David Shoebridge defends Occupy Sydney

David Shoebridge (left) at Occupy Sydney.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge gave the speech below in NSW Parliament on November 11. It is republished from his blog.

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The Occupy movement began with a single protest in New York on September 17, 2011, called “Occupy Wall Street”. This protest targets corporate greed and growing inequality across the globe. The protesters’ slogan “We are the 99%” refers to the vast disparity in wealth, particularly in the United States, between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the country.

On October 15, an Occupy Sydney protest began in Martin Place, Sydney. By October 16 more than 100 people were protesting in that public space. This was a statement, in the heart of Sydney, from a diverse group of people in support of equality and against the increasing concentration of corporate wealth across the globe in the hands of a tiny minority.

Occupy Sydney at all times has been a peaceful movement. The group, through an open democratic process, has committed to non-violent protest and always has been open to negotiation with the police about how to peacefully maintain the protest.

Yet conservative state governments in Melbourne and Sydney sent in riot police to shut down the occupation protests, and a disturbing pattern is emerging of police being used to crush peaceful political dissent. On 20 October this year there was a violent police crackdown on Occupy Melbourne. Tasers, police horses and other police excesses were used, resulting in some 100 arrests.

On October 23 there was a pre-dawn raid on the Occupy Sydney movement involving hundreds of police, including riot police. Approximately 80 occupants were told that they had 10 minutes to leave but, in fact, were given less before the police moved in. Many occupants were injured after attempting to peacefully link arms and refusing to move.

Some of those arrested included people from the local homeless community who have been actively participating in the occupation. Police made some 40 arrests at the eviction, yet only nine people were eventually charged with various offences. Effectively, this raid was a clean-out operation. The decision to use this level of force was a political decision and not one made by frontline police.

On November 5 Occupy Sydney protesters were in Hyde Park when two of their number were arrested for the crime of having set up a shade tent during the afternoon’s general assembly. As recently as November 8, approximately 30 police surrounded a building on Clarence Street in Sydney to evict five people who had been staying in an untenanted building.

The group had the temerity to unfurl an Occupy Sydney banner the night before. The reaction was swift: late at night the government sent in police, including those from the Public Order and Riot Squad, the Bomb Disposal Squad and the Dog Unit. This was an extraordinary response to what was, at most, squatting with a political message.

After trying to negotiate, the police forced entry at about 9.30pm. Police entered the back of the building with chainsaws and dogs. It has been reported further that the police in this raid shone lights into the cameras of members of the media, preventing some filming of the operation.

The small group was protesting the fact that there are estimated to be more than 100,000 unoccupied residential buildings in Sydney, yet rental and purchase prices remain inaccessible for many. No reason has been given by the government for the police crackdown on protesters in Martin Place other than that the City of Sydney by-laws prohibit camping in Martin Place.

Occupy Sydney was not camping; its members were sleeping rough as part of a peaceful political protest against corporate greed. The Greens New South Wales will always speak out against heavy-handed police action in this case and have called for restraint and respect for non-violent protest. Heavy-handed policing like this is not caused by on-the-ground police.

If anything, these police bear the brunt of the political orders from those higher up who order them to engage in such crackdowns. To be clear once again: the issue is not with the rank and file police. As we have seen in the past few days, the O’Farrell government is very good at asking a lot from frontline police.

Yet, when it comes to ensuring that those same police have access to reasonable death and disability benefits for the incredibly dangerous and difficult jobs they are made to do, this government puts that in the too-hard basket.

The government might have thought a week-long protest in the city looked untidy, but the greed and inequality that Occupy Sydney was speaking against is the real crime that demands action from our society. Though New South Wales has no bill of rights, there is an implied right to political communication in the Australian Constitution.

Our public spaces should remain just that — public — and open to all, regardless of how many difficult questions protests might raise in those public places. We cannot underestimate the importance of supporting debate and discussion in our public places.

Not everyone has access to a space like this House to share their views and engage in dialogue. The Occupy movement is not going away, because the inequality it protests against remains. Protest, democracy and public debate can be untidy, but it remains essential.

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