I was disgusted to learn this morning that Sydney had joined Melbourne in being one of the very few cities around the world to evict the Occupy protesters. I’m glad at least that I got a chance to speak at yesterday’s rally, before the police action at 5am this morning.
I had hoped that Sydney would display more sense than Melbourne had, but unfortunately I was wrong. Australians are often quick to criticize American society, but at times like these one has to respect the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
There is therefore a sense of the right to dissent ingrained into American society. That right doesn’t exist in Australia; it’s instead a privilege that can easily be withdrawn if the police decide to enforce ordinances that they can also decide to ignore.
And a withdrawal of a privilege it clearly was. The Sydney Morning Herald gave the following report of the police statement to the court hearing:
Police said they had used their discretion to allow Occupy Sydney protesters to camp in Martin Place for a week but told organisers that Saturday would be the last day the protest was tolerated. (SMH “Occupy Sydney protesters front court”, 23rd October 2011)
In one sense, this is a return to form for Australian society–just as is our incarceration of refugees without trial, and the detaining of illiterate Indonesian peasants as “people smugglers”. We like to portray Australia as the “she’ll be right mate” state, the land of the fair go, emphasizing both the cooperative nature of survival in a harsh land, and the larrikin spirit embodied in Crocodile Dundee. But that’s only one side of the Australian social character. We were also established as a penal colony, turning a continent into a jail and dispossessing its inhabitants in the process.
This dialectic in the Australian character was brought home to me very vividly and comically when as a young man I found myself scheduled to meet the famous actor, wit and humanitarian Peter Ustinov. My employers had arranged to bring him to the country on a speaking tour, but hadn’t sent anyone to collect him from the airport; instead, he had to get a taxi himself and come to my office. I thought this decision was insane, and said so: surely we should meet him at the airport and accompany him to his hotel? But I couldn’t persuade my boss, so I knew that at some stage one morning the most famous person I’d yet met would walk into my office, and I spent the morning considering how I would greet this famous person when he arrived.
When he did, I said:
What on earth happened?!
He had simply strode into my office, and collapsed into a chair in apparent shock. He replied:
Ive just had the worst taxi drive of my life!
My opinion that it was ridiculous to ask him to get a taxi himself was confirmed. I imagined that he’d copped a reckless driver who’d sped dangerously along the narrow street that was then the main route from Kingsford Smith Airport to the city. I repeated “What happened?”, and Ustinov elaborated:
As soon as I sat in the cab, the driver took one look at me in the rear vision mirror, saw that I was white, thought that since I was white I’d have the same opinions as him, and launched into the most vile racist diatribe I’ve ever heard. He said how he had flats in the suburbs that he rented out to “Wogs”, and how he’d happily smash their TV sets when he came to collect the rent, and otherwise terrorise them.
Then he took another look in the rear vision mirror, and saw that I was appalled. His whole demeanor changed, and he suddenly snarled:
(Ustinov put on a rough Australian drawl and said)
“I suppose you don’t give a fuck what I think. I suppose you think all us Australians are descended from fucking convicts.”
“What did you say?”, I asked. Ustinov replied:
I said “On the contrary, my dear man, I’m convinced you’re descended from one of the warders”.
That’s been my mental picture of Australian society ever since: a society with its convict-derived rebels–many of whom were political prisoners from struggles in England and Ireland–and its warder-derived enforcers of the status quo.
Clearly a warder-descendant made the decision to evict the protesters this morning. It’s time he (or she) was over-ruled. Almost 2000 cities around the world are allowing protests like this to continue, and we should join those cities in accepting civil dissent. The Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t necessarily going to lead to a reversal of the power of the finance sector over society, but it is the beginning of that shift in power. Australia may also be a long way from experiencing the degree of economic pain that is motivating similar occupations overseas, but there is no guarantee that we won’t feel that degree of pain in the future. The police should have the good sense to exercise their discretion to allow the protest to re-form. If they don’t, they risk a far more hot-headed protest developing in the future.
This isn’t a criticism of the police who carried out the order to clear the protesters last night–though I’m sure some of them would have been warder-descendants too, most are likely to have been decent people forced to enact an indecent order. I had a friendly exchange with a couple of Police Rescue cops at a Subway outlet on Oxford Street just after I left the protest yesterday, and I apologised for those in the protest who were calling for a march in a move that was clearly aimed at inflaming tension with the police (the proposal to march was turned down by the meeting, using its hyper-democratic voting procedure). Both police were happy to let that animosity be seen as the behavior of a few hotheads, to be laughed off over a beer afterwards.
I’d like to be able to regard the police action similarly. Let’s have some maturity–some respect for the right to dissent at a time when society needs dissent–from the Australian police. We need to outgrow the mentality of warders.