The Casual Brutality Of The State: This astounding image of a Californian campus policeman casually pepper-spraying passive student occupiers quickly became a symbol of the US authorities' fear-driven hostility towards the ideas of the Occupy Movement. Old-timers recalled earlier struggles for human rights, and the solidarity of the protesters grew. The New Zealand Occupy Movement seemed tame and non-threatening by comparison. By the end of 2011 it had all but fizzled out.
“THE BELOVED COMMUNITY” was how Dr Martin Luther King described the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The relationships forged between participants in that brutal, often deadly, struggle were intense and enduring. Like war buddies, the lunch-counter desegregators, protest marchers and freedom riders look back on their experiences as both the worst and the best moments of their lives.
It is significant, therefore, to hear participants in the American Occupy Movement describe themselves as something akin to Dr King’s “beloved community”. Clearly, they see the occupations playing a role analogous to those first, defiant acts of passive resistance against the “separate but equal”, “Jim Crow” regimes of the Old South. Equally clearly, the Occupy Movement seeks to align itself with progressive America’s proud tradition of moral and physical resistance to injustice and oppression.
Can New Zealand’s Occupy Movement lay claim to such lofty credentials? Have our occupiers even come close to forming themselves into a “beloved community”?
Sadly, the answer must be: “No.”
There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the vast experiential gulf between those at the sharp end of inequality in the United States, and the New Zealand poor. Even in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of the post-war boom, the living standards and quality of life of the average American were much more precarious than those of the average Kiwi. The USA was able to construct only the rudiments of a functioning welfare state. New Zealand’s welfare provision, by contrast, was second only to the Scandinavians’. When the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) struck the USA in 2008, such safety nets as still remained beneath the ordinary American family were threadbare and full of holes. When put to the same test, our own proved to be in a much better state of repair.
It is also true that New Zealand’s “one-percenters” have a lot less to answer for than the one percent of Americans who control more than 20 percent of that country’s wealth. In particular, our (Australian controlled) financial system – most crucially its banks – weathered the GFC without the need for colossal bail-outs from the public purse. The spectacle most responsible for sharpening the social divisions of the USA was that of a reckless and bloated Wall Street being rescued from its own greed and folly, while an innocent and suffering Main Street was left to go to the Devil.
The contrast, captured for posterity by (of all networks) Russian Television, of New York City’s financial elite, on a balcony high above Wall Street, sipping Champagne from crystal flutes and peering down with amused condescension at the ragged “occupiers” waving their hand-lettered cardboard signs on the pavement, many floors below, could hardly have been more incendiary.
Rather than this gilded social contempt, New Zealand’s experience in 2011 was one of social solidarity and collective exhilaration. The devastating Christchurch earthquake which killed 181 people on 22 February 2011 drew New Zealanders much closer together and mobilised the very best qualities of the Kiwi character. While the sheer joy than enveloped the country when the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup made it especially hard for those hoping to expose the nation’s shortcomings to win a hearing.
In this context, the Occupy Movement’s New Zealand off-shoots never really managed to rise above their one-off novelty value, nor to overcome the unflattering comparisons between their own tatterdemalion derivativeness and the heroism of the American original. While the Kiwi occupiers did battle in provincial courtrooms with bemused and increasingly frustrated mayors, Occupy Oakland was laid waste by multiple police agencies hurling stun grenades and firing tear gas canisters into the terrified protesters tents.
And nowhere, among the Kiwi Occupiers’ interminable “General Assembly” attempts to reach an ontologically impossible “consensus” between anarchism and socialism, was there ever a mobilising image to match that of the burly University of California campus cop nonchalantly pepper-spraying the faces of kneeling, non-violent student occupiers.
New Zealand’s Occupy Movement has fizzled for all of the above reasons, and more, but its single greatest failure has been its refusal to transform its manifestly untrue claim to represent 99 percent of the New Zealand public into anything resembling reality. When even New Zealand’s conservative prime minister confesses that most Kiwis are socialists at heart, an appeal for greater equality should have been the easiest of sells. But aside from the excitement of the initial occupations, and the potent resonances of the borrowed American slogans, this never eventuated. Afraid of soiling their ideological purity through contact with the unenlightened majority, the New Zealand occupiers, like a collection of Antipodean Achilles, refused to come out of their tents.
Beloved communities arise out of the open and collective struggle for a better world, not from muddy encampments, or the ineffectual fluttering of consensual hands.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 January 2012.