By the time this article is published, I will be somewhere in Perth’s CBD, marching through the CHOGM security area and hoping I don’t get my teeth knocked in.
I will have taken the train into the city. What with all the police helicopters about, driving anywhere south of Leederville is beginning to make me feel a little like Henry Hill in Goodfellas‘ “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence. (“He thinks I’m paranoid. I should bring him the f-ckin’ helicopter. Then we’ll see how paranoid I am.”) Besides which, the train stops at Forrest Chase, the hive of fast-food outlets and speciality stores where the anti-capitalists are meeting. Where better to protest corporate greed, after all, than a strip-mall in a strip-mined state?
At 11 o’clock, after an hour or of speeches, the march will begin. From Forrest Chase, the protesters will turn left onto the Murray Street Mall, head down Barrack Street, march the length of the Hay Street Mall, and then finally turn onto William Street.
From the corner of Hay Street to Riverside Drive, William Street’s southern end is in the CHOGM security area. Except for that of officials travelling to and from the Perth Convention Centre, this section of street will be closed to all traffic for most of the day. It isn’t a restricted area, however, meaning those protesters who haven’t had exclusion notices slapped on them, and who aren’t afraid of being subjected to random searches, are theoretically able to enter it. The CHOGM Action Network’s Alex Bainbridge told me yesterday that the plan was conduct a sit-down protest in or as close to the security area as possible.
This decision is likely to be made on the ground, in response to how many protesters are in attendance (William Street risks becoming a bottleneck should the protesters try their luck and head south into the security area and Hay Street threatens to become one unless they head north away from it) and how the police choose to react to them (I doubt they’re going to try and search every protester, but the deeper the latter group goes into the security area, as picketing the motorcade will require them to do, the higher the likelihood of there being an altercation). The sit-down protest will go until about one o’clock, at which point the protesters will head back to where they began their march and begin their occupation.
There is a great deal of crossover between the CHOGM Action Network, which has organised the march, and Occupy Perth, which has organised the occupation. In their interactions with the West Australian Police in the lead-up to today’s actions, both groups have been represented by the same three people, headed by Bainbridge, and both have publicly supported the other’s goals in interviews with the press.
There have been several such interviews. With the Occupy Wall Street movement currently enjoying a certain cachet, and generating precisely the level of media coverage it originally complained it deserved but was not receiving, there has been a great deal of interest in the crossover between the two groups and their protests. This, I would suggest, may go some of the way towards explaining it.
The benefit for the CHOGM Action Network is obvious, at least in terms of media attention. I was at the group’s warm-up protest, outside the CHOGM Business Forum, earlier this week. I found the protesters’ behaviour exemplary and the police contingent’s distinctly predatory. I found the media’s questions, when not geared towards this predatory behaviour, geared instead towards the group’s connections with the occupiers and the forthcoming occupation. They wanted to know everything about the protests, Bainbridge told me later, except what they were actually about. (Where I occasionally agreed with the protesters — as I did on their objection to the presence of Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame at a meeting ostensibly committed to democratic values and human rights — I was interested to note that, the very next morning, the newspapers they had accused of apathy carried stories that echoed many of their concerns. Many of the politicians they had accused of collusion, although by no means all of them, did the same.)
If the CHOGM Business Forum protest was about the same things as Occupy Perth—which, given it took place outside a meeting of business leaders, would have made a lot of sense — the connection was only vaguely apparent. A few of the smaller, homemade banners and placards admittedly had an occupation’s flavour to them. (“Robin Hood got it right,” read my favourite, suitably statist example.) One even trotted out the metaphorically potent but ultimately problematic claim that its holder somehow represented or belonged to the storied 99%. (When you belong to the top 10% in global terms, and when most of the bankers you’re protesting against fall below the 99th percentile in domestic ones, such an advertising campaign is pretty disingenuous.)
The largest and most prominent banners, in contrast, tended to push a much broader progressive agenda: Aboriginal sovereignty, an end to mandatory detention, the adoption of a pacifist foreign policy, a commitment to renewable energy. And of these almost all displayed the web address or logo of the Socialist Alliance, which Bainbridge represented in the 2010 federal election. (He brought most of the protest paraphernalia with him.)
This is neither here nor there in terms of the CHOGM Action Group’s protests against the meeting and those attending it. Regardless of whether you agree with this agenda or not, it seems fair to say that CHOGM is as good a place as any to push it. What I’m not so sure about is the idea that Occupy Perth is as good a place to push it, too. (Bainbridge unwittingly demonstrated at least one reason why. “CHOGM is the 1%,” he told me. “Which is not to say that some countries here aren’t representing the 99% as well. I don’t know enough about Tuvalu, for example. Tuvalu was on the right side in the climate talks. Tuvalu isn’t the enemy here.”)It is certainly true, especially in Western Australia, that Aboriginal sovereignty and renewable energy are issues that dovetail nicely with the Occupy movement’s critique of corporate greed. Woodside’s much-contested plans to establish a gas hub at James Price Point is only the most recent case in point. But diluting your message with so many others — especially by associating yourself with well-intentioned but not especially mainstream groups such as the CHOGM Action Network and the Socialist Alliance, who tend to overburden their own platforms in precisely this way — doesn’t especially strike me as the best way of going about becoming a popular movement.
The original Occupy Wall Street protesters may have had vague demands, but their critique, at least at the beginning, was necessarily narrow and focused. Their targets were rampant economic and social inequality, corporate greed and insane remuneration, and the spectacular failure of the US government to stem the former by regulating the latter and prosecuting those whose who so masterfully upended the global economy.
One might ask why these protesters weren’t in the streets three years ago, of course. (One tries to not to be so cynical as to think that they weren’t yet feeling the pinch themselves, and tries not to pay much heed to those who compare their struggle too readily to those of the Egyptians or Syrians that are still unfolding.) One might also question the assertion, peddled by the movement’s more romantic and radical members, that most of these protesters are coming out against capitalism qua capitalism, let alone against neoliberalism qua that. According to a New York Magazine survey of 100 Occupy Wall Street protesters, 46% said that capitalism “isn’t fundamentally evil [but] just needs to be reformed,” while only 37% responded that it “can’t be saved [and] is inherently immoral”. This is hardly a scientific survey, of course, and 100 protesters are hardly a representative sample. But the reported balance between the two groups nevertheless strikes me as the right one to have.
There is a reason the movement has its fair share of reform-minded liberals among its number and that’s because the targets are valid and, importantly for the movement’s future success, popularly unpopular. The New School for Social Research’s James Miller has argued that these reformists, rather than the more strident anti-capitalists, are the best hope for building a popular movement and “[forging] a broader coalition that includes friends and allies within the Democratic Party and the union movement.” (The CHOGM Action Network’s members are hardly on the same level of Miller’s leftist bogeymen, of course. Indeed, well-spoken and well-intentioned, they kind of reminded me of the lunchtime chess club that used to meet in my high school library.)
Putting such a coalition together in Western Australia will be hard enough. The three key planks of the Occupy movement’s potentially popular platform are, while by no means irrelevant here, certainly not as immediately pressing to nearly as many people. Jeff Sparrow may be right when he says that there are more similarities than differences between US and Australian circumstances, but even the similarities begin to look like differences when you look at them in close-up.
In 2007, Australia’s cut-off for entry into its own 1% of earners was $197,000, a far cry from the $1,137,684 required to make it to the top 1% of US earners the following year. Distribution of wealth in this country is becoming increasingly unequal, of course, and this is truer of the behemoth to the west than it is of almost anywhere else. But Western Australia still boasts the lowest unemployment rate, and the lowest disparity of unemployment rates between its various regions, of anywhere in the country. With a per capita gross state product 40% above the national average, it remains the richest state in the federation, too, and is quickly widening the gap. I know secession is so unlikely as to not warrant a serious discussion, but were they ever to leave the federation in question, Lang Hancock’s Westralian progeny would suddenly find them in one of the richest countries per capita in the world. The CHOGM Action Network’s Socialist Alliance members and their friends among Occupy Perth’s organisers should keep this mind before they take an issue that a lot of people are beginning to care about and ornament it with a number others that even more people already don’t.
These issues may not amount to much by the time my train reaches the station, of course. For as much as progressive politics and its adherents can alienate a lot of people, trying to live one’s life in a police state tends to have an even greater effect. I have been cheered by reports of the diversity at Occupy Melbourne and am hoping to see something similar this morning. I suspect that any such signs of diversity will have rather more to do with the brutality on display at last week’s events, and with the security apparatus that has been legislated into being with this weekend’s in mind, than it will with any of the issues that can be protested against with a homemade button. The events of Occupy Oakland, to the extent that they have been reported here at all, may have inspired even more to turn out, too. Hell, even the state of the economy might wind up being beside the point.
Peter Chambers suggested this week that such a shift might already be happening. “There is a risk at this point,” Chambers wrote on Monday, “that Occupy Melbourne might become a group of tent fetishists with a desire to re-politicise as an anti-police rally”. It wouldn’t surprise me if what I encounter this morning in any way resembles such a protest. Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan has already said that protesters will not be allowed to stay in the city overnight, on the grounds that their doing so would breach a by-law against camping, and Colin Barnett has trotted out the usual lines about “the security and safety of the West Australian public”. The protesters were hoping their occupation would last at least until the meeting was over. One is suddenly reminded of the state’s order to prisons to make sure they have plenty of free beds this weekend.
Occupy Perth and the CHOGM Action Network may be relying on precisely this point in order to rally people to their various causes. Barnett’s evocation of safety and security is on the money, but the target of his warning is not. Unchecked authority, not protest against it, is beginning to appear more requiring of punishment. People don’t feel that you’re serving and protecting them when you’re taking to their neighbours with a baton. They feel that you might turn around at any minute and start taking to them with a baton, too. And suddenly, before you know it, you’ve got a movement on your hands.