I step off the night bus onto Elizabeth Street and head east up Martin Place toward the hospital.
As I pass the news-stand and hop up the steps I can see some figures standing around a collection of tarpaulins, glistening in the drizzle underneath the streetlight. I know that there are people sleeping under the tarps and some of those still awake have umbrellas.
Glen huddles under his on a camping chair, wrapped in a full length Drizabone, feet bare on the damp concrete, the light from a laptop glowing on his face. Others are standing around him and they glance up to acknowledge me as I approach. It’s half past one on Friday morning, 25 November 2011 — and this is Occupy Sydney.
One of the most common accusations levelled at Occupy by its detractors is that the message of the movement is ambiguous, and in a certain sense this is undoubtedly true.
As it has manifested itself in cities across the world, Occupy has become an inherently diverse collection of individuals, whose political and social views have found common ground in a sentiment, the ambiguous nature of which reflects this diversity in a subtle and complicated way. As such it can tend to feel somewhat overwhelming to theorise about the opinions and ideals which this movement of collective will represents.
As a counterpoint to this clamour of opinion and discourse I offer these observations from my own time spent with Occupy Sydney. Any social movement is a collection of individuals, and sometimes the stories of these individuals can provide some rich insights. The idiosyncrasies and the failings, as well as the strengths and successes of every member of Occupy are revealing.
I check in with Glen to see if there’s been any news since I left on Thursday morning. Apart from finding out that Darren ended up getting bail, there isn’t much to learn. It’s been wet for the last few days and with tents out of the question and places to shelter without getting told to move by the police fast disappearing, the atmosphere is a little bedraggled.
Among the dozen or so of tonight’s occupants, one seems fairly unperturbed by the weather at this point, so I roll a cigarette and start talking to him. Patrick was one of the first people I met at Occupy. Tonight he is wearing his permanently instated National Parks vest over what appear to be a set of light blue hospital pyjamas, a multicoloured beanie and no shoes. He looks and sounds Fillipino Australian but calls himself Aboriginal, the logic behind which is controversial but not completely unsound. "If I were in England" he says "I’d be English. If I was in Italy, I’d be Italian. To say I’m Australian makes about as much sense as saying …" something metaphorical which I can’t recall.
He’s come back to Sydney after a year living at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at Sandon Point, a stint which ended when it burnt down in July this year. Pat’s swagger makes you feel that he is, as he describes himself, a "frontline activist" who has the kind of street smarts that one only acquires from living on the street.
He’s obviously bright and his opinions on colonial Australia would make the likes of Keith Windschuttle very indignant indeed. Many of those far less obtusely conservative than the aforementioned historian would be smugly dismissive of a character like Pat as well. Of course it’s not difficult to conclude that an individual whose differences with a prevailing social order results in their marginalisation lacks a valid opinion about that system. That’s how marginalisation works. But people in Pat’s position provide a mirror for society, in which we can look to see another perspective on the world that those of us in power have created. Pat is outrageous and he’s developed a repertoire of colloquial mannerisms. He has style and he has brains but sometimes he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to comply with an authority in which he doesn’t believe.
At about 3am we get the inevitable visit from a constable from the Rocks. Our friend tonight has come without a partner and he ignores me as he marches straight up to the sleepers under the tarpaulins.
Both sides are pretty used to this routine by now and no one is surprised when he pulls the tarp from over a couple of people next to the bench and tells them that they can’t sleep there. I’ve wandered over by now and we begin the same argument that we had last night. The constable is concerned, apparently, that if there were to be a sudden rush of people wanting to utilise the services of the particular bench to which one of the tarps is attached, that they might face the horrifying prospect of having their civil liberties infringed by the current usage of the bench.
I begin by expressing my frustration at the obvious sarcasm with which this case is being presented. I remind the constable that we have in fact been bivouacking here for some time now and ask why 3am is the appropriate time to have this challenged, again.
Michael wakes up and is more in the mood for diplomacy. He takes over the bargaining and shortly, feeling empathetic towards the constable’s concern for the hypothetical revellers imminently approaching, we untie the bailing twine with which the shelter is fastened, and Lily moves her sleeping mat 12 inches to the right. Satisfied that law and order has once more been restored in the City of Sydney, our swarthy defender of justice thanks us for our cooperation, returns to his patrol car and leaves.
Later, leaving Glen to expound the history of the Australian Left to Nathaniel, Steve and I go for a walk to get a coffee. Relations with the graveyard shift workers at the two nearest 7/11s are far more amicable than those with the police. The young Indian man at the Hunter St store seems to appreciate the conversation and he tells us about the degree in robotics that he is doing at Sydney University. The $1 coffee is far better value than anything else in the shop.
With our cardboard trays laden with take away cups we walk back up the length of Martin Place to the Occupy site. I’ve decided to not bother trying to sleep so I might as well relax and enjoy myself, the train I’ll catch doesn’t come until 5am and it’s too wet for walking home tonight.
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