Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tent and sympathy

A tiny tent village has sprung up on the edge of Auckland’s Aotea Square. The tents house some of the roughly 150 protesters taking part in a local version of the “Occupy” worldwide protests against corporate greed. The photo accompanying this post is of the encampment and was taken this morning by Auckland Council member Michael Goudie (Source) from high up in the Auckland Civic Administration building, which holds some of the offices for Auckland Council, our city government. Click to embiggen photo.

I have a lot of sympathy for the protestors. That’s not a surprise, as even a brief perusal of my posts tagged “Corporate Greed” will show. However, there are other issues I’m equally aware of.

First, Aotea Square isn’t designed for camping (and it’s illegal to do so). There are no public toilets in the square itself, and the nearest ones are in Meyer’s Park, five minute’s (or more) walk from the camp (the loos can be seen in the background of this photo from my Auckland Flicr set, which has some other photos of Meyer’s Park). How many folks might just use the bushes, especially in the middle of the night?

This gets to the other thing: We ratepayers (taxpayers) in Auckland will pay to clean up the site once they leave, and to repair the inevitable damage to the lawns. All or part of Aotea Square was closed to the public for several years as it was completely refurbished. A smaller grassed area, where the occupiers are, was fully opened only a few months ago, and the grass is only now established. This is why some political moderates are angry at the protesters (one expects conservatives to be livid for ideological reasons).

But a far more serious issue than human waste in the bushes or damaged lawns is safety. It was reported yesterday that the square is being considered as a back-up fan zone for up to 15,000 people after the final of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday, to be used if the waterfront reaches capacity. If the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup, Auckland could very well need more space for the celebrations. Aotea Square would also be the only place not selling alcohol, so people might be tempted to bring their kids.

15,000 rugby fans, many of them drunk, right next to 150 protesters is a recipe for disaster. A rugby fan might throw a lit cigarette on a tent, or someone on either side might pick up something heavy and lob it at the other side. The police would be powerless to stop the ensuing violence or to prevent the inevitable injuries.

Of course, fans celebrating an All Black win could be so happy and joyous that they dance with the protesters; seriously, though, does that seem very likely? And, if the All Blacks—gasp!—don’t win, this could all be moot—or even more violent.

In a democracy, people have the right to protest. They also have the right to—peacefully and non-violently—make a bloody nuisance of themselves. The costs of repairs are, in my opinion, the price we pay for living in a democratic society with freedom of expression. But the other side of freedom is responsibility, and the protesters ought to have a fund to help pay for the clean-up because it’s the morally right thing to do, but mostly because it would be a great political tactic to blunt one of the main criticisms of their encampment.

The protesters also have a responsibility for taking themselves out of harm’s way by leaving the square well before the Rugby World Cup final ends on Sunday night. There is no way the police can protect them, so the protestors must get out of the way. Failing that, the police may need to evict them.

So, sympathetic as I am to their protests, I don’t give them a free pass. I believe they’re in the wrong location, making them look like they’re protesting the wrong target. That makes them look politically naïve, which is the last thing they or we need if they’re serious about fighting back against corporate greed and control over society.

All political activists need to keep their eyes on the prize, and stubbornness for its own sake is never a useful tactic for any cause. The protesters have got to realise that they’re not winning friends or allies by expecting ratepayers to pay for the clean-up and repairs from their protest, nor will they if they end up at the receiving end of a riot because they refused to take responsibility for their own safety.

We’ll see if the protesters have any common sense. I hope they do, that they set an example, because that could win allies and supporters.


Unknown said...

I visited this site today by accident, as I was not aware of it being there til I went into Auckland for other reasons.
I'm afraid your call for common sense may be a tad optimistic, as along with the anti capitalist-greed slogans, there were a lot of signs demanding the legalisation of cannabis, and even one that said "give us cake". The police patrolling the area were unimpressed and called it "visual pollution" so I fear that if the protesters are still there come Sunday there could be ructions. Makes me glad I live far out in the Waikato, and hubby will be safe in a local cowshed watching the game on Sunday night.

Arthur Schenck said...

On last night's news, it looked like they'd erected fences around the protestors, I'm guessing to keep them and rugby fans separated. Hope for the best!