I have been involved in the Occupy Sydney camp, and along with a significant portion of my friends, have been extremely dissatisfied with the media coverage. To make it worse, the ‘individual’ (and I use the term loosely, perhaps I should say ‘socialist party’) spokespeople representing the movement have done a mostly terrible job of it. This is my attempt to bring forward some very important details that have been lacking.
Culture of entitlement
First amongst the common criticisms of the movement has been that we are spoilt brats, demanding iPhones and laptops while we are supported by the hard working taxpayer. The Daily Telegraph even went so far as to fabricate a list of demands that we supposedly made for port-a-loos, free parking, electricity and WiFi for our protest. Whilst we were sleeping without shelter under police restrictions, being denied access to public toilets, and fined when we went to find a discrete tree, and charging our phones from a solar panel that we had brought to the protest. We are demanding one thing, and that is the right to live, and to do things for ourselves.The reason we hadn’t already hired a port-a-loo was that the police had told us they would confiscate it if we tried, they attempted to confiscate our solar panel also, but it was rescued. Where the true culture of entitlement can be found of course is amongst the targets of our occupation (the banks) and those trying to shut us down (politicians and police). We are not alone in being criticised by people who could more accurately direct their vitriol towards themselves. On the back of a huge scandal where UK MPs claimed thousands upon thousands of pounds for hotels, furniture, rugs and toasters, the same MPs are criticising mostly poor black males who stole things such as a bottle of water and a loaf of bread. The very thing we are protesting against is this culture of entitlement that exists amongst the elite of our society. Even the powerhouse of the Australian economy, mining, is born of the sense of entitlement that our generation appears to have to the limited and finite resources on this planet. And what are we asking for? Just that the authorities tolerate a hundred or so citizens occupying a few dozen square metres of their own city.
Next they say that everyone has just come for the thrill of the protest. This is an old worn criticism, and a classic case of projection. If we were professionals, I would certainly be demanding a pay rise right now. The proponents of the professional protester line claim that the diversity of messages amongst us is a sign that we don’t have any cause to be there. We reply that we have so many causes because the system is so broken. Refugee rights, mineral exploitation, indigenous rights, imperialism, broken prison system, extreme inequality on a local and world scale are just some of the issues that have been raised in the movement, and with good cause. These are not the complaints of people who have nothing to complain about, they are all issues that affect the lives of countless across the planet. Many of these issues are about advocacy for people who suffer in ways that we do not. Yet if we are to be united (and this is the spirit of the ‘99%’ slogan as I understand it) with all the oppressed people of the world, then these are burning issues that are killing our brothers and sisters as we speak. What people mean when they say professional protester, is that this person has put advocacy for change before their own capacity for income generation. The line is merely the scream of cognitive dissonance inside the head of someone who cannot understand anyone ever putting other people’s interests in front of their career prospects.
But Australia is rich!
However apparently everyone in Australia is doing okay, so why should we protest here? Maybe other people in the world are suffering, but surely we of the sun-burnt country have no excuse to complain. Well regardless of the fact that the world extends beyond our borders, there are certainly intense problems with structural inequality in Australia. It will suffice to consider only the plight of the traditional owners and inhabitants of this country. Only 48% of indigenous Australians aged 15-64 were employed in 2009; Aboriginal people make up 26% percent of the prison population in Australia, but only 2.5% of the population; trachoma, and infectious eye disease is found in up to 25% of aboriginal children, it has been eliminated completely in many third world countries; because of high pay rates in the mining industry, rent in remote communities such as Port Hedland, ranges from $1,000‑$2,000 per week, leading to severe rates of homelessness (see www.creativespirits.info).
Or consider the case closer to home, I am a homeless person who is also a student, because I cannot afford to rent a house in Sydney and study full time. I receive $190 per week in AusStudy payments, yet rent for a single room in a share house ranges from $175-$320 per week.
I am not the only homeless person to be involved in this protest, my entire household of ten people were evicted from an abandoned building just two days before the occupation began. There have been a number of homeless from around the Martin Place area (where Occupy was located), who have come to stay with us also. It is an important point to highlight that the laws used to evict us are laws designed to hassle homeless people.
Capital does not like to be confronted by its own ugliness, and will always attempt to sweep it under the carpet. Yet if there is no right in this country for people to sleep without having paid for a space, then there is no right to simply exist unless one participates in the moneyed system. This becomes very problematic for those who oppose the effect that capitalist society has on the planet. Not to mention unjust, given that only a touch over 200 years ago this country was stolen from a people who had no word for money.
When questioned in one radio interview the day after the eviction, one of the self proclaimed ‘organisers’ of the occupation was at pains to justify how he and others in no way resisted arrest during the protest. This was despite having linked arms, as I and many others did in an attempt to stand our ground and protect our things. I resisted being moved on, and I resisted being arrested. And I am proud of it. I broke no laws in being where I was, when Mark Murdoch, the police spokesperson was asked what law we broke in being there, he could only say that our ‘protection’ under the statutory offenses act had expired. That is akin to saying that we need protection through prior police approval for any act that might have some political point, no matter how benign or harmless. The movement in Tahrir square, supported apparently by the entire mainstream media, involved the burning of police vehicles, polices stations and government buildings. It was also subjected to extreme police brutality.
In context, the most recent police raid came at 5am, after many people had only gone to bed at 3am, due to police harassment the previous night. Prior to the raid, police had been telling us that as long as we weren’t putting up shelter or cooking on site, that we weren’t breaking any laws. They announced over a megaphone while we were sleeping, that we needed to leave the area. We had been living in that space for eight days, and had many personal items to collect. This could only result in conflict. There is no way that a group of 60 or more people can wake up, pack away all their things and leave in five minutes on barely any sleep. The only choice for most people was to try to stand their ground while others packed away. The reason police chose to move in at 5am was clearly because there would be no observers from the media, and camera footage would be obscure due to the darkness. Police claims that the top end of Martin Place were busy during the day, especially on a Sunday, are ludicrous.
A simple Google image search for ‘Martin Place’ is enough to confirm this.
People were punched in the face, had their heads smashed against the ground, were stepped on and pain techniques were applied liberally. Screams filled the air during the eviction. Both individual police and those who planned this operation must be regarded as nothing more than petty thugs. The scale of course did not come anywhere near to matching Egypt, Tunisia or Greece, but only because it was not perceived as a threat on the same scale.
Police have however managed to steal a large amount of protesters’ possessions. My laptop is gone, as have others’ phones, laptops, banners, furniture, tents, books, and many other valuable things. Some of this was compacted and sent to landfill, and other items have been lost after entering the police bureaucracy and disappearing. This is just another feature of the deliberate tactic of making legitimate protest so inconvenient that people will get sick of it and go back to comfortable silence.
These events can only radicalise already marginalised people. We have learnt about how the world works, and how the machinery of state oppression crushes and co-opts movements that challenge it. Our only option is to keep fighting. We will either be marginalised and crushed, or gain strength, numbers and support to become a real force for change. One thing is certain, we are not going to go away. Get used to us.
This article was originally written for and published in Sedition.