A Good Beginning: One-thousand-plus "Occupy Auckland" protesters gathered in Aotea Square on 15 October and constituted themselves as a "General Assembly" of Aucklanders. But, if it really wishes to speak for 99 percent of its fellow Aucklanders, the General Assembly must turn a good beginning into something much, much bigger.
IT’S NOT OFTEN that old age and treachery are bested by youth and idealism, but it happened on Saturday. The “Occupy Auckland” organisers gave themselves just one week to add New Zealand’s largest city to the growing list of “occupied” cities around the world. Too little time, I said. People aren’t angry enough, I said. Can’t be done, I said.
Well, I was wrong.
I had expected less than 300 people to show up. But it was clear from the moment I arrived at QEII square on Saturday afternoon that there were many more people than that. Between them, Facebook and the wreck of the Rena had assembled a reasonably respectable protest march. As an estimate, two thousand would have been too generous, and one thousand too stingy. But if you’d said around 1,400 protesters set off up Queen Street for Aotea Square, you wouldn’t have been far off the mark.
I like that number because it represents exactly 0.1 percent of Auckland’s 1.4 million citizens. In other words, the “Occupy Auckland” protesters numbered just one tenth of the 1 percent of fat-cat capitalist greedsters they were marching against. I’m not making this point to be snarky, merely offering it as a hopefully useful corrective to some of the over-ambitious claims being made by the protest leaders.
Because the people who have set up camp in Aotea Square are very obviously NOT representative of 99 percent of Aucklanders. They are far too young, far too white, and far too unencumbered by the burdens of job, mortgage and family to be anything like the twenty-thousand-plus ordinary Aucklanders who celebrated the All-Blacks victory over the Wallabies throughout the central city the following night.
But they do represent something. There was a pile of youthful energy and a playful sense of creativity permeating the Aotea Square “campsite” on Saturday afternoon. Even I, a staunch opponent of “consensus-based decision-making” for more than 30 years, felt my frown lines disappearing and a smile slowly spreading across my face as the “facilitators” (don’t, whatever you do, call them “leaders”) explained to the thousand-strong “General Assembly” the four basic hand-signals indicating Agreement, Disagreement, Point of Process and Block.
Here on the green lawns of Aotea Square, under a bright spring sky, I was witnessing something new under the sun – and I hadn’t witnessed anything new in left-wing political practice for a very long time. Suddenly, I was laughing at the speakers’ lame jokes. And, when the various “working-groups” who’d made the day’s events possible were introduced to the General Assembly, I found myself joining-in the crowd's very big round of applause.
I was, however, very glad the plan to literally “Occupy Queen Street” had been abandoned. Worried that there might still be some who refused to accept the decision to shift the focus of the protest to Aotea Square, I moved ahead of the march and took up a position overlooking the big Wellesley Street intersection. If there was going to be a street-based occupation, this is where it would happen.
The Police agreed. From a side street, 24 constables, led by a burly Police Sergeant, formed up into what was clearly a snatch-squad. They were decked out in stab-vests, hand-cuffs and appeared to be carrying batons. Further up Wellesley Street, three large “Paddy Wagons” stood ready to receive the constables’ “catch”.
I watched the protest march approach the intersection, saw it pause, gather mass, pause again, and then move on up Queen Street. The back-end of the march did the same: pause, gather mass, pause. A haka was performed – and then the last of the marchers followed their comrades up Queen Street to the Square. The Police snatch-squad about-turned and marched away.
Aotea Square was always the obvious occupation site. In the popular imagination, if not in strictly legal terms, it is Auckland’s most important public space – a city square – just like the city squares of Cairo and Athens, Barcelona and Madrid. Wall Street is a potent political symbol: Queen Street, for most people, is just a carriageway.
But now the rules of the General Assembly are agreed, and the tents pitched – what happens next? The weather is predicted to turn bad for most of the next week, and heavy rain will quickly turn Aotea Square’s green lawns into muddy wallows. A General Assembly of one thousand merry protesters is an impressive sight. An assembly reduced to 100 bedraggled campers will not look so good.
The question of how to build the protest: of how to reach out to the 99.9 percent of Aucklanders who are yet to involve themselves in this bold political experiment; must be answered. Only when “Occupy Auckland” can gather together in one place as many enthusiastic citizens as the organisers of the Rugby World Cup, will their calls for change acquire genuine political heft. (And when the General Assembly numbers 20,000 - instead of 1,000 - I suspect its calls for change will turn out to be a lot less radical than Saturday's revolutionary speeches.)
The organisers of “Occupy Auckland” have made a good beginning – better than I thought possible. But, in the words of All-Black coach, Graham Henry: “The job hasn't been done yet.”
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.