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Occupy Christchurch – What’s going on?

Occupy Christchurch – What’s going on?

Guest Op-Ed By John Adams

Over the last month, the international media and the Christchurch Press have intermittently carried stories and correspondence about the “Occupy” movement that began in New York and has now found its way as far as Hagley Park.

Journalists, correspondents and politicians alike have been exasperated that the “demands” of the protesters have appeared to be so vague and non-specific that they can’t possibly be met.

And yet the phenomenon of “Occupy” is growing and spreading around the world. Clearly, it touches a nerve for some sections of our society. It would be wise for those who are simply observers to make some effort to understand what is going on.

I spent Saturday with the occupiers at Hagley Park in an effort to understand.

Firstly, who is involved? The average age of the group in Christchurch was probably mid-twenties and this appears to be typical of similar gatherings around the world. But the average hides the diversity. Children, grey-hairs and mid-lifers were also represented, so this “thing” that is Occupy is not limited to only the young and disaffected.

Neither would it be fair to characterise them all as unemployed or layabouts. Many I spoke to were students, many are in employment, and many have families, mortgages, responsibilities. Predominantly they were a well educated, articulate and respectful group of people to spend time with.

They were not entirely leaderless, although at a philosophical level, Occupy rejects traditional models of leadership. From what I could see, the leaders were those who had organised for a microphone and loudspeakers. But when the time came to discuss and share thoughts, the rules of engagement came from throughout the group. Those rules were as simple as to listen with respect, to give everyone a turn and to show due appreciation. Not much for the mainstream to object to there surely.

When people stood to speak it quickly became clear that there were multiple agendas at work and so the voices could tend to be considered as disparate. But by listening more carefully, and checking the various blogs and websites after the event, I became aware of some recurrent themes. Inevitably, the Occupations in different centres will have taken a different focus, but there are certainly some linking themes coming through.

What follows is my interpretation of the issues raised by the Occupy Movement here and elsewhere around the world.

What concerns these people cannot be simply characterised as rampant capitalism as has been claimed. It is the interlocking nature of six current crises that they are bringing attention to.

• A resource crisis – people are using resources at a rate faster than the Earth can supply them. This crisis includes the situation known as Peak Oil;
• A pollution crisis – by carelessly disposing of the wastes from human activity, we are degrading our planetary environment. This crisis includes the pressing threat of climate change;
• A biodiversity crisis – our species is now responsible for an historically high rate of extinctions;
• An equity crisis – recent changes in the structure of society have seen a widening gap between those with the most and those with the least;
• An economic crisis – the nature of global financial debt means that the banking system it coming under repeated pressure;
• A democratic crisis – the public’s engagement with the democratic process is undermined by the power of large corporations.

All of these issues overlap and so solutions to any one of them must be sure not to exacerbate any other. Hence the reluctance of the Occupiers to be forced to suggest solutions. These are complex, interweaving problems and, as several speakers on Saturday suggested, solutions will not be found in sound bites or in political manifestos.

The relationship of the occupiers to politics and political parties was interesting to observe. An early vote by the assembly was to keep the conversation free of political parties and especially of electioneering. I took that to mean that the Occupiers were looking to move beyond politics rather than that they were rejecting politics. They were polite (just) when a spokesperson from the ACT party tried to address them and tolerated the simplistic comments that were made.

Some of the banners and placards held by protesters showed that the current government in Wellington is far from popular. Since the underlying message of the occupation is that action is needed to address the six issues highlighted, any incumbent government would have been similarly criticised. Around the world, governments of all political persuasions have been the target for the ire of Occupiers.

Perhaps Mr. Key comes in for a disproportionate share of such criticism as he is seen as representing the banking sector as well as the political sector. Both of these were seen as more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

The Occupiers were not opposed to capitalism, but they were making clear their view that the democratic system has been hijacked by bankers and wealthy capitalists. Examples from Christchurch and around the world were mentioned.

After the discussion groups, there was a lengthy march through Riccarton, much to the bemusement of the shoppers and shopkeepers. This Occupy movement doesn’t lend itself to instant classification so it’s not easy to explain to a passer by.

One girl came out of an amusement arcade and said, “What’s it all about?” A chorus of voices tried to explain using words like justice, democracy, fairness, equality, putting it right.

“Well, that’s obvious isn’t it?” said the girl and returned to her amusements.

A small group stayed in The Park overnight, and as far as I know, there is a vigil continuing now, just as there is in New York. It is unclear to me where this Occupy movement will lead. Some on Twitter have claimed it as the start of a new world order or the Western Spring to match the uprisings in Arab Countries earlier in the year.

Others predict that it will just wither away in a confused blur of unfocussed angst.

Whatever happens to the protesters and their passion it is clear that their concerns of those six interweaving issues will have to be taken seriously by wider society and its leadership at some time.

The Occupy movement is one to watch carefully, and not to be derided.


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