Occupying Sydney: some initial ponderings

On Saturday afternoon (15th October 2011) after a receiving an encouraging text from a good mate of mine, I decided to head into the Sydney CBD to check out Occupy Sydney.

I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have a clear goal in mind about why I wanted to go. I just wanted to learn more about what is an increasingly global Occupy phenomenon. And to experience it myself rather than read about it on the Tweets or watch it on the television news.

small children frolicking in a fountain at Martin Place, Sydney
image source: redserenade

What I found when I got to Martin Place – a terraced space in the centre of the business district of Sydney – was a congregation of all sorts of people. It was peaceful, joyful and party-like. There were lots and lots of banners. Lots of photographers (myself included because the sunlight at that time was amazing!). People from a range of political persuasions: socialists, unionists, religious groups, people wearing eureka stockade flags, hippy yoga types doing some chanting, families with their children. And so on.

I wanted to check it out because I had questions about how Occupy Sydney might be copycatting Occupy Wall Street, when the Australian and US national contexts are vastly different. Indeed, that seems to be where a lot of the anti-occupy-sydney criticism lies… eg. Australia is not doing it as tough as the US, so what is there to complaint about, really?

I agree that the national differences are vast, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. And it’s not as if Occupy Wall Street started all by itself. Unrest and revolution has been going on all over the world in recent times. I’m thinking here, largely, of the Middle East. But also the London Riots and rallies, riots and political protests in various parts of Europe.

These things don’t happen in a vacuum. And the Occupy X tactic/movement/whatever we want to call it, is now happening in over 1500 cities worldwide.

Despite vastly different national and regional contexts, there is clearly a sense of revolution in the air.

Another question I had (and I think this is a common question), is What are the demands of Occupy Sydney? What is the ultimate goal of occupying public space in your city?

This is a difficult question, and one I am still thinking through, but my gut feeling at the moment is that it’s not about “demands” as such. It’s not as straightforward as “we’re going to sit in this public square until the people in power meet our list of things”.

A peaceful crowd of people gathered at Martin Place in Sydney. Tall buildings to the left and right. A low setting sun illuminates the space.

I had the good fortune of being able to see scholar McKenzie Wark speak last night. He spoke about the historic precedents of Occupations and answered some questions about how Occupy Wall Street compares with Occupy Sydney. He’s an Australian-born guy who now lives in New York, and has been to both sites.

Wark said lots of inspiring and fascinating things, but one thing that really stood out for me was when he made a distinction between a “social movement” and an “occupation of public space”. [I’m paraphrasing here, from my hastily scribbled notes]. His take on it is that a social movement – like a protest march – tends to have clear demands. Whereas these “occupation” strategies are all about particular places.

“What are the demands?”, ask the media. “There aren’t any!”

While I think there are actually some demands, every interest group has their own specific set of goals about what they want to see change so there is no clear consensus. My initial understandings of Occupy X, and my brief experiences hanging out in Martin Place on a beautiful sunny afternoon gives me a sense that “Occupy” is less about a list of demands, and more about re-thinking how we might use public spaces, how we can come together to make the world a better and more equitable place.

There is a deep sense of anger and frustration at the ways in which the global financial system is not benefiting the majority of people. There are no easy ways to change the system, but with peaceful Occupations like these gaining momentum, some of the difficult questions are at least being asked. The overall feeling on Saturday (at least for the few hours I was there) was one of joy: friends, laughter, political conversations, spontaneous musical performances, children frolicking in fountains.

The parallels between the various Occupy sites seems to be as much about asking “what do us public do with this public space now that we have claimed it?” as they are about challenging financial institutions and global inequalities.

As McKenzie Wark said asked last night [paraphrasing again]: “What do you do when you’ve taken a space? There’s no-one to confront, nowhere to shop… what do you do?!”

You talk. You play. You laugh.

You get together to discuss how things could be done differently.

A handwritten sign, posted on a tree reads: "Entertain yourself. Boredom is not a reason to fail democracy."

You can read more about Wark’s work and his reactions to Occupy Wall Street here: Zuccotti Park, A Psychogeography. I particularly like his closing paragraphs, which I will quote as a conclusion to this post:

When there’s nobody really watching, when there’s nothing to confront, when there’s nothing to debate—this is what’s left: How is it possible to create forms of life for ourselves, even if it’s in the shadow of tall buildings that cast long shadows?

I left the Park and headed back to the subway. I had to get up the next morning to get the kids off the school. People were drifting away, although it was clear that a fairly large group would stay on for most of the night. And others would be back in the morning.

Not many people can inhabit this place outside of work time, but a lot of people come to visit, and to glimpse something of another way in which the city might function. Other lives are possible; sometimes they even actually exist.

No matter what happens here next day or next week, I just wanted to record the fact that this actually happened.

(note: photographs in this entry were taken by me. If you’d like to use them, go ahead, but I’d love it if you attribute them to “redserenade” at flickr.)

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14 Responses to “Occupying Sydney: some initial ponderings”

  1. Deborah Says:

    I love your photo of the children occupying the fountain.

  2. Dominic Case Says:

    Yes, I’m troubled too, by the lack of obvious “what do we want” in the Occupy movement. But I think it is a bit of a cop-out to say that it’s not about that, it’s about coming together, and talking and laughing and playing. It’s just great that that is the mood: it’s overwhelmingly similar in the climate change movement too, but there we have some very clear courses of action that we are pushing for.

    So do you think the Occupy movement accepts that nothing will really change, so let’s just be happy – or, is Lemony Snicket (?) right to say “It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.”? (http://occupywriters.com/by-lemony-snicket ).

    • doctorpen Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Dominic. Yeah, I was thinking after I finished writing this piece that it perhaps sounded a little bit too “happy happy joy joy”. I don’t mean to suggest that the Occupy strategies don’t have goals or aims. I just think that they are not immediately clear yet, because the Occupies in Australia only started a few days ago. I have only been at the Martin Place site briefly – about three hours on the first saturday. And the atmosphere then was as I describe. I hear from my friends, though, that it wasn’t always so utopic. There were some confrontations with the police and people were asked to pack up their tents.

      There were (and are) lots of meetings happening at the site too. I haven’t been involved in any of them. But maybe others who are reading this, could elaborate a little on what sort of meetings are happening and what kind of decisions are being made about the “point” of the occupation of martin place.

      Thanks for that link! What a lovely list of observations. As for your question, I don’t think that the Occupy movement accepts that nothing will change. I think they are fighting for change! Personally, I think it’s the job of the people shouting outside *and* the people inside with pens and desks to both come together to solve these kinds of problems.

  3. kim Says:

    Tangential thought after reading your blog entry:

    I find community gardens exciting because they represent social gathering, enterprise, nourishment, prioritisation of agriculture, food security, sustainability, and green urban space. These are public spaces that only have meaning when ‘occupied’ – otherwise they are merely vacant lots. So starting up gardens (e.g. by seed-bombing; breaking council regulations by planting crops on the ‘public’ median strips) as a form of protest makes sense to me.

    What does the occupation of Martin Place signify? It’s a symbolic protest against business, right? But what do we want instead? Our society is economics-driven, and this is something evolved not decided. I’m having difficulty imagining alternatives, aside from subsistence agriculture.

    I understand specific demands, but wouldn’t it be more effective to lobby for these – specifically. Somehow, I doubt that people who are usually politically apathetic (or politicians with other agenda) will be stirred by a vague occupation, if they are not moved by reasoned lobbying.

    • doctorpen Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kim. Yeah, community gardens are fantastic, aren’t they? And you’re totally right – when they’re not occupied, they become not about community anymore. I just had a vision of a community garden being started up in Martin Place itself (!). Not sure if there are any soil beds there though…mostly concrete.

      I think Occupy Martin Place has started out as a symbolic protest against business, but my understanding is that they’re actively deciding by consensus what each next step will be. That process takes time because there are a lot of voices.

      I’m pretty sure they are planning to lobby for these kinds of things. Letter-writing campaigns have started, they are setting up media liaison people, etc. I can’t answer those questions in much more depth because I am yet to go back and visit the site to see how it’s all going, but I’m fairly certain (hearing from friends) that there are a range of strategies being discussed and acted upon.

      As for your question about alternatives to our economic-driven society… well, yeah, imagining alternatives is a challenge, I agree. No easy answers, here at all. If you’ve got a bit of time one day, I urge you to go and check it out though – the Occupy folks who are on the ground will be able to answer your questions better than I can. 🙂

  4. Louise Says:

    Great post. Keep blogging, you’re good at it. 🙂

  5. suzysiu Says:

    I don’t get this concept of “occupying public space”, particularly in regards to Martin Place. I think of Martin Place as a busy area, full of people, albeit mostly walking through. Full of people who work in the area, but at night it’s a spot for a homeless food van. People have lunch in the area, and there are free concerts.

  6. anthony jensen Says:

    The Occupy X movement is a global phenomena expressing demands and aspirations that are at the moment beyond human words and understanding – but we know something does not work – and it’s capitalism.

    Society is now wanting to move to evolve to it’s next state of being where we are free of exploitation based around hierarchies, employment contracts, power differentials, environmental degradation and wage slavery.

    We are realising that the role we have been socialised into, of both consumer and worker, where we must consume to work, is not viable. Work has evolved through slavery, serfdom and the master servant relationship. We are now ready to become full citizens of our economic lives as well as our political lives.

    Anthony Jensen

    • doctorpen Says:

      Thanks Anthony. I am on board, but getting frustrated when people ask “but there aren’t any clear demands!” and I don’t have a way to answer that yet. I think you are bang on when you say that the aspirations are ‘beyond human words and understanding’ and I think this is because it is such a recent phenomenon. You can’t have clear well laid out demands when 100s and 1000s of people are coming together for the first time to discuss something. It’s what, Day 5 in Sydney? It is all so inspiring.

      Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughts to my blog. 🙂

  7. Solidarity, self, occupy, democracy: More readings « Flat 7 Says:

    […] Occupying Sydney: Some initial ponderings – Doctor Pen […]

  8. 42nd Down Under Feminists’ Carnival « Pondering Postfeminism Says:

    […] Pondering Postfeminism « Occupying Sydney: some initial ponderings […]

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