Occupy Sydney Shut Down – But Not Over


Just 10 days ago, Martin Place was its usual self. A short-lived transformation took place on October 15 — only to be demolished by police yesterday morning.

For eight days, Martin Place was a site of community discussion and protest against the influence of big business over democracy. In the centre of the campsite was a whiteboard, and on it was a daily plan. People were welcome to add to the calendar, and they did. On Tuesday a Spanish conversation class was organised. Others held a workshop on civil disobedience tactics, and a planning meeting for refugee rights campaigners. Each day, a General Assembly of all participants — a rally and decision-making meeting — took place at 6.30pm. A long row of trestle tables served as the key organising point. On it were stacks and stacks of donated food. A yoga instructor donated dozens of mats for people to sleep on, and bottled water. Groups of strangers sprawled across sleeping bags, strumming guitars and debating politics in a manner that was both passionate and welcoming.

Among the people I met were Tyrone, a young guy living at a Salvation Army emergency housing project, and a middle-aged woman who brought over trays of cupcakes left over from her aunt’s wake. She said her aunt used to visit asylum seekers in Villawood detention centre, and would have been proud to support the demo.

A few homeless people welcomed the safety and company of the Occupy campsite — their life experience surely allows them to understand best the extremes of a city in the throes of a housing crisis and which revolves more around commerce than the needs and desires of its citizens.

Suited office workers often looked on, bemused, and some engaged with the protesters. Five stiff, awkward police officers loitered on the sidelines. No one paid them much attention until Sunday morning.

Even during the 1000-strong demonstration on Saturday, a heavy police presence shadowed what turned out to be a party of carnivalesque rebellion, replete with a sausage sizzle, live music from the Riff Raff Marching Band and bubble machines. Police horses towered menacingly and photographers were forcefully pushed away by officers.

Then came Sunday. The until-now peaceful occupation was raided by riot police — many without name badges — at 5am when the CBD was empty and the media asleep. Unlike Friday’s Melbourne assault, campers were given only a few minutes warning. Police rummaged and through many protesters’ belongings. Forty people were arrested and four were charged. Otherwise, there was the unprovoked brutality that many activists expect: bloody noses, elbows to the neck and the like.

Already, demonstrators have regrouped, deciding to build a mass Occupy protest on Saturday 5 November that will mobilise union and community support.

Homemade signs that adorned Martin Place revealed the diversity of Occupy participants’ concerns: "The government exists, but democracy is dead", "Australia Pty Ltd", "Stop Coal Seam Gas", and my favourite: "Excuse the inconvenience, we’re trying change the world".

These hand-wrought messages suggest that Occupy is not merely a stand-alone demonstration or delayed response to the corporate greed that led to the global financial crisis, but part of a longer continuum of social justice. It unites those who are concerned with corporate influence over democracy, the treatment of asylum seekers, justice for Aboriginal people, sexual equality and so on. These groups no longer see themselves as disparate minorities, but as the 99 per cent.

Arguments that Occupy is too multi-issued and leaderless may have some value. The movement is unlikely to develop if it merely parrots the ideas of its Wall St parent. But if Occupy can connect the dots between the widening chasm of global inequality and corporate dominance over democracy with domestic issues, the movement could gain traction.

What do I mean by that? Could Occupy target the corporate shadow behind Australia’s detention centres, Serco, a government contractor that profits from detaining asylum seekers? Could Occupy unveil the corporations that are profiting from the burgeoning coal seam gas market, or the faceless men behind the mining companies that plunder finite resources with little regard for future energy security?

There’s a feeling that Australia is leaderless. We’re sick of the major parties’ negative tug-of-war point-scoring. We’re tired of politicians habitually breaking their promises and sinking in a quicksand culture of hostile rhetoric and mindless catchphrases. Our already shaky confidence in the commercial media has been exacerbated by the Wikileaks phenomenon and News of the World scandal.

When politicians talk, all most people hear is "blah blah blah". We want news that cuts through spin, and politics without the PR narratives.

That’s what Occupy represents. Will it continue, or will the efforts to destroy the movement succeed?

Arguments that dismiss the Occupy movement’s scope miss the point. And isn’t there something to admire in the efforts to involve more people in the discussion about how to move to a society based less on the motivations of big businesses and unaccountable politicians, and more on an economy that is socially and environmentally sustainable? And despite the attacks on the multi-issued nature of Occupy, the movement has grown to over 900 cities.

The dynamism, youth and spontaneity of Occupy is exciting. However, it’s still unclear whether Occupy is a mere solidarity protest with those who are really doing it tough in the United States, or whether it will grow into an ongoing movement with local roots.

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