Last week I had a bit of a rant about the Occupy Sydney (OS) movement. I’ve been stewing over why the Saturday march annoyed me the way it did. I’m think I’m frustrated because I really want it to succeed, and yet locally at least it seems to be doing everything it can to alienate itself from the general public. I’m also frustrated because having read up a little more on its development and decision making process I see the movement as suffering a bad case of the cart pulling the horse – and I don’t see that ending well.

I made the prediction in my last OS post that while ever OS preached a grab-bag of the usual far-left complaints it would suffer the same fate as the recent anti-globalisation movement: irrelevance. While anti-globalisation brought up a lot of very valid complaints individually, the net effect of that confusing mass of ‘anti’ messages – anti-war, anti-consumption, anti-corporatism, anti-neoliberalism, anti-global warming, anti-capitalism and so on – was to unsurprisingly baffle the hell out of the average punter. Each anti-globalisation rally basically became a social day out for the same uber-radicalised Left faces. I should know, I was one of those faces.

Ultimately I believe it was counterproductive because in the public’s mind it associated important issues with poorly articulated, jingoistic-sprouting radicals and pointless clashes with police. There was no bridge to the public, and as such the net effect was to not only tarnish the participants but also the message. I see similar beginnings with the Occupy Movement. It places us in a situation where we have a movement with no concrete demands – hence the cart before the horse analogy. (Admittedly the speed with which it has taken off has no doubt caught a lot of activists off guard.)

On the OS site an article asks the public why they support the movement. At the time of writing this it had 54 responses. Most were articulate, some were quite moving. Recurring themes arose of unaffordable housing, long commute times, trouble finding relevant work or jobs with uncertain stability, and a general discontent that a few had amassed so much wealth. So what vision statement has the Occupy Sydney movement settled on?

Copied directly from the Occupy Sydney website:

Occupy Sydney Unifying Statement:

    • We act in solidarity with protests and occupations that have occurred and are occurring in New York and other US cities, Spain, Greece, Egypt and other cities around the world.
    • We are the 99%.
    • The system is broken.
    • A better world is possible.
    • Human need, not corporate greed!

That’s a unifying statement? Unifying to who? Far-left radicals who speak in over-simplified slogans recycled from the anti-globalisation movement? Are they really the people the OS movement needs to convince? I get that the ‘99%’ slogan is rhetoric, but if the movement genuinely does aim to represent virtually everyone then that includes people who don’t vote Green, who believe in small government, who want welfare spending down, who want tougher laws and harsher sentences and oppose protests. Put simply, statements like those above don’t do that. They employ highly partisan language and empty chants that wouldn’t be out of place on a Resistance t-shirt. In short, the movement appears to speaks to a different 1%.

But what about those perfectly valid issues raised in the ‘Why Occupy Sydney’ responses? There’s nothing partisan about affordable housing or better commute times. I think it’s worth comparing for a moment the OS movement to the Sydney Alliance campaign. Sydney Alliance to those that haven’t heard the name before (NOT to be confused with Socialist Alliance), is a non-political movement based on a community movement in London. London Citizens managed to successfully lobby the city and key businesses to raise the minimum wage to a figure set annually, reflecting a fairer living wage.

I bring up Sydney Alliance because it is an example of a grassroots movement done really, really sensibly – the opposite of OS in other words. It operates on a charter of inclusion and dialogue, rather than confrontation and finger-pointing. The Alliance works like this: its organisers firstly approach a diverse range of community, workplace and religious groups and run workshops in relational networking (aka sharing backgrounds and stories). From these workshops common issues emerge. Alliance members break off into groups to focus on specific issues, and brainstorm proposed solutions. At this point, and only at this point, Sydney Alliance begins a public campaign to address the issues. By this stage it has built a broad coalition of partners, identified pressing community issues, and thought through ways to solve these issues.

Interestingly the issues that are emerging from the Sydney Alliance movement are the same ones that people are bringing up on the Occupy Sydney website. So what’s the moral of this little detour to Sydney Alliance 101? I guess to illustrate that there is an effective, inclusive way to see change through, and an equally ineffective way. I’d just love to see the Occupy Sydney movement utilising a few more methods out of column A, and a few less from column B.

UPDATE: I received a very nice comment the other day from an Occupy Sydney spokesperson that fairly asked if I “have some strategies you think will ‘work’?” It’s a valid question – criticism comes all too easily online. Over the weekend I’ve had a think about the challenges Marlaina raises and jotted down some responses. I’m posting my response here in the article body because, well, I should have included it in the first place along with my criticism.

A – CLARIFY THE MESSAGE: Much hay has been made in the media that the Occupy movements in Australia don’t have a clear message, and represent concerns that aren’t directly relevant to Australia. Addressing this should be a matter of priority.

  1. Develop a survey quizzing supporters on their concerns and the issues related to the Occupy movement they feel are most pressing. Make the survey available in person and online  (easy enough with gDocs). Collect as many results as possible and study the feedback. Identify the recurring concerns.
  2. Present these concerns as concrete, achievable targets (ie. 20% renewable energy by 2020 is an achievable target, ‘human need not corporate greed’ is not).
  3. Before writing off our democratic system completely as ‘broken’, try to use the avenues available within it to raise the issues (letter/email campaign, 10,000 signature petition, etc).
  4. Give all Occupy Sydney media spokespeople talking points before actions. Make sure they can articulate the aims of the movement in a few clear, inclusive, positive sentences using bipartisan, slogan-free language. Stay on message and don’t allow other campaigns to piggy-back on the Occupy movement (ie. NT Intervention, free Gaza, etc).

B – BROADEN THE SUPPORT: You’ve got the radicalised 1% on board, now try to capture some support from the other 98%

  1. Compile a list of influential community, religious and business groups (yes, business – they were hit hard in the GFC remember). Invite representatives of each along to a listening day where you just hear their concerns. Get RSVP’s, hire a hall, provide refreshments. Don’t talk during the day, just listen.
  2. Afterwards look back over notes of each groups’ concerns, similar to the survey step above. Consider common ground between their concerns and the Occupy movements (which you’ve by now clarified). Draft a letter individually to each group that attended highlighting this common ground, stating that you wish to campaign publicly on their concerns, and would appreciate their presence at future actions.
  3. Be nice to the police: they’re part of the 99% as well and are only doing their jobs. Hell, maybe some of them support your aims. Antagonising the authorities with speeches decrying ‘police brutality’ or yelling ‘Nazi f***ers’ to their faces (both of which I saw on 5th November) is counterproductive and tempts a heavy-handed response. To which everyone outside the movement will think you deserved. Do the police have concerns of their own? What are current police union campaigns? Can they be integrated into the Occupy movement? Obey all police directions. If you witness inappropriate police behaviour record it and file complaints or legal action through official channels.

C – MANAGE YOUR IMAGE: Be aware of how the movement is portrayed in the mainstream media, and fair or not every action by every Occupy participant reflects on the movement. The anti-carbon tax rally in Canberra was widely ridiculed by the public and press because of several offensive banners. Don’t be so naive as to think the Occupy movement will be judged by a separate set of standards.

  1. Keep all official press releases, online and print media jargon-free and politically neutral (I think you’ve been doing a great job on the latter but not the former). Don’t refer to vague notions like ‘big business’, ‘the state’ or ‘capitalism’.
  2. A few seconds of news footage of a scuffle with police undoes hundreds of human hours of positive, unreported work. The riot police may be spoiling for confrontation but don’t give it to them. The Occupy movement has infinitely more to lose by conflict and arrests than the riot police. Make it clear at the start of actions what type of behaviour is unacceptable. Use marshals to keep actions on-route. If conflict does break out between protesters and police, deescalate tensions as quickly as possible. If this proves too difficult publicly distance the movement from the violent protesters and make it clear this type of behaviour is completely unwelcome at actions.
  3. Remember the people the movement claims to represent and have the self-awareness to realise how the movement looks from the outside. The Masterchef-watching, Liberal or Labor voting majority aren’t going to be impressed if they see symbolic funerals, giant Che flags, street theatre or inarticulate humanities students poorly representing the movements’ case on the nightly news.
  4. Confound expectations. Get more suits involved. Shallow admittedly, but it presents an image jarringly at odds with the crude (and incorrect) public perception of the unwashed, dreadlocked, unemployed protester. Present well when publicly representing the movement.