Camping in City Square was almost sure to be seen as a provocation by a Lord Mayor whose tone over the past week has eerily channelled a private school headmaster’s pronouncements on ‘muck up day’ when he insisted that the protesters had ‘made their point’, on ABC radio, as reported in The Age. At the same time, what did Occupy protesters think was going to happen to their tents? The police response was undoubtedly disproportionate, intended to send an unambiguous message to invested audiences on either side. It was also, at times, extremely brutal, as this footage shows – and a strategic blunder for Doyle and Victoria’s finest, as even an editorial in the Australian conceded. At the same time, both the ‘rights test’ and the police response were almost exactly what you might expect.
But, as I saw it, based on comments from the general assembly’s meeting on Saturday afternoon, there is a risk at this point that Occupy Melbourne might become a group of tent fetishists with a desire to re-politicise as an anti police rally. And this would undoubtedly harm what has the potential to become a fascinating, broad-based movement, one touching on all-too-local realities of gentrification and securitisation and resonating in sympathy with its others worldwide. With all this in mind, there are a number of things to be considered, and lessons to be learned, from what unfolded in Melbourne over the past week or so.
Firstly, the public/private status of City Square was decisively resolved by the actions of the police on Friday. Now we know: City Square is not a public space. We could say more precisely that City Square and other similar spaces are subject to the following paradox: they are public insofar as they are used privately, individually, and to the quiet benefit of ‘business owners’. Doyle’s order, the way it was enforced, and the subsequent use of temporary fencing, police dogs and private security forces (with a small permanently temporary sign indicating ‘to the people’ that the square is closed for ‘maintenance’) demonstrate unambiguously that the attempt to assemble publicly and collectively – to ‘publicise’ against privatisation – will eventually be met with escalating force, up to and including direct, violent assault. The ultimate point about public space that the enclosure of City Square reveals is its strictly parenthetical nature (and this is true all around the world): it is merely ‘public’ and only ‘space’ to the extent that it is used in accordance with a set of tacit norms that become violently enforced as explicit rules the moment they are tested. This extends to rights: just as you only have public space if you exercise it privately, you only have rights at all to the extent that you don’t exercise them, ever. Either that, or you must be permitted to have them, a permit which expires when the headmaster decides ‘you’ve made your point’.
However, returning to my opening point, to someone working within this paradigm, as I think Doyle is, the fact of camping, uncomfortably close to a visit from the Queen (for whom the city could, no doubt, be completely shut without causing accusations of ‘damage’ or ‘disturbance’), can only be seen as a direct challenge to his perception of ‘public’ and ‘space’, and his subjective ability to decide ‘in the name of the people’ when such-and-such a site must be privatised in order to be ‘handed back to the people’. As Doyle sees it, Occupy Melbourne’s camping was ‘harming’ this ‘public’ ‘space’. But for Occupy Melbourne, this actually presents a strategic opportunity.
City Square is a rectangular space easily kettled by hundreds of police officers; the police themselves are well trained in how to do this. Some of them, unfortunately, really enjoy enforcing the law and testing their pain inflicting equipment, whether high-tech or animal. But thanks mostly to the town planners of the nineteenth century, the City of Melbourne has dozens of excellent, large spaces: parks, gardens squares, corners, monuments. These should be fully used on an ad hoc basis, simply because this will avoid the direct confrontation with the private heart of public space that the police, armed and organised as they are, will win.
In general, I advocate an Occupicnic, using tarpulins and cheaply available camping chairs. I confess: this idea came to me like a bolt from the blue as I saw a Ford Territory full of cops, handing out Picnic bars to police officers surrounding the General Assembly. My thanks to Cadbury and Victoria’s finest for this idea (which is also bears hysterical traces of the Max Brenner protests). Back to the point: OM can and should not only comply with police orders, they should hysterically comply. When told to disperse, they should – extremely quickly. They should melt like a Picnic on a hot day. Then another point in the city should be flash mobbed, a simple matter of utilising ubiquitous mobile technology, nous, and a bit of humour.
In my view, it’s time for the movement to hyper-embody the paradigm they are subject to. Contemporary security practice relies on responding to a ‘threat’ it can recognise as such. Free-floating control relies on moments of all-too-material enforcement. Thus, rather than imitating the repertoires of contention of the nineteenth century, the best tactical move for Occupy Melbourne would be for it to be come an embodied imitation of the kind of controlling but non-responsible hypermobility in which the most profitable sectors of contemporary capitalism now consist. Just as capital flees, only to descend elsewhere with greater force, so should Doyle and the police be able to viscerally experience the complete bewilderment of an actual antagonist whose only avowed interest is the quiet, private enjoyment of those invited to dine together in a park on a sunny day, only to melt into unharmed ‘public’ ‘space’ the moment re-privatisation is re-enforced. This avoids the harm, but only, in fact, to prevent Occupy Melbourne from being rendered harmless.