Saturday 8 October 2011

Occupy Queen Street? Not Yet.

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.


Anonymous said...

Chris Trotter: An old man afraid of the police.

Anonymous said...

You're more than welcome to join us Chris, whenever you feel the time has come.

Brendan McNeill said...


You wrote:

"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."

You might also add America into that list. I just read the following:

"The Teamsters represents the drivers at Hertz earning between $9.15 and $9.95 an hour. They receive no health benefits, vacation or sick leave."

Perhaps those planning an occupation of Queen Street could carry placards along the lines of:

"We don't know how lucky we are!"

Cloaca said...

whilst in priciple Chris and I are diametrically opposed politically I read avidly what is written and said.
Of recent times I more often have to say, like this article, I entirely agree.
I look forward to further insights and comments. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Chris is ignoring the large pockets of very real poverty in parts of New Zealand, but I think he's basically right about this Queen st adventure. Not enough people are pissed off yet and like it or not, the rugby is a bit of a factor.
The time of real mass fight back will certainly come though.
Anon 8:33 is a pathetic agist.

Frank said...

And the Establisment strikes back: Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury is banned from Radio NZ.

(With apologies if this comes across as spamming, Chris. I thought everyone should know that reactionary forces are becoming nastier with each passing day.)

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@8:33

Hmmm, not so old, and not so much “afraid” of the Police as I am aware of the legally-sanctioned force they are empowered to unleash on citizens engaged in illegal actions (like obstructing a footpath or carriageway).

Of course, the ability of the Police to exert their legally-sanctioned force against a protest demonstration is inversely proportional to the number of demonstrators involved in the protest. Moving-on 250 demonstrators is a much less daunting exercise in law enforcement than attempting to disperse 2,500. And 25,000 demonstrators can probably count themselves immune from police harassment (unless they’re Syrians).

It would seem axiomatic, therefore, that any group attempting to “Occupy Queen Street” should pay a great deal of attention to maximising the number of people willing to participate. The more demonstrators on the scene, the less chance of seeing them moved-on by the authorities.

One of the factors militating against the proposed occupation is that it involves breaking the law. Now breaking what is usually a relatively trivial law (like obstructing a carriageway) in the name of confronting a much greater evil (like Apartheid or your country’s participation in an illegal war) has a long and honourable history on the Left. But (there’s always a ‘but’) for people to engage in civil disobedience they must first be convinced that the “downside” of their unlawful activity: arrest, detention, trial, conviction, a criminal record; is, indeed, outweighed by the evil they are confronting.

In other words, the ideological preparation for an “Occupy Queen Street” style protest is actually of much greater importance than the practical, logistical preparation. With just five days remaining until 15 October, I simply not convinced that enough people can be persuaded that New Zealand is in the grip of so great an “evil” - or that more than a few hundred, highly ideologically-motivated individuals will be willing to risk arrest and prosecution by attempting to “Occupy Queen Street” in the middle of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

Confronting the Police as part of some testosterone-fuelled, ritual display of revolutionary machismo, forms no part of my definition of “building a better world”. On the contrary, one of the surest ways of knowing that revolutionary victory is near, is when the forces of state repression refuse to obey their superiors’ orders – and join the protest.

Phil said...

Are the occupiers really "the 99%"?

No, not even close.

Regardless of the present intense dislike for banking in general (and lets be honest, this isn't even remotely a new phenomenom) I personally see that most people understand that what we're going through is an internation financial crisis that runs far, far deeper than some mythical 1% that caused all the problems.

James Altucher has a good summary here:

Chris Trotter said...

Hey, Phil, try reading Matt Taibbi's books on the GFC. If you still think the 1-Percenters are guiltless after that, then, by all means, get back to us.

Anonymous said...

Apparently "Since the election of the National Act Government, massive protests of Maori, workers and environmentalists have shaken this country with anger. When tens of thousands gather in the streets and put the National Party under heat, we get a taste of our power.

Next week we have the chance to join a worldwide movement for democracy, justice and liberation. "


Tens of thousands?

Or just Socialist Aotearoa's idiotic caricature of left politics.

Julie said...

A friend was involved in some of the plaza (piazza?) occupations in Spain. She was telling me that one of the key reasons those were effective was that they involved as active participants the vulnerable - namely children and the elderly. I don't feel like the Queen St version will be safe enough for me to take my children, which means I won't be going either. I will watch with interest though, and I do hope things go well. Police response will be pivotal.

Chris Trotter said...

No, Julie, I wouldn't take my kids either.

The whole thing is too hurried and ill-thought-out.

If they'd applied to the City Council for permission to use Aotea Square - been refused by "The Edge" management, and then appealed to the Mayor for the right to peacefully assemble in "public space" - and been refused (albeit with lots of hand-ringing) again.

Well, THEN, I believe they would have been able to count on a reasonably positive public response.

As things now stand, they haven't a hope.

Phil said...

If you still think the 1-Percenters are guiltless after that, then, by all means, get back to us.

Nice try Chris.

I didn't say a shadowy cabal of 1% of our wealthiest-and-most-baby-eating elite were blameless; just that the blame spreads a LOT wider.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Phil, if you're relying on Altucher's "we're all guilty" line, then it's pretty clear you're not on the side God, Mom and Apple Pie. More like a devotee of the "Vampire Squid".

Kevin Skunk said...

Matt Taibbi! They're the first sensible words you've said since, well I don't regularly read this so I wouldn't know.

Simon said...

Matt Taibbi?


Government working hand in hand with GS is free market and the Tea Parties that opposed TARP are evil. Good ole Matt Taibbi he is a switch.

Check this out from The American Prospect.

“Matt Taibbi has done it again—written a nightmare of a story for Rolling Stone on Obama’s economic sell-out of his campaign. The piece is a factual mess, a conspiracy theorist’s dream, doesn’t even indict Obama for his real failures”

The Tea Parties are the real opposition to the 1% and their collusion with government.

Wall Street ownership of the US government is not free market capitalism.

Occupy Queen Street. It is on the cards down the track but if it occurs it will because of government stepping into the free market. Another dozen SCF bail outs will do it. But don’t forget were the fault is.