Ghosts Of Protests Past
Looking back on the quiet demise of occupy wellington
I visited Occupy Wellington one week before its members were forcibly evicted. It was a grey day. There were just eight tents and no more than a dozen people, sitting on improvised benches and leaning against the brightly angry signs which decorated the fence. Most of the protestors were transient. They were all welcoming, though, and highly political, eager to escape the ‘lazy dropout’ caricature they accused the mainstream media of foisting on them.
A grizzled anarchist denounced the evils of the capitalist world order while an elderly German tourist made me tea in a battered billy, muttering about the rights of the worker. There was no leader, a point they were keen to emphasise. “It’s the voice of the people,” said Mathew, a long-time Occupier.
I’d been cynical about Occupy Wellington. I’d expected to find a small group of homeless people with poorly painted peace signs—and, honestly, that was my first impression. The longer I spent with them, though, the more interested I became in what they had to say. Their raw passion and tangible anger was a refreshing change from glossy party politics. Moreover, they truly thought that their small group could make a real difference.
What were their aims? When visiting in January, I got a different answer from every protestor. Many claimed to be anti-capitalist, equating capitalism with inequality—a point which is difficult to disagree with—but few offered real solutions to those inequalities. Some were protesting on an environmental platform, while others focused on LGBTQ rights. Their obvious point of unity was their link to the Occupy Wall Street movement, with which they maintained online ties.
Nicholas (ex-respite care patient) embodied the more idealistic facet. “There’s an imaginary barrier people put up between the Occupiers and the public,” he said. “We are not the 99 per cent. We are the 100 per cent—we are all part of this community. I just want to see a better world.”
I asked the protestors if Occupy Wellington was associated with any of the political parties. Were they involved in formal politics? Had they been involved in the election? “A lot didn’t vote,” said Mathew. “Those who did mostly voted for Labour, Greenpeace [sic] or Mana.” Many Occupiers seemed to have little faith in government, denouncing its supposed corruption and the wastefulness of its bureaucracy.
As I left the Occupy camp that day I felt slightly ashamed. Like all good POLS111 students, I knew that most political decisions were made in Cabinet and that in reality there was little Occupy could do. But I almost envied their naïve, angry idealism. “All the students should be here,” one man said to me, “students, you have nothing to lose”.
As numbers dwindled the movement became more of a fringe group. The media began to suggest that Occupy were in conflict with the Police and Council, with Stuff reporting harassment claims. Occupy in turn claimed that the media were misrepresenting them. “Fairfax was really bad—people were quoted out of context. They never took on board what we were trying to say,” said one Occupier.
In early July I spoke to Wellington City Council officer Richard Maclean about his dealings with the movement. He described the gradual decline in protestor numbers, and said that the goals of those who remained were unclear; “Everybody agreed they had legitimate concerns, especially when it came to corporate greed. We just became frustrated when they didn’t seem to have an endpoint in sight.”
On January 31 the last members of Occupy Wellington were evicted from Civic Square.
Had there ever been an endpoint? The protestors in Civic Square had been determined to remain indefinitely, but today Occupy Wellington is largely defunct, continuing only through social media. Their Twitter feed remains active, as does their Facebook page, with both linked to similar efforts run by Occupy New Zealand. A spokesperson from Occupy New Zealand (wishing to be identified only as ‘Anonymous’—a reference to the online hacking collective) claimed that Occupy lives on in protests such as the recent Budget rally.
I asked current Occupy Wellington representative Robert Von Garrett about the legitimacy of what remains of the movement, given its lack of real solutions to the problems regarding corporate greed and political accountability which it originally sought to address. “It’s too easy to write Occupy off,” he says. “It was a protest—but it didn’t have demands. It was more about planting ideas, about getting people talking.”
Occupy Wellington claimed to be the local citizenry’s response to the inequalities highlighted by the 2008 financial crisis. The movement was marginalised from its inception, and is largely forgotten today; it accomplished no tangible change. The public’s response was one of apathy.
Are we content?