implying.

    • If this occupation is about seeking equity, justice and change then it would be odd indeed if the Socialist Alternative didn’t march into the square

  14. Pingback: Return of the Son of Occupy Melbourne | slackbastard

  15. One of the interesting things is the way that the ‘occupy’ movement contains – like the anti-corporate globalisatio movement of a decade ago – a kind of systemic critique. Obviously there’ a massive diversity of opinions about what that might imply. But in this sense it’s already more radical than many ‘single issue’ campaigns. Indeed, the occupy movement seems to be pretty much a direct continuation of the anti-corporate globalisation movement after a decade hibernation. Whether it will grow the the same size is yet to be seen, but I suspect many of the same debates will be played out in the near future.

  16. I agree Rjurik about the ‘occupy’ movement containing a systemic critique and a resurgence of the anti-corporate globalisation arguments. And it certainly is a beginning in the sense that these protests are registering in people’s minds. I didn’t get a chance to get into the city but I’ve just come from the shops and overheard three different conversations about them. I hope the sit-in aspect works, although the clashes with police in New York, Rome and other cities make such an idea more difficult, or perhaps not. Perhaps more people will be drawn to participate because of difficulty, adversity. Calm solidarity is a powerful agent. Long calm solidarity is even better.

    • Another question is where the focus of any resurgence of radicalisation will end up. The anti-corporate globalisation movement essentially forum-hopped, which, had it not been derailed by 9/11, would have run against its own limits at some stage anyway (perhaps it already was). Where does the occupy movement turn? What is its focus?

  17. Irrespective of what happens with this particular demo, the worldwide response is yet another reminder that neoliberalism has never had any popular support. Any time there’s a hint of an alternative, people flock to it.

  18. you are al a bunch of spoilt kids complaining that boo hoo you have to pay rent and stuff. Get a grip. PS at Jeff, I think your comments about whiteness are appalling and offensive.

    • Jefferson, your very white comment about jeff’s comments about whiteness regarding my non-white observations of the colour of the protesters are appalling and offensive to my browness.

  19. “Irrespective of what happens with this particular demo, the worldwide response is yet another reminder that neoliberalism has never had any popular support.”

    Surely you are joking… Liberal/Nationals and ALP both generally embrace neoliberalism. If neoliberalism lacks popular support, why can’t its opponents (protectionists, socialists, greens etc) ever get more than 15% of votes.

  20. Let’s hope the outrage begins to crystalize some demands with sufficient penetration to produce fundamental change.

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  22. I wish I’d been able to get in on Sat because Sunday was rather depressing. But I’m keeping an eye and I’ll return. Maybe I’ll move to Sydney.

  23. Bravo for your honesty, Trish. I feel rather the same so I am grateful for the people who are feeling a little less disheartened than we both are … and let’s hope that it is an opportunity for our reheartening :)

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  26. Occupy Melbourne has been really lucky to coincide with the installation of the Big Babies, which most people seem to be reading as a metaphor for the banks or the 1% or whatever, but which i think work better as a representation of the occupiers.

    They could equally be seen as predatory dependence (finance) or weaponised innocence (occupiers), but it’s more encouraging to have the latter towering over the assembly.

  27. Something everyone should stop & consider for at least one moment is that there is really two \occupations\ going on in city square. During the day you tend to get the factions & the poseurs playing politics & pushing the agendas of those all too well known \lefty\ affiliations.
    At night, after the \general assembly\ (whose claim to \real consensus\ is a joke just quietly) those 99% predominantly white, middle class & educated/indoctrinated wannabees all go home to their comfortable suburbs.
    That’s when the Real Stuff starts to happen. How many of you have been there at 3am when the truly disenfranchised & desperate start to drift in looking for a cuppa & some toast, or just a warm blanket & some to sleep out of the wind. How many of those of you who posted here have stood talking to these people who have probably never used the internet of heard of Overland? Whose wildly tangential minds are filled with really the most extraodinary & colourful thoughts about what is wrong with the world & what could be done to fix it.
    It’s really pretty interesting stuff & if it’s far removed from your comfort zone it could only be good for you to come & spend some time learning the kind of skills you can’t learn in a university & or find outlined in a pdf.
    Go on – I dare you!
    First and foremost it needs to be remembered that what ever it is that is happening at city square – it’s happening \on the street\. And the street never sleeps.

  28. Hi :) I’m surprised you felt that way, to be honest, it’s a big judgement of the people there in your post. I noticed that you went from assuming you would be judged for your appearance to judging others for theirs. Trust me… you are more than welcome. I am a white girl, I suppose, and I could try and claim how many ‘dark skinned’ people are there but …honestly, I didn’t even bother looking, counting, taking notice, because it really isn’t the point. Same goes with nose rings, dreadlocks, and dirty socks. Screw the mainstream view. Anyone who walks into the city square will be offered food, a good chat and even clothing regardless. :)

  29. I think the comparisons with the anti-globalisation movement a decade ago a very valid. But I think an important deifference is that a large motivator for the anit-globilsiation movement was opposition in the rich countries to the way capitalism was impacting on the third world (IMF, structural adjustment packages etc). It was largely a third world solidarity movement. I think this movement, especially in the US and Europe is primarily about domestic politics – capitalism at home. I think that makes it much more exciting in one sense.

  30. No use tossing off at commentators observing the differences in the economic situation between here and the US – the observation is entirely valid. That’s not to denounce local activists in any way – sh*t needs saying, and doing. But they’ll be lonely doing it.

    There just isn’t the decay and despair here to fire psychological motors across a broad swathe of the populace as exists there (or in parts of Europe). Unless and until stuff ruptures here in a big way, and the safety net frays entirely, the protests will remain to most marginal.

    In the meantime, why not have a crack at articulating a list of demands? Here’s three for kicks:

    Proportional rep at the least in the lower house.
    End negative gearing
    Scrap mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

    ta.

  31. Sad that the police felt the need to break up the protests. The vast majority of people I encountered there were friendly and chatty and good-natured, so I have no idea why the authorities should feel the need to yank the public out of a public square

    I did meet one of those cranks passing out 9/11 DVD’s and talking about 9/11 truth. “Google WTC7″, one of them said. I later did and it shows a 47 story building falling down. “It was never hit by a plane!” one of them said, “So it must have been explosives! Lots of explosions were heard there on the day”. This sort of lunacy really makes me laugh. The causes of the building collapses have been amply explained time and again, with no need for conspiracy theories. The testimony of these three firefighters who were there on the day should make anyone laugh at the assertions of those conspiracy theorists. They certainly made me chuckle.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO1ps1mzU8o

    • Daniel
      You would have to be credulous, mabey even a looney to believe the official (G W BUSH)story.
      Rather than chuckling (like Looney)do some reading and thinking.

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  33. It’s appalling what Lord Doyle has done but i tend to agree with Khola Tobasco about the makeup of the protest. What i observed round 6pm last Saturday was mainly earnest young guys in their twenties who no doubt have got the rhetoric down pat. But they never will have experienced homelessness – just, possibly, a touch of real disadvantage brought on by being a student which will be allievated when 99% of them are absored into the corporate culture in a few years time. As a fiftyish activist, what do i need to learn from those guys?

    Heard an interview on Geraldine Doogue’s RN show this morn with an american author of a book about the widespread social inequity of US society which is wiping out whole towns. That mass disaffection fed into the Occupy Wall Street movement. The enfeebling reality of being unable to feed your family or even to house them is akin to what those of us who’ve worked in the homelessness sector see and are unable to solve. There’s no doubt that exorbitant private rents and the absence of public housing are creating a sizeable underclass here as well. But I don’t really sense that the genuinely disempowered form the bulk of this week’s Collins street banner-wavers. Though Khola Tobasco has witnessed the hard edge of life in that gritty pre-dawn scene.

    Personally my non-work hours are currently being spent fighting a legal attempt to stop a few of us speaking out about the realities of public housing transfers to the private, quasi NGO housing sector, (jeff, i’ll be in touch on that one, you won’t believe how easy it is to muzzle free speech, fair comment and honestly-held opinions). So my protesting is not aimed at some amorphous, capitalist cloud. It’s focused on battling and exposing some very, very dirty tricks of Government and the interest groups they fund, or one in particular. Yes, people do that sort of thing all the time but there’s a story out there about why homelessness isn’t abating and another one about how easy it is to gag soft targets who can’t afford expensive lawyers.

  34. They should demand to ban corporate political donations (and limit individual donations to a reasonable amount).

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