Friday, 21 October 2011

Taking to the streets of Melbourne.

Today started being awoken by a phone call.  It wasn't particularly early, but I had been indulging my natural night owl tendencies and had gone to bed at about 2am.  My friend was calling to ask me about comparative wage justice in light of the discussion about the Tax Commissioner using it as justification for the 58% pay increase he is seeking.  You can read the story in The Age here.  His claim may or may not be justified, but it's hard to take it seriously in light of the 3% increase he is offering his own workforce.

After offering my sleepy take on the issue of the day, I turned on the radio to hear the news about the death of Gaddafi.  Except I heard about celebration in Libya before I heard what was causing the celebration.

And then over my porridge, I heard the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Councillor Robert Doyle, advise that people participating in the Occupy Melbourne protest were being issued with eviction notices with a 9am deadline to leave City Square.  Among the reasons he gave was that it wasn't fair for protesters to inconvenience the public who wish to use the square.  He also cited a negative impact on business.

I had only a vague awareness of the occupation protests in many cities and was not really aware of what was happening in Melbourne until I'd heard the Lord Mayor forget his PR training on the radio earlier in the week and have a go at one of the protesters who called in.  Now, along with the rest of Melbourne and the country, I'm very aware.  I've trawled through their website.  There's some predictable stuff there.  I found the minutes of "Melbourne's first general assembly" quite fascinating.  The revolutionary language makes it easy to skim through it and write if off as cliche, but what really shines through is the idealism.  I love the fact that there's a free shop, a kitchen, a school and some responsibility taken for creating a thoughtful community.  For example:

  • That  homeless people are welcome at occupy Melbourne and have access to any of our resources.
  • That this action is endorsed as a nonviolent action; and that we take communal responsibility to reinforce this.
  • $242 raised for Philippines striking workers during course of meeting.

 It's also interesting to note the areas where there was a lack of consensus.  There were many:

  • That Occupy Melbourne has a ‘no buying; no selling’ policy’.  Result: consensus not achieved.  Referred back to individual.
  • That people identify when they speak for themselves, when they are speaking for a political party or a group.  Result: consensus not achieved.
  • We are against capitalism.  Result: consensus not reached. 

I found the last one a little surprising.  Any wonder it has been difficult to work out exactly what the objective of the protest is.

Then I heard on the radio that the police had arrived in riot gear with horses and dogs and the eviction was on.  Fences were being erected around the City Square and the tent city was being dismantled. My heart sank.  People would probably be hurt.  The disobedient rebel in me secretly rallied around the protesters in the face of the ridiculous stance taken by the Mayor but it was in heated argument with the person who believes passionately in the power and value of conversation.

I decided to go into town and see for myself.  I'm glad I did.

The Mayor's objective to give public space back to the public at large and remove inconvenience sounded like a joke when considered in light of the chaos at the Swanston and Collins Street intersection.  Trams were not moving on these two main city thoroughfares.  The Yarra Trams worker at the Collins Street stop told me at about 1pm that the trams hadn't been going for over three hours.  Instead of the protest being relatively contained in the City Square, it was now in the streets facing off against police.  Meanwhile, City Square sat empty, surrounded by fences, security guards and police.
The intersection of Collins Street and Swanston Street in Melbourne city.  On the left the mounted police can be seen.
Burke and Wills watch over the stand off between police and protesters.

Up close and personal - police keep bystanders off the street and away from the main body of protesters.

I was there for about 90 minutes just observing and taking in the vibe.  There seemed to be more onlookers than protesters and more police than protesters.  As I arrived, I could see mounted police in the centre of the intersection, ringed by police.  The air felt tense but calm.  Then I saw the mounted police start to move forward.  I heard the crowd boo and I felt a chill.  This is where things can turn bad.  I felt for the police actually.  Physically putting themselves on the line for a politician who was being bull-headed and not noticing the own goal he was about to score.

There were all kinds of people around.

I overheard a mother explaining to her toddler that this was happening because of the greedy, rich people and greedy rich people are bad people who deserve everything they get.

I spoke to a bloke who said he was trying to get through to the other side of the intersection.  He had contractors booked for the day and he couldn't understand why the police didn't just break it up and arrest them.  The protesters were breaking the law in his view.  I suggested to him that it was a delicate situation and as much about the PR battle as the actual stand off in the street and that the police were moving slowly, deliberately and carefully.  They wouldn't want to ignite what was currently peaceful.  He shrugged and said he didn't care.  Law breakers get what's coming to them.  I decided not to share the observation that they were only blocking the streets now because of the Mayor's decision to move them out of the Square.

Sellers of the "Big Issue" magazine were desperately trying to take advantage of the crowds to sell their magazine.  Ironically, it didn't look like many people were buying.  A little way away, I heard two men arguing.  One was in a wheelchair and being yelled at by another: "We're doing this for you mate!"  And then, "We've been housing and feeding Melbourne's homeless people for a week."  A little overinflated perhaps.  Or perhaps an understatement of Melbourne's homeless population.  Revolutionary language does seem prone to hyperbole.

A white van, with fashion label "Anthea Crawford" written on the side, drove up Collins Street and came to an inevitable halt at Swanston Street.  The traffic light went green and of course the van could go nowhere.  The driver had a plan though - he started to toot his horn!  Trams weren't running.  There were mounted police and even the horses were in protective riot gear, but the dresses would get through!

Meanwhile a young guy was standing on the tram stop railing to gain a higher vantage point.  He looked precarious but safe.  A man in a wheelchair made his way over and yelled at him to get down.  The guy got the wobbles as he turned to acknowledge the local school prefect.  The wheelchair bound man told him to get down because it wasn't safe for him to be up there.  He eventually went away, but a few minutes later came up and tried to push him off from behind, saying as he pushed, that it wasn't safe for him to be up there.  It certainly wasn't safe if some lunatic in a wheelchair was going to push him from behind.  The guy jumped down and I asked if he was okay.  He was visiting from France.  He explained to me that this was much more peaceful than the strikes they have in France, but the French protesters like it when it turns violent because they gain exposure for their cause.  I welcomed him to Australia (in French of course) and then for some unknown reason further demonstrated my French language mastery by asking for directions to the station and asking for a croissant.  We went our separate ways.

Above the heads of the crowd was a sea of iphones, ipads and cameras being held aloft.  I suppose their grainy, bumpy footage will flood the web.

As the protest now blocked access to the Melbourne Town Hall, council workers in their ties and suits looked down from the balconies.  Another bad PR look.  One valiant protester tried to scale the walls of the Hall Spiderman style, but only progressed a few centimetres before dropping back to the throng.  And all of this took place with the benediction of a giant devil-cherub statue, there as part of the Melbourne Festival's Angels-Demons parade. (Photo below.)

I didn't want to be there if things turned ugly and the rain was making things a bit unpleasant, so I decided to head back to Flinders Street station to catch the train home. As I went past the empty and contained City Square I decided to cross the road to take a photo.  A security guard was watching me.  I took several photos and then he spoke:  "You need to move on ma'am.  This area is out of bounds."

That's public space he's talking about.
The previous site of the protests.  Out of bounds to me and any other passers by.

No comments:

Post a Comment