Who Gets To Occupy Martin Place?


This weekend a year ago, thousands of people throughout Australia, including a couple of thousand in Sydney, began occupying public spaces. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Los Indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in New York City, protestors were calling for a truly participatory democracy. Not only did they call for this, but they immediately began modelling that form of democracy through their decision-making and organising processes. In Sydney, this occupation took place, and is ongoing, in Martin Place.

Yesterday, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, ING, used the Martin Place site for an "experiential marketing" campaign. Hundreds of beds were set up in the centre of Martin Place and people were encouraged to book some time in one of them and to "rest easy". Presumably, the intended implication is that we can all "rest easy" with the likes of ING in charge.

There is some kind of black-hearted poetry at work here. When police violently evicted Sydney’s occupiers during raids in October and November last year, their excuse was a supposed prohibition on "camping" in public space. This "justification" was used to harass, arrest and commit acts of violence against people, including not only people who had come to stay in Martin Place for the specific purpose of the occupation, but also people who had been living in Martin Place for a long time before the occupation.

Beds in Martin Place. Photo by Claire Parfitt.

From its beginning, and even more so in recent months, the Occupy Sydney site has been concerned with homelessness and how the broader concerns of the global Occupy Together movement are linked to the experience of homelessness. This was an inevitable consequence of engaging with urban, public space as this movement has done. Will ING be leaving the beds in place to make life a little more comfortable for the people who will still be there after the bank has left for the night?

To contrast yesterday’s incident against the the eviction of Australia’s Occupy movement, it’s clear that banks and other corporations may occupy our public space but the public may not. Public spaces can be used for advertising campaigns to remind us to consume while we’re on the way to work (for other examples, see the "magical" Tim Tam Tree in Martin Place and Cadbury’s "Joyville" train on the Cityrail network), but they cannot be used for civil society to talk about our economy, our government, the challenges we face in the world and how we would collectively like to address them.

We are sold the idea that joy, contentment and fulfilment come through consumption, rather than through self-determination. In fact, we are told that self-determination is unrealistic, impossible. According to Terry Eagleton, this is a necessary condition of our current economic system:

"Capitalism needs a human being who has never existed, one who is prudently restrained in the office and wildly anarchic in the shopping mall."

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