Some Things I Meant To Say Re: Occupy & The Riots

Kiwi Summer on Radio New Zealand National

[A ridiculously long postscript to my interview with Radio New Zealand’s Kiwi Summer (listen here)]

I love radio, but every time I do a spot I always come away kicking myself because there’s a million more points or stats or clarifications overlooked without which I’m convinced I’ll sound like a blithering idiot. Luckily Charlotte and Sonia of Radio New Zealand’s Kiwi Summer have kindly offered to repost this on their Facebook page so I can completely undermine the point of a radio interview with a massive wall of text. So let’s get cracking.

Occupy & The August Riots Are Rooted In Dispossession
While Occupy and other protest groups have been frequently portrayed in media as a public menace, even the most right-wing media outlets have been wary of associating them with the ‘feral youth’ narrative that immediately sprang up in the wake of the summer’s week-long riots. Many Occupy activists I’ve spoken to have outright rejected any notion of common ground: we are Peaceful Protesters with Placards; they were just Violent Looters. Certainly there’s almost no demographic overlap — and there is an ethnic component to this which is delicate but vital — but it seems blindingly clear to me as an outsider at least that both Occupy and the riots could only have burst upon the country in the way they did because of a backdrop of political disenfranchisement and massive social deprivation.

Shared Experiences: The British Public Are Basically Broke And Parliament Doesn’t Care
That might seem obvious given 2009’s financial meltdown, but it’s really, really important to recognise that this was the case even before the crisis. Median wages didn’t change between 2003 and 2008, even as GDP skyrocketed 11 percent. So while unemployment was historically low, people weren’t necessarily getting a living wage out of it. And when the economy imploded, the resulting layoffs and pay freezes and hiring moratoriums only exacerbated an already grim situation. Inflation has more than doubled the annual average increase in wages, assuming you’ve managed to actually keep your job. We have 2.6 million people – eight percent of the labour force – looking for work and finding nothing, while youth unemployment – a canary in the coalmine for future economic conditions – has a rate of one in five. New Labour’s response was to simply try and shuttle people into low-paid work (thereby keeping them off the books), and this disregard for actual living standards has only accelerated under a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition — to the point where private contractors are drafting beneficiaries into an unpaid menial labour scheme which is literally being legally challenged as a form of slavery. So those are the material conditions we’re talking about when we look at people seizing shoes and clothes and groceries from high street chains. While I don’t want to marginalise the police shooting of Mark Duggan as a flashpoint, it only takes a moment’s critical reflection to realise the riots gripped neighbourhoods who never knew him, but knew poverty and oppression — Hackney and Croydon, but never Kensington and Mayfair (stats for the skeptics). To horribly bastardise Marx for a moment, we saw a systemically impoverished proletariat – who would be working class if there was any work going – decide to seize the means of consumption instead.

Meanwhile Occupy  concerns itself with the exact same material conditions that made these riots possible, and channels the exact same public anger — even as it embraces a radically different segment of society.

Differing Experiences: Ethnicity, Education & Activism
It’s worth noting that the rioting in Tottenham began not with the police shooting of a young black man in unexplained circumstances, but with a six-hour standoff between police and protesters outside the station several days later. ‘Race riot’ is a pretty loaded term, but ethnically diverse neighbourhoods like Tottenham have long complained of racially discriminatory policing. The London School of Economics’ own study last month found around half of those involved in the riots identified as black; meanwhile three -quarters said they had been subjected to a ‘stop and search’ order by police in the last twelve months — around eight times the rate for the general population. Meanwhile, poverty being what it is, these communities are typically characterised by high unemployment and low educational achievement. The daily struggle to survive on such meagre means and under such an intrusive police presence quickly saps any burgeoning social activism, making it exceptionally difficult for people of colour to engage in the kind of ‘legitimate’ political activism that liberal democratic standards demand — let alone the kind of confrontational theatre that Occupy thrives on.

This is not to say that Occupy protesters are simply playing at radical politics – those I’ve spoken with are deadly serious – but that as a predominantly white, relatively (and only relatively) affluent group, they can better afford to engage in highly visible protest actions without the same fear of marginalisation or outright reprisal. Nor is this to dismiss the exceptional people of colour I’ve met who have been deeply involved in the Occupy camps; the point is that they are all the more exceptional for doing so. As far as level of education is concerned, a university degree is pretty typical — but rather than a student movement, many are graduates who had agreed to major personal debt and begun their careers four years late on the advice that life without a degree would consign them to a life of flipping burgers, only to find they were now expected to flip burgers anyway. Still others – from Catholic nuns to community organising imams – appear to be part of the 2.5 million people who have simply stopped voting since 1997, the year Blair’s New Labour turned general elections into a choice between three flavours of neoliberal apologia.

I’m getting a bit polemical, so maybe I’ll stop here for now. But there’s still a bunch more to be said: about the anarchist traditions that underpin a group of people who’ve largely claimed to reject the ‘anticapitalist’ moniker, about radicalising experiences within the protest camp itself, about Occupy’s relationship to trade unions and other traditionally left allies, its rejection of party politics and the future of the movement itself. I’ll get to that soon enough. But in the meantime, thanks for listening.

3 Comments on “Some Things I Meant To Say Re: Occupy & The Riots”

  1. Steve says:

    A worry with Occupy, if Wellington is typical, is that many people will remember the movement for those who are choosing to remain on sites, against the decision of most. I consider it likely that those remaining in Civic Square, Wellington, have agenda beyond the well articulated, but not always well reported, agenda of the wider Occupy movement.

  2. Catherine Strong says:

    I enjoyed the radio postscript Rory. Thanks for writing it.

  3. @Steve I think that, sadly, is a result of the news angle rather than the localisation of the movement in New Zealand. Coverage – for a variety of well-covered flaws in our news system – has focused on the obvious: the physical presence of occupy in Aotea Square, Dunedin Octogon, Civic Square and, (not so much) Hagley Park. The narrative has become the quality of the grass and the cost to rate payers, when convenient, rather than the purpose and motivation behind the occupiers.

    Also, Rory, I’d point you towards a good article by Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc (rioting) within Occupy, and what this has meant for the movement:

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