I got to Occupy Sydney at about 8pm on Monday night and stayed for about an hour and a half. I jotted down some things on a pad of post-its, and took a few photos. I went feeling sceptical about it, and didn’t leave feeling particularly reassured.
When I was there, there were about five cops. Evidently, they don’t expect much trouble from the protesters. There were lots of cops there when they first took the tents and stuff occupiers wanted to sleep in, but apparently they maintained a low presence Sunday night too. Refreshingly, casual interactions between protesters and cops that I saw were generally pretty friendly and positive. The cops, however, did seem to be on a mission to restrict and harass the protests as possible. When it was raining, they prevented protesters from going under shelter. Presumably, the hope was this would discourage protesters, who would go home or give up. But that failed. When I was there, there were about 50 occupiers. I was told there were as many as 2000 on Sunday, but there seems to a hardcore of about 50 who sleep there and stick it out.
That said, the weather should get better over the coming week, so at least rain won’t be an obstacle.
As well as trying to make sleep uncomfortable, I saw the standard police harassment in action. One dude (I won’t say his name) with long white hair and a broad hat made a big sign (pictured below), which he placed prominently, to the cheers of the crowd. After a while, the cops quietly complained and word got around to the General Assembly (or whatever they call it).
They discussed at the meeting how they should respond – perhaps take it down quietly and then decide if they wanted to defend the sign, and how that could be done. That was approved. But then someone suggested we hear from the sign-maker. He declared, to general cheers, that it was his sign and he was happy to take responsibility for it and he would go and talk to the cops. He and a witness went to speak to the cop I suppose was in charge. I wanted to listen, but he said he wanted it to be private, with what I think can only be described as the arrogance of someone who knows they have power and don’t expect that power challenged. Another young woman wanted to listen too, but the sign-maker chose to chat privately with the cop, accompanied by his one chosen witness.
When I rejoined him, it turned out he had agreed to remove the sign. Apparently the police had said it was dangerous in some way or other (perhaps it had too much wood!). So a group of about four of us picked it up to take it away. Instead of taking it away straight away, we smartasses walked around in circles with one guy yelling ‘be careful, this sign is dangerous’. If the sign had been lighter, we might have done that until the cops complained to us, but the sign was heavy so after a few laps we took it to his car.
Walking back I passed a couple of guys heading towards some dude with gray hair taking photos of the offending sign, as well as another two signs left by the car. The occupiers questioned him, wondering about his intent. Gray-hair dude with a camera explained something about a website. I imagined they were worried about ASIO. I mean, it’s impossible to imagine this kind of action not having ASIO infiltrators, and activists should try to make sure the suspicion doesn’t create unhealthy dynamics (on a sidenote – this was not something I saw at Occupy Sydney).
Apologies for the crappiness of my photos. This was the General Assembly, which have been influenced by the procedural style of Occupy Wall Street. They use the fluttery fingers thing. I forgot the specifics, but people were happy to explain.
The process seems rather unwieldy. When anarchists had a counter-APEC summit, they would break into little affinity groups and one person would report back with the concerns of each little group. It was much faster and would save a lot of time. At Occupy Sydney they seem to have working groups on issues, but not affinity groups, so the whole assembly winds up debating a great deal of issues. Very little of the debate was of much significance in the hour and a half I was there. The group had not yet, for example, decided on what it stood for.
One of my radical friends had wondered why Occupy Sydney had protested the Reserve Bank, so I spoke to someone from the information area (who represented just himself, because Occupy Sydney doesn’t want to get branded with views reached without consensus). He explained – without much interest in any opinions I may or may not have had about capitalism or any part of our economic system – that he attributed a significant part of inequality, if not all of it, to the Reserve Bank. He considered lending money with interest to be a great evil (and cited a movie I haven’t seen –The World Plus Five Percent, or something like that). I asked him what he thought the solution was – abolishing banks? Abolishing money? He was more interested in persuading me that interest rates on loans are wrong. This then somehow proceeded to his view that inflation is also a great evil. I think he does not imagine many within the financial elite are equally averse to inflation.
I elected to rejoin the assembly rather than try to edge in a question.
The Assembly did not dress in accord with one particular subculture; generally, they looked like ordinary uni students. I think they were mostly undergraduate age, although there were some middle-aged folk too. I think maybe 70 percent was white and maybe 60 percent male (this is tentative as I did not count).
The General Assembly did not, while I was there, canvass an issue like ‘What do we want?’ One person asked that the group support her protest the next day for a more progressive USyd Political Economy program, for which there was not a lot of enthusiasm. Another speaker stressed the importance of maintaining Occupy Sydney. Another issue was about the slogan ‘We are the 99 percent’. One person suggested supporting Occupy Wall Street. Another argued it should not be about supporting OWS, but rather about supporting occupations so a suitably pro-Occupation slogan was found.
Another speaker stressed the importance of the Occupation’s public image, as well as reaching out to the public with a message. As an anarchist this is unpleasant to say, but it’s true: there’s a group of anarchists here in Sydney who are utterly indifferent to how the public perceives any activism in which they engage. So a couple of them (speaking for a broader group) rejected this concern, arguing that a particular image would repress the plural nature of the group.
There was one loud guy who was a bit aggressive in the group who sometimes yelled. At one point the facilitator was saying something and he yelled at her. A guy sitting near him said ‘respect’ – as in, calling for respect. I’m not sure what the deal with aggro guy was, perhaps he was drunk. A group of guys talked to him and eventually he left. I didn’t think to ask about it but I hope that they have a safer spaces policy (I guess it would be nice if a dialogue with Occupiers could happen in the comments section here).
One debate which occupied the group was whether socialist groups – either Socialist Alliance or Socialist Alternative (I suspect the latter) – should be able to put up their signs and distribute their propaganda. Many others were afraid this would brand the Occupation, and do so in an undesirable manner.
Earlier, another speaker had said it was important that we have fun and be seen to be having fun in order to attract people to the Occupation. Someone else argued that we shouldn’t just appear to be having fun, that we should have a message. Day 3 and no real message yet, nor a person with much idea of what the message should be. There was, however, a leaflet.
The leaflet, rather light on content, states: ‘We are the 99%.’ It goes on: ‘The system is broken’, ‘A better world is possible’, ‘Human need, not corporate greed!’. Oh, and ‘We want to raise awareness and the support of the 99% of ordinary people to reclaim the massive power and wealth unfairly held by the super-rich 1% of individuals and corporations’.
I think talking about the 99 percent in the Australian context of global solidarity is problematic. In America it makes sense to talk about the 1 percent. Joseph Stiglitz, who is no radical, wrote about the immense wealth and power of the top 1 percent.In Australia, we do not have the same class inequality. Protesters here cannot simply steal a US slogan and expect it to resonate here in the same way because our situation is not the same.
It may also be noted – if we talk about the 97.5%, and occupying Australia, this would with perhaps greater justice apply to non-Indigenous Australians. We non-Indigenous Australians could call ourselves the top 2.5%, and talk about the systematic discrimination Australia’s most oppressed minority faces. And I think this is part of the problem of the 99% talk in America – a class that includes 99% of the population includes many who are in many ways privileged. In America, this is not a radical statement at all – it is directed to the particularly obscene wealth inequality there, whilst skirting over the different types of privilege and inequality that are part of their society. Here in Australia, our standard of living is generally much higher.
Here in Australia, we should also talk about the issue of race. In particular: income management. When it was solely targeted at remote Indigenous communities, it was supported across most of the mainstream political spectrum. It’s now being expanded nationally. Here in Sydney it’s being targeted at Bankstown. Perhaps they thought it would be too brazen to start with Redfern. Instead, one imagines the government intends to stigmatise Muslim and Arab communities. I don’t think the Liberals will keep this within narrow racist limits, as the ALP government proposed expanding it nationally, in a non-racist manner. They are giving the Liberals a wonderful stick with which to beat the poor across all Australia: that people on Centrelink don’t deserve to be trusted with public money. This kind of blaming the poor should have shocked Australia, but so far, by targeting it at racial minorities, it has generally slipped under the radar – a fact which should appal us as Australians, and for those who haven’t done enough to cry out against it.
This is not to trivialise big business’ unhealthy influence on Australian democracy. I think that this could be particularly stressed if Occupy Sydney took on the issue of climate change in particular. It wasn’t so many years ago Guy Pearse exposed the Greenhouse Mafia, and what he called its ‘carbon capture’ of the Australian government, the incestuous links between big polluters and government policy makers. Clive Hamilton wrote in disgust that the campaign against the super profits tax was ‘enough to turn anyone into a Marxist’. But perhaps such analysis won’t be as popular among civil society organisations on the left anymore. Pearse, for example, courageously documented how funding compromised progressive NGOs on the issue of climate change.
I would like to be optimistic about Occupy Sydney. But I don’t really think there’s much there to engage the public. To be successful, these kinds of things have to emerge from the kind of thought, engagement and activism which I suspect has been lacking. In my [undesired] opinion, the Occupation is primarily a group of student radicals inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps it will grow in a constructive manner. If it encourages a new generation of activists to become engaged, that would be positive. If it just fizzles out, it would be a shame.