Friday, October 21, 2011

Today I was arrested at Occupy Melbourne

Today I was arrested for participating in a peaceful protest. While doing nothing more confrontational than marching with a group of people up Lonsdale Street, I began to be jostled and pushed by four policeman, each of whom was more than a head higher than myself. They shoved and pressed me, attempting to make me go forward faster than the people standing immediately in front of me. I was worried I would lose my feet as the police had squashed us in so that there was no space to move. Before I could comprehend what was going on, these four huge men had hauled me backwards out of the protest. After walking with the protesters for barely 10 minutes, I – a nice, harmless-looking bespectacled woman, barely 5 foot 3, had been arrested for “breaching the peace”.

Why was I there? Simply because I believe that it is important for people to be able to demonstrate and protest peacefully within public space. I had come down to support protesters who had had this right denied to them this morning. I was there because I was disturbed by what I had seen on the news.

Earlier this afternoon, my girlfriend and I checked Twitter. I was appalled to see the treatment that the Occupy Melbourne protesters had received. Police had forced them out of the space they had been occupying. The tactics chosen were disproportionately brutal. I saw pictures of young, floppy-haired protesters slumped against vans with broken noses. There was a woman being dragged out of the crowd by her hair. All of this police force – reports of bullying phalanxes of navy-uniformed young men advancing on a rag-tag bunch of protesters – was being mobilised against the most innocuous group of people you could possibly imagine.

There are many points on which I differ with the strategies and rhetoric chosen by the Occupy Melbourne protesters. But I still feel that fundamentally, the right to protest and demonstrate is an essential part of our democracy. This is why my girlfriend and I decided to get on a tram and go and add to the numbers of the peaceful group that would be marching in the city. I am not, in other words, a “professional protester”. I am not a hippy who has spent the week sitting in a tent on Swanston Street. I was not seeking out confrontation. I am someone who thinks that the right to demonstrate is important, and so I went to observe what was going on down in the CBD.

I joined the protest at the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale. The group, at times a little confused, began slowly making its way up Lonsdale Street. There was much milling about, but the word from the man with the loud speaker was that we were to head to Trades Hall via Russell Street.

We began walking. Within minutes, a line of police suddenly materialised behind us, dividing us from the larger group of protesters. They were marching with their arms linked, at a pace. I joked to my girlfriend that they seemed to want us to sprint to Trades Hall. Before I was able to comprehend what was going on, the police had advanced so rapidly that I found myself at the back of the group that was marching. They began shoving me.

None of the police who jostled me had visible name tags. All were young men who seemed to enjoy being aggressive. They wore sunglasses and continuously pushed at my shoulders and back, even though I had nowhere to go. I asked them to stop pushing me. They responded by pushing me harder.

All at once, I lost my footing and a number of police – four? five? In the chaos it was hard to tell – dragged me away backwards.

The experience of being hauled away by police was surreal. The closest reference point I have for it is being in a mosh pit as a teenager. Yes that’s right – the ratio of police bodies to my body as I was dragged away was so large that the most accurate way to describe my departure would be to say that I was forcefully crowd-surfed out of the protest.

At first, it all seemed like a bit of a joke. Me? Arrested? For walking along Lonsdale Street in a group, chanting some slogans? In fact, yes, this is behaviour that warrants arrest.

The police doing the job of handling the masses of protesters afterwards were not so frightening. I was led down Lonsdale Street by a matronly woman (well perhaps matronly if you discount the rubber gloves) who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mount Thomas. Most police seemed exasperated that they had been given this ridiculous task, when they would prefer – as the Constable who held me by the wrist for a while told me – to be out “fighting crime”.

My things were taken, including the clean tissue in my pocket.

I have never been in a police van before. I shared mine with six other women. It was uncannily like being in a sauna – there are bench seats, there is no oxygen, everything is humid, there are no windows. We were driven for twenty minutes, then left for fifty minutes with the van’s engine off, the lights off and the doors closed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 45 degrees in there. All of us started to get panicky and anxious. At least two of the other women sitting in the space with me had received blows to the head during proceedings: one had been punched in the face by police earlier that morning, and another woman’s head had collided with the ground as she was being hauled out of the crowd. One woman said that, as she was being dragged away, a male police officer had squeezed and twisted her nipple. Combined with the lack of air and the fact that we had no idea how much longer we would be kept in there, everyone had a hard time keeping panic at bay.

When the door was opened, we were not interviewed or charged. We were let out into the streets of St Kilda. I was disoriented, and managed to take a tram going the wrong way.

It was a strange afternoon. I had hoped, now, to write something longer and more coherent, but I still feel a bit dazed. Above all, what I want to convey is that my experience, though unpleasant, was minimal compared to much of what has happened to many people present at events today. I am still flabbergasted to think that such heavy-handed tactics were applied to a peaceful protest. Above all, I am struck by the fact that the violent, bullying tactics of the police are sanctioned by the authorities. In fact, they were requested. No one within the police force or the government will call any of the aggressive thugs who broke the noses of protesters today to account. Ganging up on people, forcing them into dangerous situations, total inhumanity in the face of hurt and distress – all of this was legitimated by local and state government today.

And all because... what? Because people chose to demonstrate peacefully, out of the belief that they, in our progressive, democratic society, have a right to do so? Is it okay for the police to rough up citizens, just because they make political gestures that are a bit inconvenient?

All I know is that this morning, I felt comfortable and assured in my belief that Australian society allows peaceful protest. Now I am not so sure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Have No Right To Despise The Present

Here's something that is exerting a bit of gravitational force in my brain at present. I've been writing about Foucault and doing some meditation. The juxtaposition of these two things has led me to start considering them together.

From Foucault's "What is Enlightenment?" (1984):

Modernity is distinct from fashion, which does no more than call into question the course of time; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the 'heroic' aspect of the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it is the will to 'heroize' the present.

I shall restrict myself to what Baudelaire says about the painting of his contemporaries. Baudelaire makes fun of those painters who, finding nineteenth-century dress excessively ugly, want to depict nothing but ancient togas. But modernity in painting does not consist, for Baudelaire, in introducing black clothing onto the canvas. The modern painter is the one who can show the dark frock-coat as 'the necessary costume of our time,' the one who knows how to make manifest, in the fashion of the day, the essential, permanent, obsessive relation that our age entertains with death. 'The dress-coat and frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul -- an immense cortège of undertaker's mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes...). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.' [3] To designate this attitude of modernity, Baudelaire sometimes employs a litotes that is highly significant because it is presented in the form of a precept: 'You have no right to despise the present.'

So writes Foucault.

Yesterday I spent 4 hours being silent, doing Zen meditation. 35 minutes of sitting, 5 minutes of walking. Then 35 minutes of sitting, 5 minutes of walking. And again. Then once more.

In part, this was an exercise in evading a certain kind of thinking. One's mind, reason - these are things that like to compare, to capture in language. It is difficult for this kind of thinking (rationalising, describing) to speak about the present without, in some way, despising it. And by despising, I mean something like 'comparing' - judging the present, either in relation to the past (beautiful fantasies, the construction of narratives) or the future (making the present meaningful by connecting it to hopes or anxieties). Meditation is a repeated action: that of releasing thought when it 'hooks on' to what is.

Now, this movement of capturing the present, of asking who we are: on a collective level, this is - or, at least Foucault thinks this is - the modern gesture. We incessantly pose the question: what is today? The attempt to capture the present, to describe it, to know it, can't be avoided. The drive of language - of theorisation, of assessment, of description - is unstoppable. And of course it should not be stopped. But description has a tendency to 'lock on' to things, to fix them once and for all.

Perhaps the problem is, then: how can the present be captured and described without closing down the possibilities of it being re-described? How can one feel the contours of one's present without attributing finality to this description? For after describing, laziness and self-satisfaction tend to set in. "The world is like this. Problem solved." How, then, can one describe the present, yet maintain an attitude of awareness and curiosity?

I think these questions are interesting. And by that I mean that they interest me. I also think they are particularly important at a time (and here I go with my little narrative about what 'today' represents) when the question of what philosophy is - what it should do - is up for contestation.