First London, now the US. For the second time in a year Australians are watching scenes of mass civil disobedience overseas and wondering whether it could happen here. We were fixated on the riots, and now the #occupy movement is beginning to, ah, #occupy the nation’s opinion pages. But the sneering armchair diagnoses that have become a feature of Australian commentary on Western unrest miss the key point every time: by the time it’s big enough for Sophie Mirabella or the IPA to dismiss it as unbridled, adolescent and worthless, it has already happened here.
#occupysydney is an example of how well-developed networks operating outside the public eye without mainstream media largesse or government handouts can come together under a new banner. Lance, who by virtue of operating the @occupysydney Twitter feed could be called a “leader” in the decentralised structures that typify the #occupy movement, knocks the “adolescent rage” stereotype on its head: he’s in his 60s and has spent his life working in construction management and homeless activism in Australia and overseas. In his eyes, the #occupy tag is a way to bring disparate groups together, build support networks, and draw attention to “people in society who make money by driving people into a marginalised demographic”.
“It’s obvious the Australian economy is not in chaos.” Lance told Crikey. “It’s a similar scenario, but different issues.” In the same way the US protests are about the restoration of a middle class white-anted by Wall Street, many of the issues being talked about at #occupysydney meetings are fundamentally mainstream.
Take the disconnect between wages and the realities of living in Sydney. The average weekly wage for retail, accommodation and food sector workers is less than $900, house prices remain high, but “there is still an expectation that people will work in the city without somewhere to live they can afford,” Lance points out.
“About 40% of the people I see on the streets in Sydney have a full-time job. One guy, living out of his ute, runs a business employing 20 people. He lives on the streets because of debt. He can’t afford to rent. Tell me that’s not a middle-class issue.” Australia’s insulation from the global economic meltdown was a combination of good luck and good management, but to pretend that plenty of people are only a few interest payments away from homelessness is a “furphy”, Lance says.
Structurally, #occupysydney has much in common with the US movement from which it draws its name: consensus-based decision making and inclusive politics. It’s nothing new for Lance, who has been supporting distributed homeless and squatter networks for decades, spending years on the streets himself. He was involved with the London squatter magazine Crowbar and runs his Sydney homeless network from 24/7 internet cafes, teaching people how to connect with each other and make money online, mainly for US clients. Traffic is routed through a server in Paraguay. The network operates outside the scope of major charitable and government initiatives, refuses handouts and supports kids on the street, under the condition they stay in school.
Having a similar network in the UK co-opted by a major charitable trust motivated Lance to work under a distributed structure. Major charities, he says, are increasingly under the auspices of corporate and government money, which leads them to identify less with the people they’re representing in favour of compliance with the big end of town. “Would you be the person who dried up the rivers of gold?” he asks. “If you’re the person in the middle, organising everything, the person who becomes empowered is you.”
Environmental groups, anarchists, lawyers and even school-age children are organising under the #occupy banner. Catholic schoolchildren involved in Lance’s homeless network have been connecting via social media, planning to show up in their school uniforms on October 15 with the rest of the protest. “But it’s one in, all in with them,” he explained, adding with disapproval that they are excluded from some planning meetings held in pubs. “These kids are marginalised and scared, asking ‘What kind of future will I have?'”
Paradoxically, anarchists involved with the protest have been the most involved in logistical planning, agonising over sanitation, traffic control, safety and the like, concerned about getting people offside with what should be a peaceful protest. Australian members of the now-ubiquitous hacker group Anonymous will also make an appearance.
“Five or six different groups,” all with their own aims, are organising for the 15th. “Everything is up for grabs in terms of ideology.” No one group can dominate, but at the same time, the message is diffuse. To focus on the chaotic nature of the protest is to miss the point: where groups such as GetUp! rely on concentrated media attention to draw attention to an issue and lobby government for concessions, #occupy is about the space itself. Marginalisation is just that; the exclusion of subaltern elements from public space, not because we don’t know, but because we choose not to know. There is no “media strategy” — a recent meeting decided against one — because the whole point is to bring issues to the public, not to the gatekeepers.
“The weekend protest is the beginning. It’s the first real meeting, and the best result would be for us to reach a consensus decision on what we want to do from there on,” Lance said. While we’re unlikely to see tens of thousands out in the streets, it doesn’t matter. Just turning up is a victory. And remember, three weeks ago #occupywallstreet was in the same position.