A tribute to Lanz Priestley

Lanz Priestley in Martin Place. Photo: Bernadette Smith

Before Twitter was drenched in blue ticks, literati cliques and centrist commentary sans action, it was a beautiful tool for activists.

During the mid 2000s, Lanz and I would chat at rallies where we’d joke about the frustration of left factionalism and stale protest modalities. We really connected on Twitter, sharing political theory, activist ideas, mutual aid possibilities and cynicism towards parliamentary politics.

Lanz was working with the food stressed and I was teaching teenagers, tutoring Arts undergrads and ghost writing for anti-capitalist projects abroad.

To alleviate stress on families, Lanz asked if I’d tutor kids for the HSC and create copy for his projects, unwaged. I said yes.

We became two peas in a trust pod.

Lanz got kicks out of the unlikeliness of our friendship and how fun it was to confuse people, namely the police, exposing their assumption and judgement by proving them wrong. To him it was a teachable moment of not judging a book by its cover, walking the talk and “if you think somebody should do something, remember you are somebody”.

Lanz exposed me to the multifaceted nature and reality of homelessness: it wasn’t as reductive as not having a house.

Couch surfing, living pay cheque to pay cheque, the victimisation of the poverty industrial complex (charities that profit from keeping the marginalised marginalised), a failing mental health system, forced child removal, gentrification that breaks up communities, and a host of other social realities — all the result of corporate greed; all symptoms of the system we so despise(d).

Lanz always said that when it comes to the system, walk away. Organise around it; in spite of it.

The before times

While Lanz and I were collaborating with communities at home, we were also organising remotely across global networks, primarily to help Americans deal with the fall-out from the Global Financial Crisis.

I’d studied at the University of California in San Diego, a few years before, so southern California became a base to help establish decentralised mutual aid. Most people we worked alongside were victims of predatory lending, the burst housing bubble and foreclosed homes.

Using the Internet to organise during this time, defying borders, was wild and novel. These were the “before times”; before Edward Snowden’s revelations, metadata retention law, Peter Dutton’s identify and disrupt madness, or any class of internet fucked-upness.

It connected us to like-minds all over the world. It was a force for chaotic good.

Neither of us were tech savvy, but we were organisers and receivers of information. I would unpack dense documents into digestible English and write scripts. Lanz would provide compelling primary documents, some courtesy of WikiLeaks.

We soon witnessed clever comrades take down the MasterCard and Paypal websites in a delicious DDoS attack for blocking donations to WikiLeaks which, for a moment in time, made dethroning the powerful feel very possible.

All of a sudden, we were legion. We were Anonymous.

Royal Hotel, Bondi, mid-week, pre-Justin Hemmes

Lanz and I had had a bit to drink. We were yarning at (not with) the bartender about Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street germs orchestrating the market crash for profit.

An unshaven rough sleeper of undisclosed boomer age and “[my] little blonde mate with red lips and rouge” evangelising about the devils who rule the world to a guy just trying to get the heads right on schooners of beer.

These were the times of Kevin07 and Julia Gillard, Australia resting on its iron ore laurels, (mostly) oblivious to the calculated tear down of the American middle class let alone the growing hardship of people in Australia.

While comrades at home could be dismissive, insisting we had a tendency toward tin foil millinery, our online networks meant we could see and smell a ripeness for rebellion from Tunis to Barcelona.

It put a buzz in our dreams, premature for Australia as they were, dreams which Lanz refused to let go. Not that we could predict the tipping points of the 2010–2011 cascade, but we were preparing for an international uprising.

Off popped the Arab Spring. The Indignados took squares across Spain. Then an educator colleague from New Jersey started talking about plans for New York.

Lanz was receiving similar information.

Occupy Sydney

Adbusters is mostly credited with sparking the Occupy movement, but communities had been organising against corporate greed, the corporate takeover of democracy, Wall Street and intersecting forms of capitalist injustice for years.

It was one of those rare moments in history where multiple junctions met and the result was an eruption of glorious mass defiance against oppressive and exploitative systems.

We were (are) the 99% versus the 1%. Anything felt possible, with or without a Guy Fawkes mask.

Once Zuccotti Park was occupied, we began our plan to occupy Sydney. Spontaneously and organically, others around the world had the same idea. Within a few weeks, we’d organised Occupy Sydney on stolen Gadigal land, with permission from Elders.

Occupy Sydney was a rough, messy and gorgeous experiment in direct action and prefigurative politics, a talk Lanz had walked long before the movement was a concept.

David Graeber described this as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free”. I can’t think of anything more apt to describe how Lanz moved through the world.

Occupy Sydney ended up the longest-running occupation of the global Occupy Wall Street movement. While this was a collective effort, Lanz was its heartbeat.

(He’d hate me saying that, but we all know it’s true.)

Beyond Martin Place

As radical and visionary as Lanz was, he was a relentless pragmatist and realist. He would work with anyone in the pursuit of freedom and to see decision making placed in the hands of communities.

He would remind visiting politicians that government shouldn’t manage people, people should manage government and that people were perfectly capable of organising themselves without government fiddle-farting, corporate loyalties, or broken promises.

When the NSW government wanted to introduce draconian bikie laws, we knew they would be used as a crackdown on protest.

What did Lanz do? He mobilised and united rival bikie gangs. It was the first time rival gangs had united for political purpose.

After collaborating with Lanz, one of the white supremacist bikie leaders ended up a refugee advocate.

This was how Lanz worked.

Lanz always taught me that nothing lasts forever. He always saw Occupy as an incubator rather than a solution and attributes the blossoming of more than 60 groups to Occupy Sydney, including: Sydney’s 24/7 Homeless Safe Space and Kitchen (now the Sydney Street Kitchen); Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership Australia; Dignity Water; Blanket Patrol; and Extinction Rebellion Bondi Beach.

Lanz’ work is often attributed to Martin Place, but he had a rich, full world before and beyond that space. His front-facing projects were never about charity but solidarity, community-led decision making and challenging the system.

They were always manifestations of a deeper ideological and political agenda that went far beyond helping those in need.

It reminds me of when Justice Peter McClelland referenced Jack Mundey and whether the “respectable burghers of Hunters Hill … realise they have to thank a certain communist that they are not sitting on concrete".

I wonder if the hundreds of volunteers who contributed to the Sydney Street Kitchen, or any of Lanz’ projects, realise they’ve operated within an anarchist idea.

Mornin’ Little Legend. Lanz was my mentor, co-conspirator, anchor and dearest friend. He taught me that things grow, cement their place in history, disband and are reborn.

In the words of Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos which, really, became the words of Lanz Priestley, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

[There will be a public memorial to celebrate and remember Lanz at Martin Place near Phillip Street on November 21 from 2pm.]