On Saturday night, a handful of friends and I went down to City Square to Occupy Melbourne. Like many others inspired by the traction and momentum gained by the Wall Street occupation, we wished to experience its model of protest for ourselves. The experience was fascinating, educational, confusing, inspiring and confronting.
I arrived at City Square around 2pm and began exploring the area. One side of the square was an assembly area hosting an open speaking forum, at which a wide variety of people spruiked various anti-establishment causes to a medium-size crowd. Elsewhere volunteers at an information desk displayed a schedule of workshops. I spent a couple of hours attending a workshop on climate change and then circulating and chatting to people about respective campaigns we’re involved in and how we might be able to help each other.
At 4pm a general assembly was held, at which a large crowd listened to various proposals and voted on them to test for consensus. Few substantive proposals were passed, a notable exception being a statement of solidarity with striking Qantas workers. Happily, some of the more unconstructive proposals, such as the assembly ‘vilifying the 1%’ or being ‘against Capitalism’ failed to achieve consensus.
After a pit stop home I returned in the evening to camp. This is a key aspect of the Occupy movement. Inspired by the Arab spring, the activity of camping in a central location in cities seems to symbolise disobedience, and a reclaiming of space from a ruling class. And while no protestors I met were under the illusion that an Egypt-style revolution is currently possible in Australia, where there is far less economic hardship than in the States or Europe, there was nonetheless a sense that when social upheaval does come, the occupation model may play a role in shaping the social movements and societies of tomorrow.
Camping also seems to promote a sense of community and solidarity among protestors. Stirring bleary-eyed and under-slept in the morning, we spoke calmly as we warmed ourselves and shared breakfast. In the clear light of day ideological divides seemed surmountable. We smiled at each other and bonded over our shared experience, as happens so naturally among human beings.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Occupy movement is its radical inclusiveness. This inclusiveness is fascinating, because it adds a whole new level of complexity to the experience of attending a protest. For example, my friends who attended the first general assembly are all sympathetic to the cause, all understand the unsustainability of the path our society is on, and all see broad social change being necessary. Yet at the same time, none were willing to talk to the crowd. Put off by the vocal fringe elements and what they perceived as glib sloganeering, they shied away from true engagement rather than inject their opinions into the process.
What is fascinating about Occupy model, however, is that these friends had no one to blame for the level of the dialogue in the assemblies but themselves. After all, the floor was open to them just as it was open to all of those who did speak. No one is justified in walking away from an Occupy-style assembly blaming others for arguments that should have been raised but were not, because it is the responsibility of everyone involved in such assemblies to raise whatever must be raised. If you choose not to participate in the assembly, you have little right to criticize it. You can’t knock it till you try it.
To my friends’ credit, however, they were well aware of this. By merely attending, whether they wanted it or not, they had been given part ownership of Occupy Melbourne, and therefore ownership of any failure on its part to represent their own views and opinions. They may have left feeling negatively about certain of the views expressed, but they could not leave without a sense of the potential for the model, should they choose to use it, to allow their own voice to be heard. That in itself is something new and inspiring, and I suspect that it is this involuntary enhanced involvement in attendees that will prove to be the current protests’ lasting legacy. We have not, I feel sure, seen our last public general assembly.
As I left the square the next day, I walked closely behind two middle-aged working class-looking men. One pointed at the protestors still at the square and muttered something about ‘dickheads’ getting ‘dole money’. As I overtook them, I said ‘nah, they are good people’. They didn’t reply. As I walked on, I realized that the exchange hadn’t bothered me nearly as much as it normally would have, and I tried to figure out why.
My best guess is this: given the chance, the square will include those men just as it included me and my friends. And once it has done so, I know that it will be much harder for them to see its inhabitants as ‘dickheads’, rather than as people. We may disagree about many things, but airing difference and figuring out how to make positive changes to the world is what the square is for. And like my friends, those men have no power to knock it till they’ve tried it.
I truly hope they do one day, too. This, after all, is their world just as it is mine, and I have no doubt whatsoever that they, just like me, would like to make it better one.