Diary of an occupation — seven days at #occupymelbourne
Green Left Weekly’s Sue Bolton has been part of the Occupy Melbourne protest since it began on October 15. Below she recounts the past week of the occupation in Melbourne’s City Square, which was broken up by a fierce police assault on October 21.
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Day 5: Still going strong
We are still going strong with about 45 to 50 tents in City Square. I estimate there are about 100 people camping each night with many others staying until late in the night.
The occupation has been set up as a well-established occupation with a 24-hour roster for the info desk and the kitchen. The kitchen is feeding homeless people who also use the square.
The first general assembly passed a motion to welcome the homeless people who use the square. The kitchen has dispensed with meal rosters and is cooking 24-hours a day.
Now a People’s Cinema is being set up and there’s even a People's Library and a Free Clothes Store.
The first general assembly voted that it be a child-friendly space and there are families with children who are occupying.
Throughout each day, numerous people drop in to find out what the occupation is all about. There’s a lot of curiosity but also public support.
The slogan of the campaign, that “We are the 99% against the 1%” is very political, so most people coming to the occupation to browse around the stalls are wanting to have big discussions about the future of society.
So far, there’ve been no problems with cops. The logistics working group had extensive negotiations with the cops and the council in the lead-up to the occupation. I imagine the council thinks the occupation will fizzle out, but that is definitely not the case. The occupation is growing as more people hear about the occupation.
The numbers down at the occupation are very significant given this is the final assessment and exam period for students. There is one final-year medical student who has taken a week off study to devote himself full-time to the occupation. I’ve heard many other stories like this.
The occupation has become a home for many, with many blown away by the caring and sharing atmosphere in Occupy Melbourne, where people look after each other and everybody chips in to help out with various domestic chores.
Since the occupation began, there have been marches from Occupy Melbourne to various corporate targets. The first day of the occupation, October 15, coincided with a pre-planned Palestine solidarity protest against Israeli-owned chocolate store chain Max Brenner. The protest at Max Brenner then returned to Occupy Melbourne, increasing the numbers at City Square.
On day two, there was a march to the exclusive Melbourne Club. The Melbourne Club is an exclusive male-only club that was set up in 1838 by the squatters. This is a club of the 1%.
On day three, we marched on the Stock Exchange and had sit-downs and speakers at intersections on the way back to Occupy Melbourne. At the intersection of Bourke and Swanston Sts, two very well-dressed women who looked like they were dressed for the races, joined the sit-in and then joined the march back to Occupy Melbourne.
Each of these actions where marches have gone from Occupy Melbourne out into the street to a particular corporate target have resulted in media coverage for the occupation. But also, they have brought more people back to the occupation as bystanders have joined the march.
Day four was a day of leafleting City Loop train stations and today will include a march to the office of Serco, the company that makes profits out of locking up refugees.
Occupy Melbourne has voted to support Friends of the Earth’s action on October 20 against BHP’s expansion of uranium mining, and voted to organise a corporate scumbags tour on October 21. October 22 will be a day and night of Indigenous films.
The general assemblies have mostly worked well. Most people are working towards unity. Many motions have been passed on issues such as support for refugees, opposition to the Northern Territory intervention, abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, support for the Qantas workers and for troops out of Afghanistan.
There is now discussion about how Occupy Melbourne can develop a statement of aims. The general assemblies have passed motions on a range of issues but haven’t tackled the aims issue until now.
The occupiers are definitely seeing this as a permanent occupation. They aren’t going anywhere. But eventually, the council and the police are likely to try to end the occupation. That means that there is a need to bring more unions and community groups down to Occupy Melbourne, in particular the climate groups.
Day 6: Eviction looks imminent
It’s day six of Occupy Melbourne but the occupation is now under threat.
Yesterday, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said to media that the protesters have “made their point and now they should leave” or else eviction was likely to occur.
Over the past couple of days, the media have been scouring the nearby businesses and cafes to find owners who are prepared to say that the protest is causing damage to their business.
Occupy Melbourne has spoken to some of the same business owners who say their quotes have been taken out of context and the media have been badgering different staff members and owners until they get the quote they want.
Despite having had no problems with police in the previous days, the police changed tactics.
That day, Occupy Melbourne linked up with a protest organised by the Refugee Action Collective outside Serco.
On the way back to Occupy Melbourne, the protesters had a sit-down in the intersection of Bourke and Swanston streets , as we had on the previous three days.
However, the police changed tactics and immediately started pushing people. A number of police from the tactical response group raced down the street to tackle the protesters. Three protesters were dragged away but later released by the police.
During the afternoon, the police had a heavier presence outside Occupy Melbourne.
The General Assembly discussed the threat of eviction. Many expect that the Lord Mayor wants to evict Occupy Melbourne before the Queen arrives on 26 October. Many are expecting the police to attempt to move into the campsite tomorrow (October 21).
People voted unanimously to attempt to stay at Occupy Melbourne and to peacefully resist eviction. The meeting also voted that if eviction does occur, a mass protest march would be held the next day.
On Day 6, the police had a very heavy presence at the action against BHP in protest about its plans to expand its Olympic Dam uranium mine. Occupy Melbourne marched to join the BHP protest. After the protest, the police had a heavier than usual presence around the camp.
Other motions passed at the General Assembly on Day 5 included: opposition to a proposed open cut coalmine at Bacchus Marsh, support for a protest against HRL, the company attempting to build a new coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley.
The General Assembly also heard from Matthew James, the winner of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Writing Award. James, a Socialist Alliance member, announced his intention to donate his prize money to the Occupy Melbourne movement and to the struggle for social equality.
James said he was told on October 18 that he had won the highly respected award, and $2000 prize money. He notified the leaders of the movement of his intention to donate the money as a result of the mayor’s response to the occupation at City Square.
James said: “After reading an article in which the mayor called for the authorities to use their eviction powers, I decided I did not want to accept an award from someone who is in favour of using violence to break up what is a peaceful, lawful protest.”
Day 7: Defiant after eviction
Occupy Melbourne protesters were woken at 7am on October 21 by Melbourne City Council officers issuing eviction notices. They gave protesters a deadline of 9am to leave City Square.
By 7.30am, the police began to mass and council workers began erecting barricades around City Square. One woman tried to get into City Square and was threatened with arrest by the police.
The protesters had already decided that they would peacefully resist eviction. About 150-200 people linked arms around the kitchen, and the Indigenous tent from 9am.
As well as regular police, the riot police, now known as the Public Order Response Unit, got into position with their riot shields.
However, the police didn’t immediately move against the occupiers in City Square because several hundred supporters had gathered outside the barricades. Many people outside this cordon tried to join the protest but were prevented and in some cases arrested. The protesters outside City Square then staged a sit-in at the intersection, but were moved off by the cops.
The police then erected a second fence around City Square. Council workers moved into City Square to dismantle the camp.
The riot police moved in at around 11.30 am with groups of about eight to 10 police tackling each protester. To remove people from the picket line, the police adopted the method of yanking at people’s heads and necks to force people to unlink their arms.
Many protesters had bloodied faces from having their faces shoved into the gravel. One 14-year-old suffered severe head injuries as a result of the use of police horses outside the square.
Once the police evicted people from the square, all Occupy Melbourne protesters united to occupy the Collins Street and Swanston Street intersection. Occupy Melbourne had made an appeal to the Rail Tram and Bus Union not to drive trams on those routes because of the health and safety risk. Yarra Tram drivers drove their trams away.
We also heard the news that the Victorian Trades Hall Council executive had passed a motion in support of the protest.
We were able to occupy the intersection for some time, until the police regrouped and began pushing people up Swanston Street. It took the police all afternoon to push the protesters two city blocks from Collins Street to the Bourke and Swanston streets intersection.
The police intensively manhandled protesters with no consideration for crowd safety and used capsicum spray. There was also at least one case of a taser being used -- against a protester in a divvy van. A lot of the beatings occured in divvy vans, away from cameras.
Most of the 60 arrests took place as the police were pushing protesters up Swanston Steet. With each police push, more protesters were arrested. Many protesters who were arrested had police place their boots heavily over their faces while other police punched and kicked them on the ground.
Two friends of mine shared a divvie van with a 16-year-old high school student who had wagged school to attend the protest. He was punched in the stomach after being arrested.
Another person in the same divvie van was a well-dressed man in a suit. He was passing by and stopped to help a woman who the police had hurt, he joined the protest and was then arrested. There are many examples of passersby who were picked up by the police.
The police brutality was a shock for many in the demonstration because a large section of the protesters had thought that if they respected the police, the police would respond with respect. That viewpoint was smashed by the police.
Once the protesters arrived at the Bourke Street intersection, the police left them to occupy the intersection for at least an hour.
The demonstration became much larger at this point as high school students finished school and workers finished work to join the protest. Small contingents of members of unions joined the protest. Some of these unionists were from the Communication Workers Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, the National Union of Workers, the Electrical Trades Union and Unite.
Eventually, the police made another big push on the protest. The protesters had intended to rally on the lawns of the State Library but the police blocked access. Instead, the police kept pushing the crowd several blocks, all the way to the Victorian Trades Hall.
Once at Trades Hall, hundreds of police barricaded protesters onto the footpath outside and remained there for several hours while Occupy Melbourne held its general assembly inside Trades Hall.
In a massively expensive operation, more than 400 police were mobilised to attack Occupy Melbourne. Occupy Melbourne was a peaceful protest against corporate greed. It was a protest that was beginning to attract the support of enormous numbers of people who had never previously had any involvement in activist/progressive politics before.
Despite the police brutality, Occupy Melbourne managed to defiantly occupy the city streets for many hours after being evicted from the camp. The intention of Occupy Melbourne is to reoccupy another space, if we can’t get back to occupy City Square again.