The Message Is Spreading: The political virus implanted by the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters has become highly contagious, with similar "occupations" speading rapidly across the United States. But are Aucklanders ready to "Occupy Queen Street"? The answer, almost certainly, is: "Not yet."
LAST NIGHT I sat in a roomful of people inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Some were young, brim-full of idealism. Others, older, wore the scars of numerous victories and defeats. Uniting them all was the belief that “a better world is possible”.
I have long been wary of the New Zealand Left’s propensity for jumping on to other people’s bandwagons. What’s happening in the United States and Europe, and what has already happened along the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa – the so-called “Arab Spring” – are products of those particular countries’ recent (and not-so-recent) histories. I am very doubtful that events occurring there can be replicated here quickly, easily and without significant modification.
The kids who moved in on Wall Street over a month ago may have been anarchists, but I strongly suspect that a great deal of organisation followed their decision to set the fires of rebellion in the very belly of the global capitalist beast. My roomful of people had come to organise an occupation of Queen Street, but they’d given themselves just eight days to do it.
Several months ago Spain’s anti-austerity movement, the so-called “Indignants”, designated October 15 as a day of international action against global finance’s determination to make 99 percent of the planet’s people pay for the economic crisis precipitated by its wealthiest 1 percent. Auckland’s radical leftists are determined to do their bit on that day.
Frankly, I don’t believe 8 days is anything like long enough to get something like this organised. But, even if the “Occupy Queen Street” organisers had given themselves six months to plan a full-scale occupation of Auckland’s main street, I doubt if they could pull it off.
The brutal truth of the matter is that, in comparison to the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Bahrainis and Yemenis, New Zealanders live in a blessed realm. And even if we limit our comparison to the peoples of Europe and the USA, the hard fact remains that New Zealanders have had what might be called an “easy” recession.
Our rate of unemployment is comparatively low, and our government has shied away from the sorts of ruthless austerity measures implemented in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece and in many of the individual states of the USA. Our economy’s powerful linkages with the booming economies of Australia and China have spared us the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the deep recession which it spawned. Our great trials (Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes) have been of the sort that bring people together, not the sort that drives them apart.
The other thing that brings New Zealanders together is, of course, Rugby. One more reason, perhaps, for allowing the Spanish-set “International Day of Action” to go unmarked in Godzone. It is difficult to think of a worse time to ask ordinary Kiwis to focus on the building of a better world than in the week its All Black heroes are closing in on their first Rugby World Cup victory in 24 years. For these folk, a RWC win represents the best of all possible worlds!
The RWC offers another quite serious impediment to any form of prolonged protest action – especially action planned for the main street of the biggest host city.
One of the main reasons Peter Marshall was appointed Commissioner of Police is, I imagine, because of his long experience in providing police protection for large international events. I first encountered him in 1995, when he was placed in charge of policing the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Auckland. Recalling the firmness with which he dealt with protesters on that occasion, I can only assume that Commissioner Marshall will respond to any group attempting to engage in prolonged protest action (on or around streets potentially overflowing with RWC revellers) with considerable force.
Indeed, I would be very surprised if any attempt to block streets or set up camp anywhere in the CBD lasts any longer than a few minutes. Nor would I be astonished if the number of constables on hand in Queen Elizabeth Square at 3:00pm on Saturday, 15 October, is greater than the turnout of protesters. In strategic terms, the Police will want to be able to re-deploy their forces in plenty of time for the RWC semi-final match scheduled to take place at Eden Park that evening. The Police Commissioner simply cannot afford to keep a large cordon of police officers on watch over a protest on Downtown Auckland’s main thoroughfare.
Quite apart from anything else, the Police will be worried about the likely outcome of a very large number of pumped-up Rugby supporters, many of them intoxicated, coming into contact with a small number of protesters. The social mores and political attitudes of the former are almost certain to clash with those of the latter. Things could get very ugly, very quickly.
Of course, vivid images of police brutality are wonderful recruiters for any sort of protest movement. On Wall Street, it was the images of a New York cop pepper-spraying a defenceless and non-violent protester in the face that lifted the occupation from a minor piece of street theatre to a genuine political event. The same thing could happen here.
But, I am doubtful. In my opinion both the timing and the venue are all wrong. October 15 is too soon, and Queen Street is simply too critical to the smooth movement of traffic (and revellers) through Central Auckland, for a successful occupation on that date to be successful.
If anything can be read from the overseas experience it is this. Successful occupations take place in the context of major and genuine affronts to the public’s values and welfare; and their venues typically resonate with symbolic power. Egypt’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, for example, was the site of revolutionary uprisings in both 1919 and 1952. Wall Street is, of course, synonymous with the power of global finance capital. The policies of President Hosni Mubarak’s government had imposed extreme hardship on the Egyptian people. Wall Street’s looting of “Main Street” has placed millions of Americans under intense economic pressure.
Auckland’s Queen Street possesses its own symbolic power. It was the site of the largest and most destructive of the unemployment riots of 1932. But these occurred in the depths of the Great Depression when close to a quarter of the New Zealand workforce were unemployed and thousands of families quite literally starving. The “Queen Street Riot” was an explosion of rage and despair from working people at the very end of their tether.
Have we reached that point again? Are enough of us that angry with our government and the economic system it oversees?
Something in me says: “Not yet.”
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.