Welcome to Occupy Sydney
For the past week, Sydney residents gathered in Martin Place to participate in a 24/7 forum to discuss creating futures that are more inclusive, just and sustainable. In the heart of the city, Martin Place is wide enough to host hundreds of people while accommodating passers by. This patch of Sydney, squeezed between the corporate foyers of the Reserve and Westpac banks, is an otherwise under-utilised resource.
What an atmosphere
Were the people that gathered peaceful and inclusive? Yes, and they were kind and generous, too. Personally, I found the way the space was organised colourful, welcoming and cushy (sleeping bags abound), if untidy… but in a city dotted with deep craters surrounded by trucks, cranes and pollution, a few sleeping bags and hand-made signs was hardly an affront to Sydney’s visual amenity.
Good for the local economy
The proprietors of the local coffee cart couldn’t believe their luck, and started a late night service to feed hungry visitors to the site. An employee of a chocolate shop down the road enthused that visitors have been “stock[ing] up on chocolate and coffee“. Of the five closest food retailers, I’d be surprised if one of them didn’t see an upturn in sales as a result of this dead city space becoming a hive of activity.
Didn’t the #occupy movement start in Wall Street? This isn’t America!
At the time of writing, more than 1500 cities are hosting #occupy gatherings. ‘Wall St’ influence, excesses and gambles are shaping the lives of people in multiple ways. Many of the same questions about fairness, equity and sustainability Americans are asking ought to be addressed here, too. Australians have their own grievances, concerns, hopes and dreams and many would like to advocate, discuss and debate these in an inclusive, open forum.
So who shows up to this stuff?
The Australian #occupy spaces were given far more mainstream media coverage than your average Friday night “Politics in the Pub”… So with a nudge like that, it wasn’t just the ‘usual suspects’ that showed up.
Participants have come from a mix of backgrounds and experiences. While we didn’t often talk about our backgrounds, in my conversations at #OccupySydney I spoke with carers, lawyers, bankers, wharfies, engineers, homeless, contractors, jobless, university students, teachers, marketers and scientists… People from all walks of life had come for a multitude of reasons.
Politically, there were people who consider themselves swinging voters, others were a-political. There were capitalists, greenies, anarchists, socialists and conspiracy theorists, and each treated the others with respect and humanity.
In our complex world, expecting people to come together with a single grievance or solution is unrealistic. It’s in the coming together, the conversations, the dialogue, that common ground is found.
So why gather at all?
Sydney has plenty of places where you can eat, drink, take drugs to loud music, gamble money on sport or in machines, and buy stuff. There are plenty of places where you can have a picnic, read a book, have a swim or go for a walk. But public spaces where people are welcome to gather with fellow citizens, 24/7 to talk about addressing systemic problems and find ways to organise to build better futures? Well, that hasn’t really happened before.
In a functioning democracy, with shift-workers pulling nights and contractors slogging it out during the days, gathering during a fixed window of time isn’t an inclusive approach. The web has influenced our “’round the clock” world where we connect electronically with whoever’s awake; if anything, this lifestyle shift has given rise to the acceptability and practical necessity of a public space for 24/7 political conversations.
Occupy Sydney in pictures
Every now and then, I snapped a photo to capture my experiences at Occupy Sydney. I worked every day this week, so I was only there for a few hours at a time. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be sharing these photos via the web, but I decided to write this blog post after what happened this morning…
A General Assembly (meeting)takes place on Monday night. You can read more about these in my original Occupy Sydney blog post. This one took place on the amphitheatre steps… Because a few of Sydney’s homeless people use these steps to eat their dinner, it was agreed the General Assemblies would happen away from the comfort of the steps to ensure #OccupySydney participants weren’t breaking the homeless peoples’ routine.
“We can’t camp out with you, but we support what you’re doing…” A dad and daughter bring lamingtons to Occupy Sydney. The lamingtons were well received, as were the pizzas, salads, crackers, biscuits… much of the food was donated by people supportive of this democratic process.
“More than 2.2 million Australians live below the poverty line” – one of the many hand-made posters inviting passers-by to consider the world from another point of view. In a city filled with luxury handbag shops and ads for TV shows and yogurt, why not inspire people to reflect, think or act, rather than just consume?
“Discussion in progress, please join”… One of the many signs that made it clear to all citizens that this space was for everyone. For a city where many bars and clubs will happily exclude people based on age, race, gender or dress, this was refreshingly inclusive. And no cover charge.
This band rocked. I asked them who they were and when they were playing their next gig, and they said they’d prefer not to plug their next gig because it was more important that people focused their attention on keeping Martin Place vibrant.
Another of the many hand made signs. None of the signs could truly capture the sentiment or feelings of the thousands who participated in the first week, but the positivity of, “We Occupy Martin Place because another world is possible!” does a pretty good job.
“Everyone is welcome” the pink flag to the left (obscured) reads, “What if we were prepared to sacrifice our comfort for change?”. The banner is part of a city-wide art exhibition. The serendipity of its placement reassured many of those sleeping under street lights.
Throughout the week, the ever-present police were hanging around talking to each other and mostly looking bored. They had joined the force to catch bad guys, and now they were stuck here watching people discuss massive corporate crimes that were well outside their jurisdiction… Must have been frustrating for them. Occasionally they’d read a poster or engage in a brief conversation about political ideas. I spoke to police every time I visited Occupy Sydney, and not once did they advise me that I was participating in an activity that was “in breach of the city’s camping regulations”. They sure didn’t manage to warn anyone that because people were sacrificing their comfort for something they believed in, riot police and bomb squad personnel would soon be deployed.
Danny (pictured, above) recognised the ever-present risk of violence, and made himself a billboard to advocate for police pay and conditions. He is a true lover of peace and happiness. Every city could do with a few of him. If you ever see him, say G’day to him, and pat his dog, Smarty.
The Occupy Sydney statement that was created through consensus by the participants of Occupy Sydney on Friday. The riot police showed up on the Saturday rally that celebrated one week. The police “kettled” the protest by lining the only two exits out of Occupy Sydney. There had been plans for some participants on Saturday to leave the space and do a tour of Sydney, highlighting some of the misdeeds of various corporations who occupy the city buildings.
Through a democratic process, it was agreed that the police presence meant it would not be appropriate to embark on the tour. Such a tour would have involved the crowd confronting two lines of riot police. A walk would risk violence, and as a peaceful democratic movement, we agreed the tour would instead take place in small groups later in the week.
And so the people stayed. They stayed and played music, talked, shared political ideas, and handed leaflets with cartoons and jokes on them. They stayed and ate sausages on bread rolls. It was a laid-back picnic protest. It wasn’t what a few of the gung-ho activist types would have liked (they rightly argued that the riot police showing up was intimidating and unnecessary, and if citizens had to cross a line of riot police to go for a walk on public streets, than so be it)…But it was a global movement expressed with an Australian flavour… Many of us weren’t rusted on activists… We were simply participating in a democratic action. The presence of riot police was more bemusing than anything. We weren’t doing anything that would call for riot police! This isn’t a police state, after all.
This morning I woke to the news that the riot police moved in at 5am. I’ve read reports that those who were asleep were woken and given 5 minutes to vacate the space. Tired, indignant, sleepy, angry… Some participants decided that their peaceful protest, a statement aimed in part at strengthening democracy, didn’t deserve the riot squad, and chose to stand their ground.
An hour before daybreak, away from the transparency and accountability of sunlight and cameras, the police pounced. They destroyed the signs that quoted statistics about poverty and pollution, and the people were dragged away. A number were arrested. The space was cleared of both character and civility. The area between the Reserve and Westpac banks was made plain, boring and uninviting again.
I felt sick. I felt sorry for the people who were busy keeping the space alive overnight… Holding the space for those of us that showed up during the day. I wondered what happened to the people who I’d talk to. To the gentle souls like Alan, who suggested to me that if everybody shared, nobody would go without:
I was gutted. I tweeted:
Pictured: In this exact spot, every hour for a week, conversations about peace took place. Today, storm troopers with guns and tasers instead took pride of place. I wonder what refreshing ideas were discussed here today? NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch explained it was time “to return Martin Place to the community of Sydney.”. The community of Sydney already had the space, thanks Mark. No matter how hard you scrub, the ideas that were discussed here, the connections that were sparked, remain.