Occupy Sydney Retrospective: The first few months. (Part Two)

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Continued from (Part One)

On the 8th of November, we were pleasantly surprised to wake up, not looking at the walls of a cell, but  at the sky and two of our many targets, the Reserve Bank of Australia and Westpac bank. All we had was a cardboard box saying Occupy Sydney: Here to Stay and a couple of sleeping bags, but later that morning a chessboard and some food was donated by passers-by and by the end of the day, we had an info-desk set up.

The re-occupation wasn’t the only pot that occupiers had on the boil. A small group of Occupiers had squatted a building on the corner of King and Clarence Streets with the intention of eventually opening a Community Centre. The building was becoming derelict after having been abandoned years ago and it needed to be used for something. Unfortunately, on the afternoon of the 8th, their plan was thwarted as security guards noticed some of the occupiers leaving the building. A call for solidarity went out when the police turned up to evict the occupiers (most of whom were homeless at the time due to the astronomical cost of living) and a crowd quickly developed outside. At this point, they dropped banners saying Occupy Sydney, We Are Here, Get Used to It, 120,000 Empty Buildings Across Sydney and Housing Crisis Solved.

Music was blasted out onto the street and the solidarity protest that had materialized despite the pouring rain turned into an exuberant street festival.

The mood became more subdued when the police came out in force to intimidate protestors. Of particular concern was the disturbingly large squadron from the Public Order and Riot Squad, who were fully engaged in a pack mentality and eager to smash some heads. The police had also brought in five members of the Dog Squad, and there were reports that the bomb squad were there on standby.  The dogs were salivating and straining at their leashes to get their part of the action. This is a ludicrous overreaction when there were only five peaceful squatters in the building, leading to jokes like this one:

How many cops does it take to change a lightbulb? I don’t know, but gee, if it takes 120 to get five squatters out of a building…

The solidarity protest moved around the corner to the laneway, where the police were trying everything they could to block the protestor’s and the media’s view of what was going on, even shining torches in the media’s cameras. If that’s not unlawful censorship I don’t know what is. At this point, the Occupy Solidarity Protest chanted “who are you protecting?” and occupiers we love you, don’t let them push and shove you!” We were unable to see what was going on, but the squatters told us that they had not resisted arrest, but were nonetheless tenderised by riot police. Once the riot police had had enough of a go getting at the squatters and they had been taken away, the riot police kettled the lawful solidarity protest and started pushing and shoving the protestors down the hill towards a road. Eventually the Commander realized this looked really bad because the media had been caught up in the fracas, so he called his pigs off and the solidarity protest peacefully moved to Surry Hills police station to wait for our brothers and sisters to get out of the gallows.

This squatters’ protest was what the rest of the world woke up to on breakfast news. It alluded to the weighty issues of homelessness, housing affordability and greed. One of the Occupiers reported a surprising reaction from her father, who resides in Greece. He asked if the squat was attributed to “her lot”. After she said yes, bracing herself for a rant about protestors and hippies, he conceded “they have a point”. The action spoke to a vast cross section of society, all over the world, all of whom are fed up with this sorry state of affairs!

After an exhausting couple of weeks, it was nice to be able to go “home” to Martin Place and discuss ideas and actions for a better world.  At this point, we were experiencing incessant police harassment, but something that they hadn’t been able to take away from us for long was the 24/7 presence of Occupy Sydney in Martin Place, a place where anyone could come and express their dissent, their hope, their despair and their love. What the powers that be had underestimated was the pure determination of the Occupiers and the strength of many Occupiers’ convictions that Occupy Sydney was crucial and worth fighting for.  At the occupation, Occupiers set about talking to passers-by, creating weapons of mass (political) expression and learning the skills it takes to live on the street. With a smaller occupation, more limited resources and less occupiers,  Occupying Martin Place was a lot closer to, but not akin to, the experience of homeless people, and a lot of people woke up to the fact that everything you do in your own home takes a homeless person three times as much effort to complete, (e.g. walking to the other side of the city for a shower)and that you really do need to develop skills as a homeless person in order to look after yourself.  Because of this experience, many Occupiers feel a lot more connected to the issue of homelessness, and feel solidarity with the homeless community (which, I would argue is very different to the paternalistic sympathy promoted by charities.) In stark contrast to the isolation often associated with homelessness though, it’s very difficult to feel isolated at Occupy Sydney and most of the occupiers have a hot shower and a bed to go to when they need a break.

Occupy Sydney moved down one block for Remembrance Day (away from the war memorial), which opened up a huge dialogue between the Occupiers about the nature of war, and whether by retreating would be seen as an act of support for the troops,  whether showing support for the troops equated to supporting war or supporting those who had been exploited by the 1%, who always profit from war, and whether a war memorial should continue to be respected in the way it is now. Does it promote a partially fictional, glorified image of the “ANZAC Legend that is just used as a tool to recruit more young, naïve soldiers?

Around the time that we re-occupied, the Occupy Sydney Free School started. Both a commentary on the corporatisation, indoctrination and growing inaccessibility of recognised educational institutions and a free and functional educational space in itself, freeschool has been a hit since it began.  Anyone can teach and learn at freeschool, and the breaking down of the traditional student/teacher hierarchy leads to intelligent, challenging discussions that are less likely to happen in traditional educational institutions. From Activist Legal Rights and the Arrest Process to DIY renewable energy to History of occupation and indigenous struggle in Sydney to a Circus Workshop, anyone can engage with freeschool.  Freeschool continues every second Saturday in Martin Place and once a month at Occupy Parramatta.

Occupy the Suburbs began in November as well, and incorporated one of Occupy the Love’s tactics of handing out flowers to the public as a simple act of goodwill. Occupy the Suburbs was partly inspired by the way the Indignados in Spain took off in the suburbs. Mainly driven by a Parramatta resident who participates in Occupy Sydney who saw a need for Occupy in an area that is deeply affected by the injustices of corporate greed and wealth inequality. Since then, Occupy Parramatta has been more successful in terms of local public opinion than it’s Martin Place counterpart. Occupy Parramatta only occurs on Saturdays, but many honest and inspiring conversations are had.

Occupy Sydney Retrospective: The first few months. (Part One)

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Yesterday was Occupy Sydney’s 150th day of encountering hope, awakening, police harassment, inspiration, adversity, sunshine, torrential rain, ideas, beauty and truth, among many other things that occupy both the physical and metaphysical realms.

Occupy Sydney started off with a bang on the 15th of October, 2011.  One thousand people occupied Martin Place and the square was alive with a sense of possibility. Around the world on that day, thousands of other cities and towns had answered the call from Occupy Wall Street to rise up peacefully against the violence and corruption of the global financial system, the tyranny of corporate greed. The Occupy movement is a non-partisan movement uniting under the assertion that corporate greed has gone too far and we need to shift the focus to human need and true democratic awakening. Having such a broad unifying message means that a diverse range of people have been drawn to the movement. Unlike political parties and most organisations, the Occupy Movement does not have a party line, and if you talk to different people from within the movement, they will express different views and hopes about where whey see Occupy taking us. There are those who want the government to introduce policies that regulate the banks more and address corporate destruction of ecosystems. There are those who have become so disillusioned with what some call a “two party dictatorship” in Australia that they believe we need to overhaul the whole system. There are those who believe in no government at all. There are those who believe in a smaller government and many other opinions in between. The Occupy Movement has brought these people together to have a conversation, to challenge each other, and to build consensus for a better world.

I came to Occupy on the 19th of October. I’ve been in and out of social movements all my life, and I, like many other people, found what I’d been waiting for for a very long time, perhaps all my life. Having helplessly watched as a child as governments sold out their people, big business sold out everything and people sold out their people, I’ve been in a constant state of mourning all my life for the physical and spiritual destruction of the Earth and it’s beings. To a degree I’d lost hope for any change, but I came to check out Occupy Sydney for five minutes and I was so inspired I’ve barely left since. Here was a bunch of smart, switched on people who were determined to seek the truth and act on it, together. These people, unlike the powers that be, knew how to share, and they were sharing ideas, dreams, meals, chores and sleeping space with each other. The atmosphere of the Occupation for that first week was amazing. People with polarised views were having respectful dialogues with each other, striving to see things from the other’s point of view. I believe the simple acts of sharing and listening as equals are the most import tools for consensus building.

Unfortunately, the golden period was not going to last if the state had anything to do with it. At 5am on Sunday the 23rd of October, NSW Police, including members of the public order & riot squad, moved in with no warning. For many people involved in Occupy, this was their first real and confronting experience of police brutality.  NSW Police had learnt from the mistakes of their Victorian counterparts, who had shocked most Australians (except for the marginalised groups who have always experienced police brutality) with their brutal eviction of Occupy Melbourne in broad daylight. As @WeAreChangeBriz said, #occupysydney NSW Police have adapted – Strike in the dead of night: no media, no public, no world. #occupyoz. One young woman from Occupy Sydney was assaulted by riot police so badly that her body was covered in bruises and then held overnight in prison where she was tormented, humiliated and strip searched. From this point on, the police made it very clear that their mission was to wage a war of attrition on the Occupiers, employing state terrorism tactics including intimidation, theft, unlawful arrests, abusing the justice system by clogging up the courts with malicious prosecution, kicking protestors awake and making arrests in the early hours of the morning when nobody was around to see. Police the world over have proven the Occupiers right. We don’t live in democratic countries where you are free to express your dissent peacefully. Whether you protest peacefully or violently, you’ll be caught up in the criminal injustice system, and the only people that start and engage in riots at protests are the police, particularly the public order and riot squad. It’s important to note here that certain groups within society have been victims of police brutality and harassment for as long as the police have been in existence, mostly people from racial minorities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds. So we can’t go harping on as if activists were the first people to experience police brutality, but we should definitely be using Occupy Sydney’s relative high profile to break down the police’s carefully constructed deception that they are there to serve and to protect. They’re definitely protecting someone, but it’s not the 99%.

After the raid, there was a General Assembly in the afternoon close to UTS. Emotions were running high, but eventually consensus was reached on a rally to re-occupy on November the 5th. A number of people chose to take a member of the Aboriginal community up on his offer to facilitate an occupation of Victoria Park, where everyone could engage in a smoke ceremony. The power of the sacred fire and the symbolic power of the site was enough to make the police back down on their threats to evict the occupiers. Some of the people who occupied the park continued a moving occupation of public spaces, one night occupying bronte beach.

Throughout the two weeks between the 23rd October and the 5th November, Three people in particular maintained a presence in Martin Place. Bob would come every day, like clockwork, and set up a discussion point where he would share his extensive knowledge of political economics. Peter would hold the space overnight, and Bern would meditate in the space three times a day. As she meditated, she tried to block out the threats of arrest that she was receiving from NSW Police for meditating in a public space. During the two weeks, General Assemblies and Working groups were held in Martin Place.

On the 5th of November, over 2000 people turned up to re-occupy.  Occupiers marched through the sunny streets, chanting. One of the more visible aspects of the march was a funeral procession for democracy.

After the rally, Occupiers knuckled down for a General Assembly (GA) and eventually decided to occupy Hyde Park. The police were moving in and Occupiers avoided confrontation by peacefully moving to Hyde Park. The GA continued and everything went quite well until everyone saw what looked like a scrum of police officers. It turned out that they were pushing each other aside to get at a woman who had pitched a tent. Two other occupiers tried to defend her only to be arrested. It was very clear then that the fight for a scrap of public space was not going to be an easy one. Despite that, spirits were high, Occupiers shared food, there was drumming and a couple of people tried to settle down to sleep only to be kicked awake by cops seconds later.

When more riot cops began to move in, it became clear that the Occupiers would not be safe unless we stuck together. So we all locked arms and that’s how we remained for most of the night, with other occupiers making sure we had enough food and water and a very clever chicken keeping many people entertained:

By the early hours of the morning, it became clear that we were not going to be able to defend ourselves peacefully, many people had left and the number of police was swelling. We made a collective decision to leave and we were followed and harassed by the police while we walked. They told us that we had to separate from one another, showing no concern for more vulnerable members of the group.

A small number of Occupiers then occupied an undisclosed public space at the invitation of the person who mantains it, and had a much-needed debrief about the events of the night before getting some sleep and heading to Hyde Park for a General Assembly in the morning. By this point, a lot of Occupiers were so tired and disheartened that they were unable to listen to other points of view and a lot of heated discussion ensued. I don’t remember what it was about now, but I have the feeling it was about whether or not to Occupy and the process of the GA. Eventually, the GA broke off into various working groups and Occupiers were fairly content to see what Clover Moore had to say on the 7th November, when Irene Doutney would be requesting that Occupy Sydney be allowed to occupy a public space to Kerb the issue of police harassment.

On the 7th November, Just after “hosting” a Noam Chomsky talk at Town Hall, Clover Moore did some fancy political footwork to avoid answering any of Irene Doutney’s questions honestly. She denied claims of police brutality and stated support for any actions carried out by the police. She suggested that she host a “City Talk” as a solution where she would invite business & community leaders to talk about inequality. Not a great solution for a grassroots movement, Clover. Only when the Greens suggested an amendment; that an Occupy participant speak at the city talk did she even let up on that. It was such a copout and an act of contempt for the Occupiers that no occupiers were willing to go near the City Talk.

A small group of people at that point decided not to wait for permission to re-occupy as it seemed that every official channel that we exhausted, we were knocked back. We would just have to assert our right. At about 11pm, 5 people re-occupied Martin Place. And we’ve been there ever since.

To be continued…