Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

'Occupy Auckland' protest speaks with many voices

Auckland protesters have adopted universal hand signals to express opinions at general assemblies. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Auckland protesters have adopted universal hand signals to express opinions at general assemblies. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Occupy Auckland, 12 days after the encampment began on October 15, is at once familiar yet like another planet. Something's happening here, as the 60s song goes, but quite what that might be is harder to pin down.

Among the 100 or so tents in rows on the grassy knoll bordering Aotea Square children play, parents lounge in the sun on deckchairs and a couple of fluffy dogs in a small pen eagerly greet anyone walking by.

The atmosphere is like a summer holiday camping ground. Except for the perimeter mesh fence festooned with placards which suggests perhaps a refugee camp. Some of the inhabitants - scruffy neo-hippies with matted hair - suggest the same. But others in more conventional attire disrupt the perception of a movement run by hard left activists.

This is a place littered with contradictions. The fence, originally separating Rugby World Cup fans from the occupiers, is now partially removed. Despite the welcome signs, most passersby linger at the perimeter.

Inside, the weekday 6pm general assembly or "GA" has begun. This camp, like about 2300 occupied zones around 2000 cities worldwide has developed its own language.

"Mic check," says the facilitator, getting the GA under way. "Mic check," responds the gathering of about 100. There's a half-hearted attempt to use the "people's microphone" where the speaker says a few words, pauses while the audience repeats them, loudly and in unison, then says another phrase that the chorus repeats, and so on.

The technique was working to good effect a week earlier in Zuccotti Park, aka Liberty Plaza - a rectangle of trees, benches and open space in Manhattan's financial district, where, on September 17, the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon began. Against the pervasive sound of drummers - one of the neighbours' biggest complaints - an organiser got the people's mic going to remind about the need for donations to keep the occupation in place. A few days later, on America's other coast in San Francisco, the chorus echoed implied threats of eviction in city ordinances the occupiers are being forced to comply with.

Back in Auckland the gathering seems less comfortable with choruses. The people's mic peters out. Speakers normally use a megaphone but it's broken so they shout to be heard. The protesters have, however, adopted the movement's generally silent hand signals. Hands up, palms outward - variously known as sparkle, twinkle, or spirit fingers - indicates agreement. Hands down, palms inward means disagreement. Blocks - clenched fists and wrists crossed - registers disagreement strong enough to stop the consensus process by which things get done.

Donations are flowing steadily - including money, food, generators, water and grey water tanks which are taken off-site daily to be emptied. The kitchen tent with two barbecues - one for vegan food, the other for the meat eaters - has been checked by health officials. There is a strict no drugs and alcohol policy and zero tolerance for violence. The camp is highly organised with workshops, entertainment and 24/7 security.

"We are feeding homeless people and we are giving excess food to the City Mission," says Andy Hendrie, 41, who runs a health centre and a charitable trust that campaigns on healthcare issues. Camp representatives are also in regular communication with the council and police.

"Sure, the council are not particularly over the moon that we have gone and parked ourselves on their front lawn, but at the moment they are being very tolerant and accommodating," says Hendrie.

At the GA one of the speakers reports police cleared protesters in Oakland, California, with tear gas and beanbag rounds at 5am, arresting 85 people. Other speakers have more familiar agendas - including workers' and tangata whenua rights. But while some of the initial organisers of Occupy Auckland came from the Unite Union, the Mana Party and Socialist Aotearoa, what's also clear is they're not running the show. Worldwide, the Occupy protest is a deliberately "leaderless resistance movement" where parochial issues, while respectfully heard, are subsumed by a global stance against corporate greed, social inequality and "the corrosive power" of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.

"One level of confusion in the public is the different messages portrayed by the different groups as seen in the hundreds of different placards," says Chris Glen, 28, an urban planner not affiliated with any political group. "The commonality is they are all symptoms of the underlying cause which is the economic inequality."

Glen says one of the reasons people are getting involved is because Occupy is not a traditional political or protest movement and it's not anti-capitalism. "This is a beachhead for engagement and discussion. It's recognition there are problems."

Hendrie says the movement is recognition that government isn't properly representing the people. "What you see in this camp is a local expression of global public outrage about the way things are being run in the world." Hence the movement's rallying call: "We are the 99 per cent."

American Jen Natoli, 32, an organiser for the Service and Food Workers Union who came to New Zealand in 2005, agrees: "For the first time I see disparate groups who normally wouldn't work together putting aside the things that divide to come together on the things that unite us."

Auckland University sociology lecturer, Campbell Jones, 38, who like Natoli isn't camping at the site but visits daily, says the movement isn't explained away by traditional left-right politics but is a response to mass injustice.

"When that system failed, what was done globally by governments was to bail out the people who caused the problem. That is registered by many as a grave injustice and now we have global austerity."

Jones also rejects reports that the movement doesn't have any proposals or demands on what should be done. He says demands are developing from the consensus process - the first being a worldwide call today for a tax on financial speculation, aka the Robin Hood tax. The movement in New Zealand which includes occupations in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and New Plymouth, is also organising symbolic protest action on Guy Fawkes Day.

- NZ Herald

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