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Anne Russell: An ode to camping at Occupy Wellington

An ode to camping at Occupy Wellington

Anne Russell
December 20, 2011

Images (from October) via Photo Links: Occupy Wellington.
This image from Occupy Wellington's Photostream.

The campsite where Occupy Wellington once stood looked a little forlorn when I went to pick up my tent. I hadn’t slept in Civic Square for many weeks, and had stopped visiting since we sent out the press release that Occupy was more than a campsite, but my tent had protested through thick and thin, despite not knowing what it wanted. I could see no familiar faces among the people milling about between tents, but then I spotted 15-year-old Wes, nicknamed Snoopy in one of the General Assemblies so long ago. I gave him a huge hug. “Wes! Where you been at? I haven’t seen you around here for ages!”

“At home. I love my bed,” he said. We walked over to my tent and found a person crawling around in it. I opted to go for a walk until they’d packed up, since I was effectively in strangers’ territory. When I returned, my tent and bedroll were in a neat pile next to the gardening box, which still had a healthy crop of silverbeet and red flowers. I hoisted my belongings, waved at the people I vaguely knew, who wished me a merry Christmas, and walked off. I passed the whiteboard, once full of information, now blank but for “Occupy Wellington is still here” scrawled across it. I walked away from camp down the Civic Square steps for the last time. And that was that, I suppose.

It’s hard not to feel sad that Occupy Wellington had such a hard time working out the logistics of camping together. Many of the Occupiers I know still miss it—one Occupy friend said to another over Facebook that he kept “sliding back hoping to find it again but it's not there anymore.” All of us needed the place, one way or another. For me, it was a place I went first thing in the evening after work. Although I rarely stayed overnight there, it was a real home—Civic Square became somewhere I could show up unannounced and know there was something there for me. There were interesting people to talk to, but there were also guitars to have a go on, or places to sit and read if I wasn’t in a sociable mood.

by Penelope Lattey

Everyone who got deeply involved in Occupy Wellington knew it was about the people, and it’s been said many times that we are whanau. There were only a handful of campers who I would always hug as greeting, but there were many I would stop and talk to for a bit, or admire from a distance as someone I knew. I liked this space of friendly acquaintances—it was reassuring that even though I didn’t know many of these people too well we could still hang out together.

It wasn’t all wonderful, of course, or we’d still be living there. Gale force winds kept most of us from camping, and some poorly socialized occupants ended up making others feel unwelcome. We didn’t really have the resources to deal with that stuff properly, as wider society sure hasn’t given us tools for preventing sexual harassment and alcoholism. For better or worse, this made it something like an extended family meet-up. For every creepy misogynist uncle that everyone wanted to get away from, there was a second cousin who you only hung out with once a year at Christmas dinner but always liked talking to.

And everyone found some immediate family. A few people I’d met in passing once or twice elsewhere became people who I’d walk around town with for hours climbing trees or collecting food for Occupy. We probably never would have got that close if not for hanging around a campsite organizing politics. I still keep in touch with them.

This social side mattered as much as the political side. At other activist meetings I’ve been to, you put your political hat on for a few hours, awkwardly shuffle around for a bit afterwards talking to people and then go home to your real life. At Occupy we put our political hats on for the Free University and then sat around eating gelato afterwards, or went wharf-jumping.

this is emily's Photostream

Was there something wrong with this, that Occupy didn’t spend its whole time working on activist causes? Perhaps. Certainly the remaining community in Civic Square doesn’t appear to be particularly engaged in politics—my friend who lived there said half of them barely knew what Wall Street was. Everyone, however, needs some down time, and we took it. The vitriol Occupiers got from some of the press and public for the audacity of camping in a public place was rather surprising. Non-Occupying taxpayers (I and many other Occupiers work fulltime) only want to pay for things if there’s a sign of productivity, it seems. But what is productivity? Jobless and homeless people who sit meditating in a park, or spend the day talking to strangers about politics, contribute much less to environmental damage than those who work fulltime for McDonald’s—or, indeed, than those who threaten to mine our national parks. These unemployed folk are arguably more productive, since they’re less destructive.

It’s a funny idea that the mere possession of a job is a marker of productivity. A fulltime mother is ‘unemployed’ in the formal economy, but you’d have to be strikingly ignorant to tell her she’s lazy. Anyone who’s looked after a two-year-old knows it’s a hard day’s work, and yet the government somehow casts it as a less demanding occupation than being employed at a call centre. There is much resolve and determination to be found in the ranks of the ‘unemployed’, and some extreme laziness and apathy in the commercial workforce. I got my own job through the sweet power of nepotism, and while I have a certain aptitude for it I came here by luck, not effort. I sit down all day at this job.

One wonders why, in the developed Western world, we are so determined to think that life is, or has to be such hard work. In an agrarian society, at least a lot of hard work had a survival purpose. But in this age of advanced agricultural technology, food production should be easy; clothing and shelter too. We have a phenomenal number of conveniences available to us—compared to our ancestors we barely know we’re alive.

"Alastair's Photos"

This isn’t chiding people for complaining about ‘first world problems’, for such problems still hurt whether or not people are starving in Somalia or being tortured in the US. Rather it is the question: why are we setting ourselves up for half these problems in the first place? In fits of despondency about the state of the world, I have always thought the worst thing about All The Problems is that it doesn’t have to be this hard. There is no actual need for 52% of New Zealand women to be made to feel dissatisfied with their body. There is no need for workers to go home from 8 hours at a department store and barely be able to talk to their families from physical and emotional exhaustion. As William Sloane Coffin said, “even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

What most of us need, what we are crying out for, is community. The Wellington Occupiers were the ones who admitted this openly, or at least were those lucky enough to have the time to do so. We defied the naïve cynicism that people are inherently greedy assholes, and that life’s a bitch. We’re still working with each other on what common ground we have. Whether or not the Occupiers succeeded at living together in Civic Square, we should get some credit for trying. This society hasn’t taught people how to get along in the same space, so we had to improvise. We're going to try negotiate something similar again next year, in a more developed form.

I would like to thank Occupy Wellington, from the bottom of my heart, for everything it has accomplished so far. My love for the movement transcends the people who I met at Civic Square, though I love a lot of you too. It transcends the campsite itself, although that had some pretty excellent moments. By Occupy Wellington I don’t mean the collection of people who camped, or even those using the Occupy brand. I mean every person helping out the locked-out CMP Rangitikei meat workers, every church leader who stands with us against economic inequality, every student challenging the idea that people are inherently bad. The huge optimism coming from anyone who can see all the problems in this world and try to fix them shows real intellect and integrity. It steps far beyond the complacent negativity that corporate giants and their government lackeys seem to subscribe to.

Photo set by Rex Bustria

I wonder if in a few years I will come back to this article and facepalm at its early-20s earnestness. Perhaps it states the obvious. Perhaps, much like Occupy itself, it is rendered ‘incoherent’ by trying to cover too much ground. But the Occupy movement has been an emotional time for all of us as well as political, and I wanted to get that across. Earnestness isn’t so bad. We live in a culture that pushes earnestness aside with a sardonic sweep of the hand, without looking to see if it says anything important. David Foster Wallace wrote on irony:

“The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic…Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels.

“Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”

So at the risk of being soft, I would like to say: Occupy Wellington, you are beautiful and I love you, and I couldn’t leave you if I tried. I’ll see you all for a fresh round of activism next year.

For those who want to be involved in the next phase of Occupy Wellington and Occupy Aotearoa, visit:


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