AS I stood in the city square on Friday morning, I locked arms with a quiet IT student and a man who has a doctorate in law.
None of us had done anything like this before. Contrary to Mayor Robert Doyle’s assertions, we were neither professional protestors, nor the usual suspects.
By chance, we had landed in an obscure corner of the human chain, inside a marquee, facing the back of the square, well away from onlookers.
Even the other protesters seemed to have forgotten our corner – for an hour or so, the IT student had no one else to link arms with. As the chant rang out for us to “hold the line”, I asked him how he felt. “Vulnerable,” he replied, with a light smile. The police who surrounded us shared our mirth.
And so, for the first few hours, the big showdown felt more like farce. I had a lot of time to consider my position. Why, exactly, was I there? Should I stay?
One day I met a woman who, through illness and ill fortune, faced eviction from her modest unit. She was a good woman, but could no longer pay her rent – the shortfall grew bigger week by week. She sat with me in her darkened lounge and sobbed.
Earlier that same morning, I’d read in the newspaper that Gina Rinehart’s wealth had doubled in twelve months, to $10.3 billion. Hers is wealth born of inheritance, extracted from our finite resources, and funnelled into scare campaigns against taxes.
I visited the city square on several of Occupy Melbourne’s six days, but I didn’t camp. I felt frustrated by the slogans and rhetoric, and by the unwieldy facilitation process for the public forums.
My optimism dissipated, but even so, there was something about the movement that challenged me. Everyone was welcome to participate. If I thought the process wasn’t working, or that the comments were more emotionally charged than deeply considered, then it was up to me to do better. If I didn’t stand up, it wasn’t fair to criticise.
On Friday morning, the police pressed more tightly around us as the hours wore on. When they tore the marquee from over our heads, the atmosphere of farce gave way to an air of panic.
I asked the computer student on my left why he was there. He told me he was a duel citizen of Australia and America and he’d been inspired by Occupy Wall Street. “For me,” he said, “this is about the separation of corporations and the state.” Over the previous days, he’d spoken with other protestors about the importance of curtailing corporate donations and influence on politics.
On my right was Dr Samuel Alexander, an academic who writes about simple living and limits to economic growth. He had just penned a 4000-word article, inspired by the protest, in which he outlined proposals for tighter media ownership laws, more progressive taxes and heavy investment in renewable energy infrastructure, among other things.
I’d also heard about another possible demand – for a Robin Hood tax on international currency transactions. For a movement comprising citizens in more than 1500 cities around the world, that proposal strikes me as elegant.
Nonetheless, as I stood in the line, I did not have a clear list of reforms in mind. But I had read about our current ways: about cascading financial crises in the US and Europe, about climate change, and about other environmental tipping points.
At Occupy Melbourne, hundreds of people cast off their apathy and sought to engage with one another on these matters, peacefully and publicly.
As I stood in the line, I was certain that these matters deserve debate, whenever and wherever possible. That is why I stayed in the square on Friday morning, and locked arms with other thinking people, as the riot squad bore down upon us.