‘Vague protests are vague,’ commented a friend about the Occupy Melbourne protests when I asked her what she thought about them, over a glass of expensive wine at the Courthouse in North Melbourne. But I like the Occupy protests’ ambiguity – it seems to leave space for nuanced stories and creative solutions. If the organisers had a 20-point manifesto, they may not have been able to gather a critical mass, because people would have been too busy arguing over the detail. So the idea is to start a public conversation, build a constituency, and then involve as many people as possible in the solution. Perhaps this is naive and unrealistic. The lack of a clear message has certainly confused and alienated some people for whom it seems too disorganised and uncertain.
So why the protests? My friend suggested that human nature is such that people just want to protest; that they have an inherent need to vent about their respective sources of angst, and to be part of a drama. This is true, I think. I can feel it myself at times, when I’m at a protest. But there are also real issues behind the Occupy movement. As I understand, it’s about inequality, corporate greed, and a lack of democracy; the fact that a minority of people control most of the wealth, and that the majority have little say in the decisions that affect them. As poverty and unemployment increase, the financial institutions responsible for the financial crisis continue to operate with impunity, in many cases being propped up by taxpayers’ funds, money which could have been used to fund public services like schools, hospitals, and public transport.
Another friend who’d been at the Occupy protests in Germany observed that they attracted a broad demographic; families, middle-aged professionals, older people, etc. The Australian protests haven’t attracted the same level of support. Perhaps this is because compared to Germany, we’ve been relatively untouched by the GFC. In my view, our relative wellbeing, combined with a sense of insularity left over from the era when Australia’s physical isolation actually meant something, contributes to Australians’ tendency to trust markets and widespread disinterest in political engagement (to be fair, this is also is also a cynical apathy bred of disappointment, but it’s self-reinforcing, too). So here, the movement has been portrayed as ‘fringe’, and it is, in the sense that it hasn’t attracted much public support.
As is often the case with protests, Occupy Melbourne has mostly attracted the usual suspects, of whom many, if not all, fall into overlapping categories of seasoned activists, socialists, artists, hippies and hipsters. The media has focused excessively on the ‘feral hippy’ or ‘trendy hipster’ appearance of these protesters, reeling off their characteristics in tinny observational pieces – skinny jeans, dreads, Guy Fawkes masks, piercings, youth, students, crazy guys wearing tweed, tattoos – as if to say, how can you take possibly take these guys seriously? It’s true that these subcultural aspects can be alienating. When I heard the crowd at Occupy Melbourne chanting, ‘We’re the 99%,’ part of me wanted to say, ‘Are you serious? You guys are like, the 1%.’ But why stigmatise people for what they wear? Does a protester have to be wearing a suit to be taken seriously?
I’ve heard some people, including left-wingers, say that they can understand the relevance of the protests in US and Europe, but not in Melbourne, because the circumstances are different here. To me, this stems from an outdated insular attitude in which Australia is seen as a separate entity rather than part of an unjust global economy. Anyway, Australia does suffer from the issues of poverty (tried living off Centrelink payments?), political and corporate greed (eg pokies, tax breaks for mining companies, tax breaks for property investors vs little protection for renters), and deteriorating public services (last time you tried to get public dental treatment or get to work on public transport if you live in Templestowe or Altona?) And if you accept that some people are suffering, either here or globally, what’s wrong with protesting in support of them, even if you’re doing OK yourself?
I first encountered the Occupy Melbourne protesters in a CBD shopping arcade walkway. I was carrying a Portmans bag, having unsuccessfully tried to return a dress there. I took a flyer and slipped it into my Portmans bag, deriving a certain pleasure from the irony of this. I intended to go down to the Occupy Melbourne site and check it out, but didn’t make it there until yesterday, when I heard about the forcible eviction of campers in City Square, and associated reports of police brutality. I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes.
It’s unclear who decided to evict the protesters. I originally heard it was an order of Melbourne City Council, but maybe it was just Mayor Doyle, given that councillor Cathy Oke said she didn’t know anything about it and has backed calls for an Ombudsman inquiry into the decision. It’s difficult to imagine that the state government wasn’t involved either. But so far, Doyle has copped most of the blame, and has done himself no favours by writing misleading and incendiary opinion pieces for the Sunday Herald Sun suggesting that the protesters’ camping gear is somehow weapons of war. The opposite of statesmanlike.
There was speculation that the Queen’s visit explained the urgency. Perhaps Doyle, or the state government, didn’t want to give the impression that they couldn’t control their city. But I doubt the Queen would have been overly fussed; she’s probably seen a lot worse in her time.
In any event, it seemed like a sure way to add fuel to the fire and galvanise a protest that had far been small and peaceful, and may have petered out by itself if just left alone. And who cares if it had gone on for a while: the presence of the tents wasn’t exactly cataclysmic for Melburnians. Even the conservative Australian agreed that it was a bad decision.
Turning into Swanston Street from Bourke Street and walking towards the protests, I saw security guards guarding the town hall and lines of police cars parked along Swanston Street. City Square was blocked off with temporary fencing and surrounded by rows of police, including police on horses.
You couldn’t get close enough the square to see what was going on there, but I could vaguely make out that there were still some campers there. A group of protesters stood on the raised part on Collins Street next to the square, with a crowd milling around them.
Apart from the chanting and the protesters’ ‘alternative’ attire, it was hard to distinguish them from observers. Some people looked ‘respectable’, wearing suits etc, and you’d think they were there just to watch, but then they you’d hear them say something sympathetic about the cause. Amongst the protesters, I recognised some good people I knew from the Greens and community organisations I’ve worked with. Lots of people were watching from upstairs office buildings.
Police started pulling protesters out of the square. Some of them were just being walked out, and those that wouldn’t cooperate were carried or dragged. In a way, just the pure brute force of it seemed animalistic. The police had the weapons, and they were bound to win. But the protesters had some kind of a moral power, too, arising out of their vulnerability, sense of being wronged, and belief in the cause(s!).
Previously I thought that being forcibly removed from a protest would bring a sort of glory for a dedicated protester, but on the whole, their faces looked tired, stressed, and humiliated. It was like a parade, with the crowd milling around to watch and the protesters shouting slogans such as ‘The world is watching!’ and ‘We are the 99%’. They were outraged, and I also got the sense that they were to an extent enjoying the drama.
For a time, the outrage was largely directed at police, who copped quite a bit of a abuse from the (very few) rude protesters: a girl twirling around in excitement yelling to her friends ‘Fuck the Police!’ a young guy reminding the policemen of their working class origins – ‘You are the poor working class but you are standing up for the rich!’ – and a particularly unpleasant older man with a hard face, yelling in a sandpapery voice, ‘Go and tell your wives about this you filthy pigs’ (never mind that quite a few of the police officers were women) and ‘You Nazi fascists!’ At this point I got pissed off and told the younger guy (I was too scared by the older one), that the police were just carrying out orders: what were they meant to do, refuse to take orders and risk losing their job? His simplistic reply was that it ‘takes a certain kind of policemen to be a protester.’
I was directly facing a line of police officers, whose faces displayed something like contempt at the abuse. And it struck me how the bad behaviour of a few protesters or policemen can so easily solidify conflict between the two groups. Of course, conflict’s pretty much inevitable anyway, when heavy-handed tactics are used to get people to do something against their will. But putting the focus on police/protester conflict constricted and simplified the narrative: it was no longer about a lack of democracy or gap between rich and poor, but simply police vs protesters.
And then protesters then moved to occupy the intersection of Collins and Swanston streets. I think they had been forced away from their previous position, but it was hard to tell what had happened. A line of police officers on horseback moved into the intersection to force the crowd back. It got messy. People were shouting. All of a sudden there was a person on the ground with his shirt rolled up to his neck, and a person being trampled by the horse. A mass of people, many of whom hadn’t previously engaged with the conflict, rushed into the fray; why, I’m not sure, but apart from curiosity, I sensed that there was also some concern for the people who were being hurt.
Even if you tried to get close, it was very difficult to tell what was actually happening and who initiated the conflicts between horses and people But given that the policemen were pushing the crowd back using the threat of violence (being trampled by the horses), conflict and collision were pretty much unavoidable. The police officers looked really stressed, and their horses pawed the ground as the policemen pulled them back. I could feel my own heart beating too; partly from fear about things getting out of control, but also from excitement.
It was an interesting intellectual experience, observing the way people move in crowds and how, regardless of individual police officers’ benign intentions, provocative police tactics tend to escalate conflict in a crowd. One of my friends directed me to an article about the psychology of crowds at a European football game when subjected to inappropriate policing. The article recounted research carried out by the United Kingdom Home Office in the early 2000s which showed that, when fans witnessed police tactics they perceived as excessively heavy-handed: ‘ “non-violent” social identity appeared to change such that conflict became more acceptable, “conflictual” fans were more likely to be seen as common in-group members and some fans actually sought to provoke and engage in “disorder”.’ The article’s obtusely written, but you get the picture: people are provoked when they witness behaviour they think is unfair, even if they weren’t involved in the conflict before.
By the time I left the protesters had fully occupied the square and were sitting there with their loudspeakers, with a few people walking around offering fruit.
As usual, some religious/spiritual people took the opportunity to pitch their message.
I overheard the following comments throughout the rest of the day:
‘Did you walk through the protest? What was it like?’
‘Oh, you know, just a small bunch of people sitting in the middle of Bourke and Swanston wearing ponchos and dreadlocks. Stopping the trams from getting past.’
‘Why do the trams stop? Why don’t they just run over them?
‘Were there any people there?’
‘Oh, not really, just a few observers, most of whom were just going to and from their jobs. They actually had jobs to go to; they were actually gainfully employed. Unlike the protestors.’
‘They don’t have any message really, do they? They just want to destroy all corporations.’
‘The funniest thing is they’re calling for the downfall of capitalism but most of them are carrying iPhones or getting their coffees from Starbucks.’
Lots of people complained about disruption to their commuter routes, and I’m sure it was bloody annoying, but the fact is that if the police had never intervened, the protesters wouldn’t have been pushed out into the intersection, and trams wouldn’t have been stopped. I also wonder what’s so virtuous about being ‘gainfully employed.’ Really, is there anything so special about carting yourself off to a dead end job, which may or may not be doing society any good? Is making money any more virtuous than studying, playing music, or getting involved in activism?
But the most annoying criticism is of the hypocrisy of tech-savvy protesters in using their iphones, or co-opting the corporate system by buying their Starbucks. I mean, they can’t help living in the world! What are they meant to do? Swear off technology altogether? Rip up some of pavement in City Square and build a vegie garden there and a small wood fire for cooking (using only sustainably-sourced wood of course)? Since when was moral purity a prerequisite for activism? Are you not allowed to try to be good if you can’t succeed in being 100% ethical?
One woman I spoke to yesterday seemed particularly upset about the protests; I’m not sure why. ‘I walked past the fruit loops [protesters] when they were camped in City Square and they weren’t violent,’ she said, adding contemptuously, ‘although they looked like they hadn’t washed for a while,’ not considering that it might be hard to find a shower if you’re camping out in the CBD. She went on. ‘The other problem I have with it is that it wasn’t non-violent.’ I was incredulous, pointing out that it was the police who caused the violence. She shook her head. ‘You just need to be really well-organised to have a non-violent protest,’ she said, ‘and they weren’t organised.’
In her view, another problem with the protests was that the Socialist Party were involved, but they weren’t really socialists, they were communists. She explained to me how socialism was different to communism, offering Eastern Europe as an example. I argued that you can’t just discount the cause because you don’t like the groups that join the protests. The solution to that, if you support the cause (not that she did I don’t think), is to join it yourself. ‘I was at a Wikileaks protest’, I started, ‘…and’ – at which point she interrupted, sounding horrified, ‘You were at a Wikileaks protest?’ I gave up, realising that I was fighting on too many fronts.
A younger friend of mine made one of my favourite comments about the protesters. I got the impression that he thinks a lot of it’s quite silly, but he’s pretty smart, and sharp enough to know that there are real issues they’re protesting about. He asked me if I thought the protests were just ferals, or if they had a point. I gave him a convoluted answer. He summed up: ‘OK, so it’s neither category A nor category B.’
Here’s a video. Sometimes it seemed like there were almost as many people taking photos and videos, as there were protesting. But maybe they’re the same thing these days.