Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Live from Occupy Melbourne (five days late)

It was quite the slow morning last Friday, so when the word went around that the cops were about to steam in and liberate Green Square.. err the City Square.. I was down for a spot of rubbernecking. It's not often you get to see something in person that will be talked about for years, and to be entirely fair I've missed standing on the outskirts of a horse charge since they shut down the National Soccer League.

To be entirely fair in the grand scheme of things I was probably going for plod in this matchup. Afterall they did start as red hot favourites, and the occupiers had enjoyed a fair run where they'd achieved absolute doughnuts in the way of altering the way the world was run. They could have stayed until December 2015 and it wouldn't have helped a dot, so back to the steps of Flinders Street with your petitions and street theatre and let's all get on with our lives.

Not that there aren't things worth pinging a tent pole around a major city thoroughfare about, but I'm a fairly contented member of the supposed 'other' 99%. I could use easily available credit to buy a motorbike then fall off due to my own stupidity and have the government pay for my rehabilition plus most of my lost earnings. But I don't want to. I can go to a hospital emergency room with the most frivolous of perceived illnesses and somebody will eventually see me and send me on my way without a $10,000 bill. I somehow managed to score a decent job despite dropping out of Uni the day after enrolling and even if I stuff up after ten years and wind up sacked then the government will give me a few scraps until I find something else to do. Pretty good country this.

It's not without its flaws but call me when the budget is being taken to with a machete like Greece. When workers are being subject to vicious pay cuts, losing pensions, seeing taxes rise and having their collective bargaining agreements changed on them. That's worth at least yelling about. Maybe even waving about a placard for. Nothing is ever worth sleeping in a tent for no matter where you are.

It's not to say that I don't have sympathy with some parts of the utterly baffling range of causes that were on show. $5m a year for CEO's that are simultaneously shuffling half their workforce off to another country is undoubtedly scandalous, but what are you going to do to change it? Sitting in a tent yelling into a megaphone isn't going to make Alan Joyce suddenly stand up and go "Wait! You're right! I'm going to give up $4.9m a year and spend every third Monday helping passengers recover their lost luggage". It's not Minsk in 1918, we've come too far to turn around and go back to everyone working on the farm.

You could nationalise major companies left, right and centre and pay the CEO's what you want to pay them, but you're not going to manage that by waving pamphlets about your head outside the State Library. Any thought to perhaps mobbing up and making a decent fist at getting into parliament? Would be a fair test of whether the other 99% are even halfway interested or whether it's really about 3% after preferences. Here's an idea, if you hate the Liberal Party so much then join up en masse and mess with them from the inside. Imagine the comedy value when everyone turns up to their AGM tabling motions to smash the capitalist state? Would be a small price to pay for high comedy. And it's not like you're really funding them either, all the money raised from people joining up en masse would be blown in one TV commercial which they're going to show whether you like them or not.

Obviously there's no legitimate interest in joining the proper political process other than a few token efforts spearheaded by parties with names so ridiculous that only a handful of people will ever vote for them. You may be quite keen on a socialist alternative, and good luck to you sir or madam, but if you want anyone to vote for you maybe don't be so open about it. Try diversifying and offering some actual solutions instead of anguished wailing and beating of drums.

As much as they'd throw themselves out of a window to hear it this lot remind me a lot of the distant black sheep cousins of the grey power anti-carbon tax brigade. They're certainly both convinced that somehow we're living in a dictatorship despite that small matter of a parliamentary democracy going around. Forget 99%, I'd like to give them each their own 1%, hive the rich off with theirs and put myself into the 97% who don't really give a toss.

You can't say there wasn't diversity amongst the groups protesting, and no doubt there were some issues on offer than can be dealt with via the existing system. Same sex marriage and improved treatment of asylum seekers are noble causes (from my perspective anyway) so why not turn your attention to lobbying on their behalf. Write letters to the papers, stack the Herald Sun comments section (try not to call them filthy scum even if you sincerely believe it and if in many cases it's true), calling talkback radio etc.. They might not print the first one, they might not print the first hundred but they're going to give in eventually and you'll hit more people through the much hated 'mainstream media' than you will in a million protest marches.

So, I'm not a great believer that protesting solves anything. Maybe if you're planning on overthrowing the government of Tunisia we're on the same page but don't give me the 'poor old me' routine in a country which is so far from a properly repressive dictatorship that it's almost offensive to go around yelling about how it's a police state.

But sure, have your marches if it works for you. Do your own version of Ray's Tent City in the middle of Melbourne if it makes you feel like you're actually contributing to making society better but you're not really helping. No really, you're not. Neither are a lot of other people (including yours truly) but at least we're not pretending to be.

On that note back to the Square itself. For a start the process of clearing the square was hardly the freewheeling, swing for the fences, batons 'n gas bonanza that some would like you to think it was. By the time I got there they'd put up a fence around the square itself so nobody could get in, and pretty soon after they moved the perimetre (which is incidentally also the measurement that Nandos use for their sauces) back so that you couldn't stand on the footpath nearest the square. With the crash helmeted fuzz showing up at exactly the same time as the second level of the demilitarized zone went up it was fairly clear that the final countdown had begun and some people were about to get moved whether they liked it or not. If that didn't give it away the deployment of rubber gloves and anti-gob goggles certainly did.

I thought the cop tactics were initially pretty good. Put the fences up so there's only one way to get out, slowly advance on either side (and they were very slow) and force people out the middle. Is that what they call kettling? Quality buzz word that we've scored from England that is. Either way it was pretty effective in thinning out the numbers inside the square itself. Only problem was that obviously the people who left under their own steam weren't going to throw their hands up in the air and go home, they just moved outside and started rucking with the rozzers there instead.

In the initial phase of moving them out a few people were forcibly removed, including the guy who later appeared in a bath on Q&A whining about brutality, but the majority were pushed out by the full court press and wound up on the other side of the fences. Not that they were well pleased about it though. The first group out decided they'd sit down in Swanston Street and block the trams. Stick it to the man, those 1% commuters must have been gutted. That didn't last long because the moment a horsey ran at them they were back off to the pavement, launching a lengthy standoff and abuse session against a line of officers.

Eventually the more and more people who were squeezed out of the square wound up standing around Collins/Swanston along with the bandwagoners who'd shown up late, the abusive chorus watching from the elevated ground just up Collins St, schoolkids having the time of their life and slack jawed yokels like me who had just come to see a bit of tension. By this point quite the crowd of onlookers had turned up and it was starting to get hard to tell who was there for the protest and who was there just to take action footage on their phone. There was hardly a person in the crowd who wasn't taking photos or filming so it's to be presumed we'll be seeing highlights of Friday's events for years.

As the numbers inside the square thinned to just a handful a second shot by the displaced masses at taking the Collins/Swanston intersection was repelled by a cop baton charge. Didn't really help as by now there were too many of them and it only temporarily moved them back. Just as they were regrouping for another shot at it the Battle of Outside Starbucks kicked off inside the square and everyone's focus turned there instead.

According to the record of my tweets from the scene it was almost two hours between the start of the full court press and when the real wild scenes kicked off. More than enough time to leave if you felt that it was going to be a dangerous situation in there, and if you didn't you were either in denial or dying for it to go off so that the cops came out of it looking bad. There was certainly enough time to take children out of there so if the pictures of the mother having a nervous breakdown shielding her kid from the cops was taken during the final battle then she's clearly an absolute muppet who needs her head examined.

By the time the cops moved in properly the numbers inside the square were down to about five deep between the two lines of coppers. If you were still there then there's no doubt that you knew what was coming. Don't try and tell me anybody in there wasn't aware that they'd be forcibly moved out by that point. And don't tell me some weren't loving it.

If the police turned up at 3am and tear gassed the place I'd grant you it was an over the top response. I'll also concede that the action outside wouldn't have happened if they'd left the people inside alone but that's chicken and the egg stuff. No doubt too that some of the cops did go over the top, the guy who leant over the front row of protesters to biff somebody in the face amongst them, but the good news is that every man and their dog was taking footage of it so I'm sure we'll all get a good look at the shocking scenes eventually.

But let's draw a line between 'brutality' and brutality. Jumping across a line of people to punch them in the face is brutality, smacking shit out of somebody with a baton when they're trying to get away is brutality. Dragging somebody along the ground because they've dropped to the floor and gone dead weight is not brutality. That's self inflicted. Stand up and walk out and you'll be fine, fall to the fall like a wailing banshee and you'll get dragged. Quite simple. Run at or spit towards a cop holding a baton and there's a fair chance you'll get belted with it.

From there it was quite your good old fashioned Pyrrhic victory, the square was cleared and the cleaners moved in to mop it up but Swanston Street was necked for the rest of the day, much of Saturday and they've had to occupy the square themselves since to make sure people don't roll straight back in. And it gave people who didn't give a toss days earlier the chance to indulge in their "we hate the cops, we hate government, we hate everything" whinging.

With the square unoccupied and then reoccupied straight away again the battle shifted to a three front smackdown with action in the intersection, outside EB Games and outside the square itself. Eventually after both sides pushed and shoved each other a bit it settled into a stalemate and I finally gave up. To be honest it was starting to get a bit depressing watching obviously desperate people tearing into lines of cops, walking up and down shouting their little hearts out for no effect.

Did they really need to move people on? Of course not, they could have left them there forever if they'd really wanted to. "Why didn't they just leave them alone? They would have gone home eventually" has had a few runs since Friday's debacle. Really? You don't think that with only a couple of hundred people needed to man to the square at any given time that they wouldn't have gotten smart and started working in shifts? They'd be there in six months at that rate.

"What's wrong with that?" you may scream - although chances are if you've read this far you'd probably rather the fuzz had opened up on them with AK-47's - and with that you might have a point. Apart from the directly affected businesses there wasn't really any harm being done, but we're all given instructions that we're not keen on in this life and most of us find it fairly easy to follow them. They were given fair warning instead of suffering a surprise attack, the tactics initially adopted gave them almost two hours to clear off it they didn't want to risk the chance of being on the end of some of their beloved brutality and once dispersed they took the decision to hang around and risk being charged by horses, batons, etc...

So, tactical win (in the square at least) for the cops, propaganda win for the Occupy Melbourne organisers and let the good times roll when the Queen turns up tomorrow. Good luck getting within three suburbs of her if you're intending to have a crack at throwing yourself in front of the Royal Tram.