Occupy Melbourne: the return

If it achieves nothing else, by locking out all its staff, Qantas has shown why the Occupy movement matters.

Naturally, the usual performing seals will bark and clap their fins in the Murdoch press about how Alan Joyce had no option. He had to crush the union, you see – it’s that old Vietnam logic about destroying the village to save it.

But, if you pardon the obvious pun, that’s not gonna fly with most Australians.

Joyce has, after all, just awarded himself a pay rise of 71 per cent, bringing his remuneration up from $2.9 million to – cough! – more than $5 million a year.

No, it’s not a coincidence, nor just a matter of poor timing. You get the big bucks as a CEO precisely because you’re prepared to push through this kind of bastardy.

That’s how the system works, in Australia as in the US. It’s a feature and not a bug, and it’s why the occupy slogan resonates.

Tonight, Occupy Melbourne has re-established itself in Bowens Lane, on the grounds of what was once the Working Man’s College. That was, of course, an institution created by fundraising from the trade union movement, but that subsequently became the first university to charge up front fees for degrees.

There’s other resonances at the site, too.

In 1842, Judge Willis sent two Aboriginal men, Jack Napoleon Tunermenerwail and Robert Smallboy, to hang on the public gallows on that hill after they took up arms against white settlers. During sentencing, Wills told them: ‘The punishment that awaits you is not one of vengeance but of terror … to deter similar transgressions.’

Occupy Melbourne knows something about terror, too. The attack Robert Doyle unleashed upon the camp in the City Square was also intended to have a deterrent effect, to crack enough heads that people were too scared to come back.

Here’s the thing: it didn’t work.

The march today was bigger than the one last week. The mood felt different, too: more political, less of a carnival, with a sprinkling of union banners (CFMEU, NTEU) among the flags of the Left and the homemade placards.

The Herald Sun, adopting the ‘bored monkey’ response to the protest (fling enough faeces at a wall and hope that something will stick), had warned that an influx of bongo playing hippies would ruin the big day of couples posing for marriage portraits in the park. That didn’t happen – and nor did protesters drown any puppies or pull the wings off passing butterflies.

The General Assembly in the park was serious but remarkably good-humoured, especially given that something of a division seemed to be opening up about tactics. The differences crystallised into three proposals, reflecting different orientations to the police: to march in the Edinburgh Gardens, to stay put or to move to Bowen Lane.

The first plan was predicated on an idea that the authorities might be more tolerant of a camp outside the city, especially since the Edinburgh Gardens were often used for festivals and the like.

The third proposal was about trying to draw in more support: Bowen Lane was nearer to the heart of the city, and closer to a campus and to Trades Hall.

Bowen Lane carried the day, largely when it was announced that the CFMEU had resolved to distribute Occupy Melbourne flyers to members, as well as providing infrastructure for a camp.

Thus the march moved up to RMIT. As of about 5pm, there were several hundred people ensconced in the middle of the campus, debating what to do next.

Irrespective of the outcome, today showed that the movement’s still viable in Australia and that people haven’t been intimidated by the police. Just as importantly, protesters recognise the need to build support, not just through larger crowds, but by making connections with the unions – organisations capable of truly mobilising the 99 per cent.

And, in the context of the Qantas dispute, there’s suddenly a real possibility of the Occupy idea taking root in the unions, even as unionism becomes more relevant for occupiers.

How do you overcome intimidation and police harassment? There’s an old anecdote about Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Henry Thoreau after the latter had been locked up for refusing to pay an unjust tax.

‘Henry, what are you doing in there?’ Emerson asked.

Thoreau famously responded, ‘Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?’

That’s the moment at which a movement takes root: the point at which participation rather than abstention becomes common sense. At that instant, the numbers of police no longer matter.

Obviously, there’s a long, long way to go. Occupy Melbourne is still very small – as, indeed, is Occupy Wall Street.

But, suddenly, you can feel some momentum. Look at Qantas, and then slogans about corporate greed hardly seem so extreme.

In any case, even if the occupations collapse, it’s important to recognise what they’ve already achieved.

Discussing the Spanish Civil War, Octavio Paz noted: ‘Anyone who has looked hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes.’

Occupy Everywhere has given people a taste of hope, at a time when that’s a commodity in short supply. Many of those involved will not be the same again.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Nicely put.

    I like your way with words – and political ‘isms’. No matter how ‘girt by sea’ this island continent may be, there is no way it can, in the end, remain isolated from the pressures being exerted on the rest of this planet.

    The air in China may be so much more polluted than ours – but, in the end – we all breathe the same air. The corporate bosses all march to the same \capitalism applies only to the workers\ tune. We only have 1 planet – this melody line is not sustainable. At some point there will be nothing left from which to create \money on paper\.

    I do not want my children to live to see that day.

  2. From Twitter, it seems like there was a big argument at the end of the day. Can someone explain what that was about?

  3. There were some people who went off to Edinborough Gardens regardless of the decision to move to the State Library (we were facing being moved on under trespass laws at RMIT). Some were very unhappy that we didn’t sit in and face off the cops, because why should they have the right to move us on? Sentiment I sympathise with, but I think at this point it was wiser to avoid another big street battle.

    Others were unhappy because of the group leaving to go to Edinborough Gardens against the majority decision. When we got to State Library, numbers were dwindling and only a few tried to stay the night (good on em, I’m already on the verge of getting sick, so I scarpered). There is another General Assembly at 4PM today.

    I think the confusion and recrimination is unnecessary: there were no easy options yesterday. The final decision was to occupy a space without tents and “structures” that are forbidden by council. Not easy, but if followed through with it will keep the Occupy group in a visible public spot which was the reason for people suggesting it. Hopefully the group that went to Edinborough Gardens will recoup their energies and rejoin the main occupation.

  4. It’s still not clear (to me) if the Edinburgh Gardens group are just taking a break and hanging out with their friends, or if they are trying to establish a rival camp and assembly. There was a guy going around the State Library crowd trying to recruit people to Edinburgh Gardens who made it sound very much like the latter–a real split. Regardless, there are a lot of very cranky people. There’s a sense that the Edinburgh faction are trying to avoid having to deal with the organised left groups.

    But considering the looseness of the GA structure (anyone who walks by can participate; there’s no formal membership), I don’t think you can seriously talk about a “split”. If people had independently tried to set up a local camp in their suburb, it wouldn’t have been contentious. The GA probably would have welcomed it and issued a statement of solidarity. If there end up being two assemblies–a chilled out assembly in the suburbs, and a confrontational assembly getting chased from site to site in the CBD–I don’t see that as a huge blow.

    Tonight’s assembly will be interesting. I hope there are detailed reports, as I can’t go and it’s been a while since GA minutes have been uploaded to the main website.

  5. It seems like some pretty serious divisions have opened up over the last few days. Many of the issues have been simmering for a while, which was why we tried to open up a debate thread here.

    It’s now more important than ever to have those arguments publicly. Disagreements are inevitable in any movement. What matters is how they’re deal with.

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