by Angus Jowitt
Auckland’s summer looks set to be one of discontent. Like the summer of 1968 in Paris where student activism heralded a seismic shift to a more liberal ideal in post-war France, some are saying the Occupy Auckland movement signifies a re-politicisation of young people and the crystallisation of a myriad of different groups claiming to represent social justice.
With almost every inch of grass lawn in Aotea Square occupied, the occupation is impossible to ignore. Auckland City councillor Christine Fletcher says this is causing complaint within the ranks of the city council. “My primary objection relates to their disregard for the loss of amenity for Aucklanders who work in the inner-city. This piece of park and green grass has been hard fought for, very costly and much appreciated by those who work in the inner city,” she says.
Fletcher’s main concern does not seem so much issue-based as related to the quality of the grounds keeping in Aotea Square. “There is damage to the grassed area and possibly the underlying base. I would like to know who will be paying for the remedial work.”
Not everyone agrees on its taking over of civic land to reinforce its claims, but the movement’s momentum and uniqueness would suggest a popular undercurrent of dissatisfaction in New Zealand. After initially treating the issue with kid gloves, the Auckland Council is now attempting to mobilise its opposition, issuing a formal request that those under canvas leave.
At the time of writing, the occupation of Aotea Square in Auckland’s CBD is occupied by some 70 tents and almost 100 people, whose initial stated goal was to stay until after the general election.
They are acting in solidarity with 1200 other occupy groups around the world – the Auckland chapter of this worldwide movement may not have stirred as much controversy as their global counterparts, but they strongly believe in their stand. One of their main claims is that they belong to the ‘99%’ of the population controlled by the ‘1%’ of people in power. They claim this to be detrimental to democracy and aim to change it.
Detractors like Fletcher criticise the movement for not having a clear sense of purpose or strategy as to how to effect change, but long time protestor Joe Carolan says their purpose is clear.
“There’s a political dialogue we are trying to start with this occupation – it’s not just a camp for camp’s sake. We are talking about the 200,000 children who live in poverty, the 170,000 people out of work, the half million workers who are on less than $15 an hour. That’s the camp’s purpose, to bring attention to these problems in New Zealand. Then if people who purport to be left wing use the forces of repression that we have seen in Melbourne and Sydney and Atlanta Oakland on us, I think that will ignite a huge debate in New Zealand.”
Carolan says the site needs to remain active in order to fan these flames. “The longevity of the camp is looking like a real possibility,” he says. “In order for the camp to grow and to have a purpose it needs to be a site that’s launching struggles from it all the time.”
And that does seem to be their modus operandi – their protests have taken the distinctive theatrical flavour of their overseas counterparts. Like the Anonymous movement, which has popularised the image of the Guy Fawkes’ mask as seen on the film V for Vendetta, the Auckland Occupy movement has been regularly engaging in small-scale actions. On the weekend of Halloween, they held a Robin Hood tax protest, followed the next day by a zombie march outside the National Party conference at Sky City.
Carolan says having protestors dress as Robin Hood was “a great laugh with a serious message – that we need to tax the big banks one per cent to raise the money to deal with social problems”.
In the context of recent decades, the movement is unique – not since the Bastion Point occupation of 1977 and 1978 when police and the military forcibly evicted occupiers and arrested 222 people has Auckland seen a high-profile occupation-based protest.
Carolan says it’s an important comparison. “Bastion Point went on for 504 days – we have acknowledged at the beginning that the land we are occupying is already occupied by an economic state that didn’t get any consent from the original Maori owners of the land.”
Carolan says the Occupy movement has the blessing of the original custodians of the land. “Ngati Whatua have given this camp their blessing from the word go – this is Ngati Whatua land that we are on.”
Overt political activism of this nature has been absent from New Zealand for a decade at least; veteran activist John Minto says there is a “lost generation” of politically apathetic people now in the late 20s and early 30s raised on a diet of individualism and Rogernomics.
“I think [that generation] was influenced by Roger Douglas, the free market ruled and there was no alternative according to the political leadership. All around we all had to adapt to the free market – within National and Labour this is still the prevailing ethos.
“The previous generation was taught about individual responsibility, responsible personally for income and quality of life, the state had diminishing responsibility only providing basic support once families had completely fallen over.”
Minto says the demographic make up of protestors is evidence of this phenomenon. “There seem to be older people and younger people in their teens and early twenties and not very many people in between that. The positive thing is there is a new generation coming on who are not accepting the rubbish that’s been handed to them and are prepared to step up and fight.”
Of course every rule has its exception and hard-core activist and student of politics Omar Hamed is that exception – unofficial agitator for the We Are The University student movement (which has official leadership, claiming to be run on group consensus).
He says apathy on campus is a thing of the past.
“Students at the University of Auckland are no longer apathetic. We just needed a spark to set us off.” Hamed agrees political activism has been dormant on campus for some time, and blames the economic situation. “Students and young people were depoliticised by neoliberalism – the reality is the previous generation didn’t fight and neoliberal policies won. The got their free trade agreements, privatisation and user-pays tertiary education. Our generation has to roll that shit back.”
The Urewera 17 defendant sounds militant when he repeats the mantra of “discipline, courage, stamina and commitment – we are going to win”.
Hamed says the protest movement is on the right track with tangible gains already being made. “We have got rid of youth rates, we got Kiwibank – we have already started to roll back neoliberalism.” He says the movement is aimed at preserving democratic education for future generations. “I don’t want my kids coming out of university with a $40,000 debt hanging over their heads, and that is what is happening now.”
Carolan says the time is ripe for this kind of movement as social conditions are the worst they have been in 100 years. “With the economic crisis we have so many people unemployed, poor, on low wages, working harder with a lower standard of living than their parents generation, this is the first generation to go backwards in over a century.”
He says the harsh realities of this economic hardship are what makes it different of the social movements of the 1960s, which he believes were based more on ideology. “In the 1960s the issues that people had to grapple with were things like the Vietnam War, race equality, women’s lib, etc. The difference between those movements and this is the economic crisis affecting everyone around the world you can’t ignore. People could insulate themselves from the Vietnam War for example as it was thousands of miles away, even though people were dying.”
Carolan says this time around it is as much as revolution of the belly as well as of the mind.
Whether or not the Occupy movement will get off the grass now it has been told to remains to be seen. Members hope the grass will be greener on the other side of the election if they raise sufficient awareness of their plight, even if the lawn on which they have pitched their tents comes out a paler shade at the end of it.
Angus Jowitt is a journalism student at AUT University. This article was first published in the students’ online publication Te Waha Nui