Saturday, October 22, 2011

This is not what democracy looks like!

Yesterday's police riot has drawn out the politics of the state government quite clearly. The Herald Sun, a reliable conservative mouthpiece for much of the time, summed it up with their first paragraphs in today's edition.

"The Battle of City Square wasn't quite over but the result was never in doubt when a quiet policeman dropped a comment that said it all.

"Now they know we mean it," he mused, munching on a sandwich after hours of riding herd on the rag-tag coalition of protesters camped in the square. "No more Christine Nixon stuff."

It's a bit too convenient to have an officer actually say what the Herald Sun (and their attack dog Andrew Bolt) have been imputing for some time: that the police were feminised and made soft while they had a woman commissioner. Now with her and her successor smeared and removed, and the Herald Sun's favourite conservative party in power, the police have given us a showing of what the conservatives like: jackboots stomping on the face of dissent - almost literally, yesterday.

Of course it's not a good look for the police force to have such political statements out there. I hope they are contacting the Herald Sun with complaints about the presentation of this comment that allegedly came from one of their officers. But it is no doubt an accurate description of what yesterday was about. We have conservatives in government. They want to crush unions, give free rein to the coal and gas industries, discriminate against gays, ban wind turbines, log ancient forests, and the list goes on. And they don't want anyone getting in their way.

Anyone who might have occasion to protest ought to be worried about this, even the 500 or so who rallied just before we did this morning for their right to own vililfied (allegedly dangerous) breeds of dog. This is a government that won't tolerate dissent and they will bring out the goons of the riot squad if they feel like it. Unions, you need to go beyond motions of endorsement: we need to ensure yesterday's precedent for police behaviour is overturned. Climate campaigners, anti-war protesters, equal marriage rights people - you need to be there too. You could be next.

Professional bully-boys

Those riot squaddies were thrilled yesterday, like professional bully-boys. They were lapping it up. The regular constables in the front lines were more sullen, like they might prefer to be off eating doughnuts or issuing fines or whatever it is police enjoy doing, not committing acts of violence. Not so the psychos of the riot squad: you could see it in their eyes.

Having once been sent to a conservative, private boys' school for a few years, I have a bit of a prejudice against traditionalist schoolmasters. Robert Doyle's demeanour always reminded me of such like. The upright clean-looking public face, but concealing a man who rules by being the biggest bully in the playground. It's just an impression, but I give full support to the demand roundly applauded in today's general assembly of the protesters: Doyle must resign.

Protest democracy
The protesters held calm with amazing determination. There were a few people screaming at the cops, a few people understandably very shaken and upset. But there was no attempt to fight back that I saw. We moved slowly away as we were pushed, even as they tried to drag away anyone who appeared to be leading or holding the protesters together.

It was difficult to make decisions. The "human microphone" is a great system for relaying information, or ideas, when nothing else is available. In this system, the crowd repeats the words of the speaker to shout the message to the broader rally. But it's not a way to have an open discussion.

As we were occupying an intersection at the end of the mall, a group with a megaphone inserted themselves into the middle of the protest and used this to communicate, amplified (and reinforced) by a "human mic" conveying their orders. They did not allow people with new proposals to put them to the gathering, even though there was no pressure from the police at that point. The "human mic" in this situation only reinforced this little clique of self-appointed leaders.

The amorphous, leaderless nature of the protests is due to the extremely broad nature of the Occupy movement. This need not be a negative, although it will probably need to be transcended in coming weeks as a degree of focus (like demands for example) will probably be necessary for the movement to keep drawing in more of the 99%.

Having an agreed facilitation group - elected, recallable, accountable - and an agreed decision making method (as we did at today's peaceful march and general assembly) is essential, or else we are vulnerable to manipulation by cliques who may not have the same perspectives as the rest of the crowd. Keeping to decisions agreed by general assembly is a good way to keep such groups in line with the overall will of the group.

As the extreme provocation by the police shows, we need to keep our own group controlled and cohesive. We don't all have to agree on everything, but we have to know when to maintain unity around the decided course of action. Votes today were taken with 90% majority needed to pass. That has a lot of authority!

When the rally drags on, when people are tired (and bruised and distressed from the police violence) is when we need to be most sensitive to unity, cohesion, and keeping the peace. As people are worn out (by physical strain, or by the stress of confrontation) the protest can easily become dominated by a small militant minority. Just because you personally are fine with arrest, rain and marching all day, is not an argument for the rally to do it. To stay united, we have to travel at the speed of the slowest. We may not be lightning fast, but we will be bigger and stronger.

Bigger and stronger, and more focused, is how this movement can grow. Remember, we don't need City Square. As long as we are still organising, they haven't defeated us. As long as we are growing, we are winning. Thanks to everyone who has joined in, and keep on joining in because we can show the conservative government that they can't get away with a police state to force their 19th century agenda down our throats.


  1. Great article Ben. Funny that Doyle was a scholarship student at Geelong Grammar and apparently found it brutalising!

  2. Great article! Sums up a lot of my feeling about the day.

    I was in the square when it was fenced off by the police. While we were all linking arms and trying to act as a group to resist the police the human mic worked amazingly. We hadn't planned to use it but began because there was no other option. In this situation it was not used to monopolise anything, and I saw many random individuals or groups of people use it to make proposals or pass on information. It really helped us to function as a true collective.

    However, I agree that the way it was used when the police were not attacking was completely undemocratic. A small clique used it to cement their decisions rather than to have a real discussion. I have also read many criticisms that the human mic has been used this way in the US protests, which is why we refrained from using it in Melbourne until it became absolutely necessary.

    A lot of the problem was that by that time too many of the occupation organisers had either been arrested or injured and it left a vacuum that could be filled by whoever happened to have a megaphone and the energy to try to direct things (which most of us who'd been there all day didn't have anymore). With so many arrests I'm not sure that this could have been avoided no matter how the rally was organised. But I do think that the people who engaged in this shouldn't be trusted in future. I'm still tossing up whether to bring it up in a general assembly.

    Overall I think the way things have been organised so far has been really good. There have been problems along the way but ultimately the 90% consensus decision making process has really helped keep the thing together. I still think having a facilitation working group that is open to anyone is Ok at least for now. I was relieved at the decision to use amplification today, it's probably the first time I've been able to hear everything that was going on since the occupation began.


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