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

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.

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2 thoughts on “Occupy Sydney Retrospective: The first few months. (Part Two)

  1. Totally engaging, great pics/vids, eloquent, erudite, lucid, all round awesome!
    What a trip!! So much has happened. Occupy Sydney Rocks!

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