Occupy Perth: Inclusion

Claire and Jason standing with a sign
My friends Claire and Jason at the march against CHOGM before Occupy Perth. Occupy Perth has a place for silly facial expressions!

I went to Occupy Perth yesterday, along with quite a few friends. On the whole it was a good experience and the people who I talked to mostly felt positive about it. The message that’s mostly being used to frame Occupy events, ‘We are the 99%’, encourages participation: it’s open to interpretation and it’s broadly inclusive.

The forms, as well as the messages, adopted for activism help to shape who feels comfortable participating. Signing a petition, for example, is a kind of activism that almost anyone can participate in: it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t require too much thought, and it (mostly) won’t put you in danger. At the other end of the spectrum, activist tactics that require more time and are potentially dangerous (in terms of potentially getting hurt or arrested) are less likely to invite broad participation. More costly tactics (in terms of time and potential risks) are also likely to exclude some groups more than others, including those who can’t afford to miss time at work, those with carer’s responsibilities, ethnic groups which are already targeted by police, and people with disabilities*.

I think that the Occupy format has a lot of potential to be inclusive. It’s costly (in terms of time and effort) to participate in some aspects of Occupy events: many people aren’t comfortable sleeping out, and consensus decision-making can be a painfully slow process if you don’t have time to spare. But having a continuous and visible presence in a central public space means that people can stop by whenever they have time and they can sit and talk and engage more deeply with the issues. At most of the Occupy events, people seem to be making an effort to invite participation, whether it’s through free yoga sessions, open classes, people’s kitchens, or simply by trying to build a positive and welcoming atmosphere.

There were times yesterday when I feel like Occupy Perth wasn’t doing so well at this. At one stage, a group of people started putting up a small marquee as a symbolic action against the signs prohibiting camping. People were getting up and making quite fiery speeches about this, and when someone tried to argue against the action the megaphone was taken away from them. Those in favour of putting up the marquee somehow ended up with all the megaphones. My friends and I were quite uncomfortable with this: not just that some people seemed to want to carry out an action that specifically invited arrest, but also the tone of the speeches surrounding the action and (as far as we could tell) the lack of discussion that had preceded the action.

This, to me, did not feel inclusive. It felt like it was shifting the tone of Occupy Perth to something more aggressive, where there was less space for negotiation than I had felt at the first general assembly. Finally, space was made to have some discussion about what was going on and allow people to speak for alternative actions. Even then, the tone felt uncomfortable to me: a few of the speakers in favour of putting up the marquee were starting chants rather than explaining why they thought the action made sense. People were surrounding the marquee and linking arms, standing in poses that indicated that they expected the police to move in at any minute.

A few people who I spoke to later left at this point: they didn’t feel comfortable with what was going on, and didn’t feel like they were being represented. When a vote was taken about whether or not the marquee should go up, the majority of those present supported it – but numbers had dwindled, and I wonder how many of those who left did so because the event had taken on a more aggressive tone, skewing the vote.

A woman standing with a sign reading, 'If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. - George Orwell'
Photo courtesy of Flickr user sleepy chan.

Communities that work can handle disagreement, and I feel like those involved in Occupy Perth dealt with the tensions that came up well. The police chose not to attempt to take down the marquee**. Occupy Perth’s police liaison negotiated an agreement that allowed people to stay overnight. My friends and I left for the afternoon, and when we came back in the evening we found a cheerful and welcoming atmosphere. We sat and shared food. My friend knitted and I crocheted and someone played ukulele in the background. We talked to each other and strangers about how Occupy Perth was going so far, going through what we wanted to get out of it, different ideas about activism.

A man in a suit holding a sign reading, 'Just Give'.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user sleepy chan.

Being inclusive isn’t the only criterion that should be used in evaluating activist strategies. Non-violent direct action of the sort that only a few people are brave enough to engage in sometimes plays a vital role in creating change; signing petitions and letter-writing campaigns only work if there’s a clear target and desired outcome, and even then can often be ineffective. In the case of Occupy Perth, though, the decision to adopt the ‘we are the 99%’ message suggests to me that we should be trying for inclusive forms: we should be trying to create a tone and a space that invites participation from activists, from people who don’t usually go to protests, from passers-by. On the whole, I think Occupy Perth is managing that very well.

[Edit: one of the people I was there with was flyingblogspot, and I highly recommend her post on the event.]

* I’ve written more about this in the context of women’s involvement in the opposition to genetically modified crops here, if you’d like to read more.

** It is vital to remember that the police, and those in charge of directing the police, have a choice about how they respond. While I didn’t agree with the marquee being put up, acts of civil disobedience such as camping out absolutely do not justify police action like that seen in Melbourne or in other parts of the world. If non-violent protesters are dispersed by force, those held accountable should be the ones using the force, not the protesters.

Why I’ll be at Occupy Perth (and the protests against CHOGM)

In my last post on Occupy Perth, I talked about the importance of getting involved if you want to help shape the Occupy movement in your area. Since making the post, I haven’t been as involved as I’d like to have been. A lot of my time and effort has been taken up with a tricky (and exciting!) project at work, and I also have quite a few commitments outside of work.

I admit, I’ve also been a bit daunted at the thought of trying to find a space within the movement and a frame for my involvement. People seem to have a good understanding of why people in the US feel the need to protest: read wearethe99percent if you want to know more. However, I’ve heard quite a few people say that people in Australia have nothing to complain about: we have a relatively good healthcare system and welfare safety net, and plenty of opportunities to pursue change within the system. I’m not sure that those involved in Occupy Australia events have managed to adequately get the message out that we recognise the differences between our situation and that of the US, but still have reasons to be frustrated.

Emily Manuel has written an excellent post over at Tiger Beatdown answering the question a lot of people are asking: Why do we need an Occupy Australia? Read it. Read it now. Manuel very clearly explains the problems with Australian politics, and points to some of the ways in which our media environment skews public opinion.

A sign, lit up in the darkness, that reads "No Left Turn".
'No left turn' by Matthew Aldrigde

I don’t know if the Occupy Australia movement is going to make a difference, especially given that its message will be filtered through the mainstream media. But I do know that I have spent the last few years trying to engage in community education, trying to be the change I want to see in the world, calling the offices of organisations and ministers to try to convince them to change their position, donating to causes I believe in, boycotting and buycotting…I’m far from being a brilliant activist, and I don’t devote as much time or energy as many other people I know do to this, but I have been trying. And at this stage, I feel kind of helpless because apparently we’re going to get an Abbott government, despite his ridiculous and regressive raft of policies. Maybe Occupy Perth will help, and maybe it will be just another protest that gets misrepresented and/or ignored, but it’s at least one more possibility for change that I can try to be involved in.

Anyway, despite all that I was still unsure about whether or not I wanted to keep being involved. I value the inclusion of diversity within the movement, of ‘One No and Many Yeses‘, but I’ve seen the way that gets distorted through the media, and so I don’t know how effective the protests will be.

Watching the video of the police breaking up Occupy Melbourne decided me:

Even if I’m not entirely comfortable with how some of the protesters have been framing their message, even if I’m ambivalent about the effectiveness of Occupy Australia in creating change…I don’t support this. I don’t support non-violent protesters being dragged away. I don’t support the idea that we need to give up on public space, allow people who have committed no crimes to be banned from the city centre:

I don’t support what’s happening in Oakland, or any of the other places around the world where non-violent protesters are being dispersed with unnecessary force. I don’t support the idea that all public space has to become controlled space, surveilled space.

Sign reading: camping without a permit is prohibited
One of the signs put up around Forrest Chaise over the last few days.

At the very least, I will be at Occupy Perth because I care about retaining spaces for visible, non-violent, civil disobedience. I don’t want to live in a society that silently accepts non-violent protesters being classed as ‘security threats’, where homeless people are tidied out of sight, where the ‘threat’ of a few people staying overnight in the city centre merits stern warnings and potential police action. I haven’t heard a single person speak in favour of anything except non-violent action around CHOGM and Occupy Perth, and I’ve heard the importance of non-violence emphasised over and over. This is not a threat.

I believe that our society should allow visible dissent, and not try to push it away into the corners. So I’ll be there, for a while at least, dissenting visibly.

Occupy Perth

I went down to see Occupy Perth today with some friends. I haven’t been to any of the planning meetings for Occupy Perth and my friends and I were mostly just curious to see what it was all about: how many people would be there, what people would be saying about their grievances and goals. Before the discussion started we were talking about some of the concerns we had about the direction of the protests, debating different ways of approaching the OccupyX phenomena.

The day started with a brief introduction and an open invitation for anyone to talk about why they were there, using the people’s microphone. Some people said things we agreed with, others said things we were uncomfortable with, but some of the people I was with also seemed to feel like there were important perspectives that weren’t being represented. And that was around the point where I realised (again, and probably not for the last time), that if we wanted points made, one of would have to make them.

Image of a blue-haired protestor and a Vendetta maskI’ve done a bit of public speaking before, including giving lectures and conference presentations, but I was still nervous about saying something. Especially without having anything prepared. But I got up and talked, because it was important to me to bring up some of the ideas I wrote about earlier. And later on when debate started about whether or not to follow the march against CHOGM with an occupation I got up and spoke again, joined by my friend Claire. I don’t know if many people agreed with the points we were making, or found them useful. I hope that the latter was true, at least.

It was important to me to be reminded that there is space in Occupy Perth and other activism to get involved and help shape what happens. It’s easy to sit back and criticise the movement, to see it as something that needs to live up to our expectations before we decide whether or not to get involved, to forget that we have a role to play. I think that’s especially easy for people (including me) who aren’t part of the dedicated community that sustains a lot of Perth activism.

They are certainly times when it makes sense for some groups to stay out of activist spaces until their expectations are met. For example, I think that Aboriginal Australian activists have urgent reasons for prioritising their own struggles, and for being involved only in movements that they feel are working towards their goals. It’s also reasonable to expect that activists build spaces that are welcoming for women, queer people, and other marginalised groups.

People have been putting a lot of effort into making Occupy Perth an open and welcoming forum. It’s not perfect, but activism never is. Consensus decision-making is hard work sometimes and you won’t always get your own way, but engaging in the process means that at least your voice will be heard. If you think that what we have now is broken and needs fixing, if you see some chance that Occupy Together might be a vehicle for change, you don’t need to sit back and wait to see if it heads in a direction you like: you can play a role in determining how the movement progresses.