An ode to camping at Occupy Wellington

Opinion piece by Anne Russell, originally posted on Scoop.

The campsite where Occupy Wellington once stood looked a little forlorn when I went to pick up my tent. I hadn’t slept in Civic Square for many weeks, and had stopped visiting since we sent out the press release that Occupy was more than a campsite, but my tent had protested through thick and thin, despite not knowing what it wanted. I could see no familiar faces among the people milling about between tents, but then I spotted 15-year-old Wes, nicknamed Snoopy in one of the General Assemblies so long ago. I gave him a huge hug. “Wes! Where you been at? I haven’t seen you around here for ages!”

“At home. I love my bed,” he said. We walked over to my tent and found a person crawling around in it. I opted to go for a walk until they’d packed up, since I was effectively in strangers’ territory. When I returned, my tent and bedroll were in a neat pile next to the gardening box, which still had a healthy crop of silverbeet and red flowers. I hoisted my belongings, waved at the people I vaguely knew, who wished me a merry Christmas, and walked off. I passed the whiteboard, once full of information, now blank but for “Occupy Wellington is still here” scrawled across it. I walked away from camp down the Civic Square steps for the last time. And that was that, I suppose.

It’s hard not to feel sad that Occupy Wellington had such a hard time working out the logistics of camping together. Many of the Occupiers I know still miss it—one Occupy friend said to another over Facebook that he kept “sliding back hoping to find it again but it’s not there anymore.” All of us needed the place, one way or another. For me, it was a place I went first thing in the evening after work. Although I rarely stayed overnight there, it was a real home—Civic Square became somewhere I could show up unannounced and know there was something there for me. There were interesting people to talk to, but there were also guitars to have a go on, or places to sit and read if I wasn’t in a sociable mood.

by Penelope LatteyEveryone who got deeply involved in Occupy Wellington knew it was about the people, and it’s been said many times that we are whanau. There were only a handful of campers who I would always hug as greeting, but there were many I would stop and talk to for a bit, or admire from a distance as someone I knew. I liked this space of friendly acquaintances—it was reassuring that even though I didn’t know many of these people too well we could still hang out together.

It wasn’t all wonderful, of course, or we’d still be living there. Gale force winds kept most of us from camping, and some poorly socialized occupants ended up making others feel unwelcome. We didn’t really have the resources to deal with that stuff properly, as wider society sure hasn’t given us tools for preventing sexual harassment and alcoholism. For better or worse, this made it something like an extended family meet-up. For every creepy misogynist uncle that everyone wanted to get away from, there was a second cousin who you only hung out with once a year at Christmas dinner but always liked talking to.

And everyone found some immediate family. A few people I’d met in passing once or twice elsewhere became people who I’d walk around town with for hours climbing trees or collecting food for Occupy. We probably never would have got that close if not for hanging around a campsite organizing politics. I still keep in touch with them.

This social side mattered as much as the political side. At other activist meetings I’ve been to, you put your political hat on for a few hours, awkwardly shuffle around for a bit afterwards talking to people and then go home to your real life. At Occupy we put our political hats on for the Free University and then sat around eating gelato afterwards, or went wharf-jumping.

this is emily’s PhotostreamWas there something wrong with this, that Occupy didn’t spend its whole time working on activist causes? Perhaps. Certainly the remaining community in Civic Square doesn’t appear to be particularly engaged in politics—my friend who lived there said half of them barely knew what Wall Street was. Everyone, however, needs some down time, and we took it. The vitriol Occupiers got from some of the press and public for the audacity of camping in a public place was rather surprising. Non-Occupying taxpayers (I and many other Occupiers work fulltime) only want to pay for things if there’s a sign of productivity, it seems. But what is productivity? Jobless and homeless people who sit meditating in a park, or spend the day talking to strangers about politics, contribute much less to environmental damage than those who work fulltime for McDonald’s—or, indeed, than those who threaten to mine our national parks. These unemployed folk are arguably more productive, since they’re less destructive.

It’s a funny idea that the mere possession of a job is a marker of productivity. A fulltime mother is ‘unemployed’ in the formal economy, but you’d have to be strikingly ignorant to tell her she’s lazy. Anyone who’s looked after a two-year-old knows it’s a hard day’s work, and yet the government somehow casts it as a less demanding occupation than being employed at a call centre. There is much resolve and determination to be found in the ranks of the ‘unemployed’, and some extreme laziness and apathy in the commercial workforce. I got my own job through the sweet power of nepotism, and while I have a certain aptitude for it I came here by luck, not effort. I sit down all day at this job.

One wonders why, in the developed Western world, we are so determined to think that life is, or has to be such hard work. In an agrarian society, at least a lot of hard work had a survival purpose. But in this age of advanced agricultural technology, food production should be easy; clothing and shelter too. We have a phenomenal number of conveniences available to us—compared to our ancestors we barely know we’re alive.

“Alastair’s Photos”This isn’t chiding people for complaining about ‘first world problems’, for such problems still hurt whether or not people are starving in Somalia or being tortured in the US. Rather it is the question: why are we setting ourselves up for half these problems in the first place? In fits of despondency about the state of the world, I have always thought the worst thing about All The Problems is that it doesn’t have to be this hard. There is no actual need for 52% of New Zealand women to be made to feel dissatisfied with their body. There is no need for workers to go home from 8 hours at a department store and barely be able to talk to their families from physical and emotional exhaustion. As William Sloane Coffin said, “even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

What most of us need, what we are crying out for, is community. The Wellington Occupiers were the ones who admitted this openly, or at least were those lucky enough to have the time to do so. We defied the naïve cynicism that people are inherently greedy assholes, and that life’s a bitch. We’re still working with each other on what common ground we have. Whether or not the Occupiers succeeded at living together in Civic Square, we should get some credit for trying. This society hasn’t taught people how to get along in the same space, so we had to improvise. We’re going to try negotiate something similar again next year, in a more developed form.

I would like to thank Occupy Wellington, from the bottom of my heart, for everything it has accomplished so far. My love for the movement transcends the people who I met at Civic Square, though I love a lot of you too. It transcends the campsite itself, although that had some pretty excellent moments. By Occupy Wellington I don’t mean the collection of people who camped, or even those using the Occupy brand. I mean every person helping out the locked-out CMP Rangitikei meat workers, every church leader who stands with us against economic inequality, every studentchallenging the idea that people are inherently bad. The huge optimism coming from anyone who can see all the problems in this world and try to fix them shows real intellect and integrity. It steps far beyond the complacent negativity that corporate giants and their government lackeys seem to subscribe to.

Photo set by Rex BustriaI wonder if in a few years I will come back to this article and facepalm at its early-20s earnestness. Perhaps it states the obvious. Perhaps, much like Occupy itself, it is rendered ‘incoherent’ by trying to cover too much ground. But the Occupy movement has been an emotional time for all of us as well as political, and I wanted to get that across. Earnestness isn’t so bad. We live in a culture that pushes earnestness aside with a sardonic sweep of the hand, without looking to see if it says anything important. David Foster Wallace wrote on irony:

“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic…Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.“Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”

So at the risk of being soft, I would like to say: Occupy Wellington, you are beautiful and I love you, and I couldn’t leave you if I tried. I’ll see you all for a fresh round of activism next year.

For those who want to be involved in the next phase of Occupy Wellington and Occupy Aotearoa, visit:


5 thoughts on “An ode to camping at Occupy Wellington

  1. Richard Keller says:

    Thanks Anne for your “ode”. I’d like to comment on one aspect. Organizing and keeping a camp going is a difficult thing. The people involved have come from widely different backgrounds as part of the 99%. Those who were “differently socialized” (a variation on your “poorly socialized occupants”) were always going to absorb a large amount of energy.

    Many Occupy sites have experienced the same type of problem. But some have struggled on with it, perhaps because the Occupy movement is about the 99%. The requirement of the 1% that the 99% be spending their lives for the benefit of the 1% is the wrong that Occupy wants to change as I understand Occupy.

    You ask whether Occupy has spent too little time on activist causes. No, I would say that trying to deal with the social problems of the 99% encountered in the camp is an important part of the Occupy movement. It was always going to be difficult; I don’t know how I would cope. But has Occupy Wellington tried hard enough so far?

    • Ian Anderson says:

      My personal view is that people need to have some idea of what they’re aiming to do, how they want to do it, and what resources they have for it. If you contrast the Civic Square occupation with Occupy Pomare for example, they were occupying as a protest against evictions and successfully got back into negotiation with HNZ.

      If we want Occupy to fulfil a social support role, it could be doing that a lot better than it has been. In large part this decision was about stepping back to think about what we want to do and how to do it, rather than just holding together a camp for the sake of it.

  2. Anne Russell says:

    Occupy was created to deal with economic inequality. If we put all our energy into maintaining a camp, state assets will get sold while our back is turned. While symptoms are important, I would rather put my energy into dealing with causes of inequality. Difficult.

  3. Richard Keller says:

    The Occupy Wellington occupation site is truely looking forlorn now surrounded by a chain link fence and only a lawn care company sign inside. The Wellington City Council has attacked free speech in a concrete way.

    I’ll be watching this web site for further announcements from Occupy Wellington on what is next.


  4. Brian Tither says:

    An abridged extract of a letter to my Aunty in London who has been following Occupy London:

    I have been following the Occupy Wellington movement since the initial rally supporting Occupy Wall Street on October 15th last year and I am still in contact with it now. I am afraid it did get rather morphed here in Wellington like elsewhere but I am hoping that a meeting called: ‘Occupy 2.0 Where to from here?’ near the old occupation site on March 3rd will push things along to the next stage.

    At the rally I can recall sitting down with a small group of people and heard some discussion about the different actions that they could do to show support for Occupy Wall Street and the idea of a physical camp was only one of many and was in fact started that night. A kaupapa (which I think translates from Maori as something like ‘tradition’) was created, as well as a safer spaces policy, which had something to do with an inclusion policy which included everyone as long as including one person or a few people did not exclude a lot more people. I never stayed on the campsite but I understood what happened there was that the kaupapa got misunderstood and in the end got ditched and some people who made the site unsafe for a lot of people ended up hijacking the site, which seemed to go against the kaupapa and the safer spaces policy as I understand it.

    Before this happened a lot of the people running things like free universities and the rest tactically withdrew from the campsite. And I believe these people are behind Occupy 2.0, which is part of the global transition that is happening in the movement and I think a lot of those people are students who have been away from town over the summer and will be back for university when it starts again on March 5th.

    I also understand that a lot of people who I know to be activists in town who were at the rally on October 15th did not support the campsite when they saw the potential for it to be hijacked and because of how such a show of support might jeopardise the things that they are doing for people such as welfare advocacy, which they have done for many years and grew out of the activism that they have done in the past.

    Some of these people’s activist activities in the past also helped the occupation to continue for 109 days such as the court action these activists took against the police which they won for illegal arrests in a protest outside parliament a long time ago about cuts to tertiary funding and fee increases, which made the police too reluctant to do anything about the occupation until the group got basically morphed down to a very small group.

    Of course there has been a lot of confusion about what the message of Occupy is about and people have brought some things into it, which either seem irrelevant or are only a small part of it that have been overinflated. I got involved myself because I am concerned about the messages out there I have been hearing in the last few years like from a Young National Party member who was making a big issue with me after an accident I had where I get hit by a car about the public money that was being spent on me in my recovery, where he seemed to be so excited about the tax cut that he just got and was perhaps looking for more potential cuts to public spending to get another tax cut by quering me about how my ACC was working. This was while ignoring the fact that I was in a lot of pain, which the walker I was using did not seem to register to him. It had me thinking that did he want a health system where I had to pull out my credit card to the ambulance driver at the accident site to cover my time in hospital?

    Perhaps I might be morphing things here myself when I refer to this experience but I think that what really needs to happen is that we have got to get a discourse out there that will get people rethinking things about more public responsibility for things like health and education and welfare before we lose the lot and I hope Occupy 2.0 will be about that. I also don’t think an actual site occupation is needed for this and I constantly try to remind people that it was only one of many activities talked about at the rally on October 15th and I often put on my English language student hat and say that the word ‘occupy’ has many rafts of meanings besides occupying a physical site. I have also said that I will only support another site occupation if there is a collective learning and understanding about what happened at the initial one.

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