Samuel Webster

October 23, 2011 Occupational Hazard Posted In: Blog

On Saturday afternoon, I left the Occupy Sydney protest disappointed. While I had found resonance in the movement overseas, the protests which have occurred in Australia are not representative of a unified idea.

The final straw for me was the erection of Che Guevara flags, and I tweeted my exit: “Yes, the capitalised image of Che. I think I’m out of here.” And it’s not Che Guevara that I particularly have an issue with, but the fact that the image of him has come to represent something he didn’t. Occupy Sydney had gone the same way.

The movement was born from the US public’s reaction to the fact that the top 1% of the population (financially) own the great majority of the wealth, but Occupy Sydney was characterised by an array of confusion: people spruiking (misunderstood) socialism to those claiming Charles Darwin was a conspiracy to keep men from believing they had God-given creativity. It was a peaceful protest – I have the pictures and the media reports to prove it – but it is one which has lost my personal support.

I tweeted again to clarify: “Research your idols, protest with specificity” and although that merely scratched the surface of my criticisms, it is this which allows me to write objectively – and without specific emotional attachment – about this morning’s proceedings.

At 5am, protesters report that approximately 200 police officers arrived and demanded their eviction. Ten minutes later, they began destroying the camp and making arrests. Now, there are certainly those who will argue that, NSW police were simply acting out of their duty to protect the community. Although that reasoning seems slightly dubious given the nature of the Occupy protest, we could certainly give them the benefit of the doubt if it weren’t for the manner in which they carried out their orders.

By arriving at the camp at 5AM, the police avoided the news cycle. Sunday papers were out and Monday’s were too far away. It is a deliberate attempt to avoid media scrutiny. The mere five minute delay between eviction and dismantling shows that they were keen to have this taken care of before anybody could arrive on the scene.

Barry O’Farrell claims that it was the most opportune time to clear the area, but that doesn’t clear the lack of warning. Surely due notice should be given before such forceful eviction. The NSW Police statement claims that protesters “[had] been camping within the grounds of Martin Place for a week, since Saturday 15 October 2011. They only had approval to protest between 2.30pm – 4.30pm on 15 October” which means, as Kate Ausburn points out, they had an entire week to warn the group. Why were there at least 20 police officers standing idly by Saturday afternoon as hundreds gathered (and cameras captured the gathering) if the protest had overstayed its welcome by 6 days? Why did they stand idly by, knowing they were going to forcefully evict them in the morning? It just doesn’t add up.

We can’t simply say that individual police officers are spoiling for a fight (they are at the mercy of their employer) but one is led to wonder whether a fifteen minute window might have allowed for their request to be fulfilled without leading to those arrests. One wonders whether they might have prejudged the protesters, who had been peaceful to this point, on the actions of their Melbourne counterparts.

It is the Police’s job to react to danger and direct threat with muscle. In these scenarios they are not a diplomatic force. They are trained security guards with the full power of the law. Their job is to react, but this morning’s action was not one of reaction unless the police have terrifically slow reflexes. If it were a necessary action, it would have been an immediate response to the threat and – barring the possibility of something secretly occurring at 3am in the morning – this response was not immediate. It appears that someone made the call, and then waited until protesters slept. Why would the police force react to something with such delay if not to strike the movement at its weakest point, and what does this decision say about the way in which the law is being enforced?

There is no excuse for such a quick and non-diplomatic response. Why not tell protesters at 9pm that at 5am police would come? Because they would have the opportunity to stand their ground. Because they would ensure media coverage. Because they would not be the weak force the police intended them to be.

To play my own devil’s advocate, there are those who say that police were simply trying to avoid the violence which occurred in Melbourne with a preemptive attack. While that intention may be a noble one, judging one protest against another lacks intelligence, especially when the Sydney counterpart had gone to such lengths to ensure their protest was peaceful and contained. In this scenario, there is still no excuse for the deliberate nature of the takedown: it was executed less than 12 hours after the media left Martin Place; it was undertaken too swiftly to allow sufficient response from protesters; it was disrespectful of the liberty to protest.

This is not about whether the movement is ideologically sound, and it is not about the events in Melbourne. This is not about the legitimacy of protest. The weakest articles today will focus on whether the writer agrees with the movement, but looking at police response through such a political gaze is short-sighted.

As long as protesting is legal in Australia, a preemptive strike on civilians without warrant or major criminal investigation, is an abuse of the brute force a loyal police force allows. We should not begin by blaming the men and women who are stationed in Sydney’s CBD for doing their job. We must blame those who made the call to send their foot-soldiers into what was a dirty, shameful strike on civilians who could, and should, have been given more than fair warning.


  1. Wendy Bacon • October 23, 2011

    Great to read this analysis of eviction - not to say see your wonderful photos. But I don't agree about the sloganising and images. Previous examples resonate for some people and may inspire others. I agree being grounded and specific is very important - but that was happening from what I saw, particularly in small groups. Most of the discussion was about working out what to do - and actually that is both necessary and creative, as we are mostly trained to follow instructions, never to disrupt and so on. People are rejecting the current system, especially inequality, endless growth and consumerism. They may not have all the answers but they are trying to begin a process of change. I hope that you decide to return to the protests.

  2. Samuel Webster • October 23, 2011

    I think you're right, Wendy, and I should be clear: my leaving does not make the protest less legitimate in my eyes, it is just not one I can necessarily align with.

    The discussion is absolutely necessary and I'm glad that's happening - I assume moreso when the cameras are off - but there were several points on Saturday which solidified my opinion. If the Occupy movement becomes about rich vs poor (and not specifically about the poverty gap, tax breaks/bailouts and wealth redistribution) the protest loses its arrowhead.

    Under "rich versus poor" anything which could do with extra money is fair game to lobby with. Those causes may well be legitimate (I personally support an increase to education funding) but the issues are literally "everything under the sun" - fine for a summit, conference or a meeting of the minds but ineffective as a protest. Without specific goals, the protest will end and fade, because it has no measure of success.

    I have long been frustrated with protest as a medium for change because I saw years where the same people were figureheads for every cause. There is a lot of bandwagon jumping, when it really should be a bipartisan discussion. Also, the nature of protest tends to deny the majority discourse and the rules of engagement that it sets up. It is not easy to overturn a system so heavily ingrained - advocating for socialism in Australia, for example, dilutes the protest movement by denying the context within which we are engaged.

    Just my thoughts, and admittedly those of an outsider, but it is the outsiders with which a protest much engage or change will not occur.

  3. marlaina • October 23, 2011

    Occupier here. This is my personal opinion. Totally agree about your comments on the disparity of message/position. This has been discussed in meetings and the message is getting through. Most say 'Occupy is not a vehicle for your established platform'. Its not another get-up, endorsing whatever cause happens to be about. Occupy has a fundamental premise which most ppl, in my opinion, share and can speak intelligently on. That the constant growth model of our and most other world economies cannot be sustained on a finite planet. The clash of the growth/resource limitation is already affecting major economies worldwide and Australia needs to realise that we don't live in a bubble.

    We need to join with other people who are saying 'we have had enough'. Australia won't wait until crisis point. We need our government to be talking about his now. ABS figures for the 4 years to 2009/10 show wage gaps widening at alarming rate and ACOSS estimates 1 in 10 in AU (that's over 2 million people) live on or below poverty line. Its real, and just because it doesn't affect *most* of us (yet) is not an excuse to tell others their cause lacks legitimacy. It is legitimate, and we are growing and re-focussing every day.

    Another key point is that public space is for the public. This is so fundamental but someone gets people in a frenzy. To be in public is to be seen, to be visible, to give BODY to an IDEA.

    I am glad you have voiced your concerns, I think they are valid. Perhaps we need more people like you to stick around.

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