Perth’s occupiers are no longer occupying it. They voted on the matter yesterday. The model of participatory democracy they favoured held good until the bitter end, when someone put forward the motion, soon seconded, that the bitter end was what it was. By the time the garden furniture started coming down, the group was taking up an area not larger than a backyard in the suburbs and consisted of fewer than 20 people who were actually willing to camp in the city overnight. They say they will be back next weekend. If more than five of them rock up, I will, like Werner Herzog, eat my shoe.
Friday’s United March on CHOGM served as a pretty good vantage point from which to see yesterday’s final humiliation coming. For all the ostensible success of the march — the CHOGM Action Network’s Alex Bainbridge predicted a thousand people would show up and was correct — there were some telltale signs that the ensuing occupation would struggle to maintain the momentum.
Key among these was the atomisation of the protesters’ concerns. While Socialist Alliance and Communist Party of Australia members accounted for a large swathe of the marchers, the groups they belonged to were only two of between 15 and 20. The Tamils protesting Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presence at the meeting rubbed shoulders with a group of Malaysians, decked out in bright yellow, who demanded free and fair elections back home. Both groups listened respectfully to, but didn’t join, the chants in favour of Aboriginal sovereignty, which far outnumbered those in favour of anything else.
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Footprints for Peace, which organised a 1200-kilometre walk from Wiluna to Perth to protest uranium mining, arrived at Forrest Place after three weeks on the road, only to realise that the Citizen’s Electoral Council of Australia, which believes that Britain’s royal family created and controls the environmentalist movement “as their chosen vehicle for global genocide”, had beaten them there. Those protesting electoral reform in Zimbabwe appeared uncomfortable with the two men dressed as nuns, whose signs demanded that they be allowed to marry one another.
It quickly became apparent that the march was united in name only. Solidarity came a distant second to the individual concerns of the individual groups. This was fair enough within the context of the march, of course, and to the extent that the first part of the day was a success it was surely due to the highly personal interpretation of the target that each person taking aim was able to make. This was not true of the ensuing occupation. As an expression of solidarity with those protesting on Wall Street and throughout the developed world, Occupy Perth had little to offer the Tamils or Malaysians, the Rwandans or Zimbabweans, many of whom packed up and went home not long after the march turned into an occupation. (The Aboriginal contingent was not long to stick around, either.)
Not that Occupy Perth had much to say about Wall Street, of course. If, in my rush to predict the weekend’s events, I underestimated anything, I underestimated the extent to which the CHOGM Action Network’s progressive platform would overshadow the economic message of Occupy Wall Street and thus dash the chances of that movement’s Perth offshoot becoming anything more than yet another slightly embarrassing gathering of men in red shirts and fanny packs, pregnant anarcho-punks, and well-spoken e-revolutionaries in stylised Guy Fawkes masks.
This was the real problem: not its failure to hold onto the march’s international protesters, buts its failure to hold onto any but the most glued-on, knee-jerk types, who would have been there anyway.
I met an 18-year-old protester in the bar overlooking the square — it was, he told me excitedly, his first-ever protest — and he was quick to note that Occupy Perth didn’t really seem to be stressing economic injustice. Indeed, from where we were sitting on the bar’s balcony, the three most prominent signs at the rapidly shrinking gathering were proselytising in favour of Aboriginal sovereignty, gay marriage and women’s rights. The latter of these was a huge banner that read “Occupy Patriarchy” and ran the length of the protest space, defining its edge if not its purport. A fine sentiment, of course, but one that also suggests a certain dilution of the original message and the co-option of a potentially popular brand by those whose views, while actually not that distasteful to the vast majority of people, tend to be expressed in such a way that its most common by-product is popular alienation. (The brand name had struck one as slightly problematic earlier, too, when one of the event’s organisers asked an Aboriginal elder: “Do you give us permission to occupy your land?”)
The protesters, their 18-year-old comrade told me, were failing to galvanise public support. By mid-afternoon, the self-proclaimed 99% probably represented less than 5% of the total people in the mall. What’s worse, they weren’t even trying to get the real 99%’s attention. Sitting and standing around the small square patch they had been allocated by the city — in the end, anything larger would have been unnecessary for their number — they were all facing the centre and each other. No one was addressing the passersby. No one was proselytising.
There seemed to be no attempt whatsoever at outreach or anything even remotely like it. Walking by this human hive, people began to ignore it completely, not even bothering to roll their eyes at the hive-minded types who only an hour before had been at least trying to get them onside. Was the 18-year-old disappointed with all this? “Well,” he sighed, “I’m in the bar.”
If, in my rush to predict the weekend’s events, I overestimated anything, I overestimated the extent to which such public support would be galvanised by the oppressive presence of the police throughout the city. I also overestimated the likelihood of the police going too far and getting the taste of blood, resorting rather too heavily to the lash and turning the protesters’ plight into a cause célèbre. I think the protesters overestimated the likelihood of this as well, to the extent that they had been relying on it to help them, so to speak, get out the vote. Certainly, from where I was standing, the protesters were baiting the police far more than the police were baiting them.
Of course, it may be argued that the special powers granted to the police for the weekend’s events were all the bait anybody should have ever needed to stand up and demand his civil rights. I would certainly agree with this. But it remains true that the protesters were the ones who attempted to break through the police lines on the corner of Barrack Street and Hay Street Mall, despite having agreed with the police on the route days earlier. (“Was that just for show?” I asked Alex Bainbridge as the march continued. He nodded.) It remains true that any time someone got near a bullhorn they took the opportunity to berate the fascists to their faces. And it remains true that the police not only let the protesters put up temporary structures in Forrest Place, thereby breaking a city by-law, and then let a handful of them camp overnight, thereby breaking another one. One got the sense the police were only too willing to co-operate and to make concessions. One was far more likely to see them joking with protesters than coming to blows with or outwardly oppressing them. Which didn’t stop the protesters from assuring one another that the fascists would start acting fascistically soon enough.
Soon enough didn’t come soon enough, however, and now we will never know if it was coming at all. “Probably Monday,” Bainbridge told me when I asked him when he through the crackdown might come. “Monday once the meeting is over and the world isn’t watching any more.” Of course, the protesters are no longer there to be cracked down upon, and one can’t help but wonder whether this, too, might have more than a little to do with the fact that no one is watching.
Occupy Perth was at its most cohesive when there were television cameras and police around. On Friday night, the 40 or so diehards who hadn’t disappeared after the march swelled around the Channel Seven camera with their Aboriginal flags, anti-prostitution placards, and even one or two signs bearing some connection with the Occupy Wall Street protests from which they had taken their name but not their focus. “We are the 99%” they chanted throughout the broadcast, to the amusement of those looking on from the night market, who outnumbered the protesters three-to-one and for whom the latter had moved earlier in the day. (“You can stay here if you want,” Occupy Perth’s Luke Skinner told the handful of protesters who didn’t think they should have to move for anybody. “But I’m moving over there to make way for the night markets. They’ve had this place booked for a week.”)
The reporters went home after their six o’clock crosses and even the police contingent thinned out. All that remained was an inward-looking group and a patch of occupied, but uncontested, ground.