Karen Austin

Recorded 7 November 2012

Byron: Ok and I'll start by asking you how did you get involved in Occupy Christchurch?

Karen: I got involved in Occupy Christchurch because I’d been following Adbusters for about a year, which- and Adbusters is a kind of culture-jamming movement with a very big online presence, and so I'd been following them for a while, and watching Occupy Wall Street build, and I didn't think it would get as big as it did, or certainly as global as it did. So when I heard that there was Occupy in Sydney I thought maybe I'd hop across there and have a look, because I'd, by that time I'd got quite excited by it. But then, somehow, I'm not sure how I found out that it was happening in Christchurch, probably on, just online, but I went along to the first march, and then dropped in and out of it since then, since it's stopped.

Byron: So you were involved right from the start? In Christchurch?

Karen: I went to the march, but at that stage I think there were, was some uncertainty about whether or not they would camp, and they decided at the march to camp. So I didn't camp at all, but I visited fairly frequently. I didn't camp because of family reasons really.

Byron: Ah yes. And what sort of activities were you involved in in Occupy Christchurch?

Karen: Some of the marches, quite a few of the general assemblies, some of the general assemblies that happened after Occupy, and also with some of the other Occupy people going around talking to some of the social service agencies and trying to get some kind of liaison happening with them.

Byron: Ah yes. And what was the reason for that?

Karen: Well, my reason was because I had a hunch from the start that Occupy would attract people who wanted to camp, but who weren't necessarily on board with Occupy principles, and that that could end up being difficult for Occupy people – like people who were homeless or people who were running away, and all of that was brought out as it happened, I'd thought that if we could talk to other agencies then they would be more aware of what Occupy was doing, and that might help them and also help us, and we could perhaps share some resources. It didn't really come off like that, but that was my hope at the beginning.

Byron: Because you're a social worker yourself.

Karen: Yep.

Byron: So, how do you think that that affected your involvement in Occupy, do you think that it would be different coming into that as a social worker than for some of the other people coming in there do you think?

Karen: It was, because... it was different, because I had several roles, and firstly I always thought that the role that I would play in Occupy was a kind of helping role, that I didn't think that I would ever be one of the main people or the main decision makers, but I thought that I would help, that I would bring resources and maybe bring information or advice, but particularly material resources, like I could bring food and bring material things, most of which vanished, which was what I expected. I didn't give anything that I didn't expect to vanish. But it also meant that, I had several, I had that role, but I also had this role of sometimes simply knowing things that other people didn’t know about some of the people who turned up. And that made it awkward because on the one hand I couldn't breach anybody's confidentiality, on the other hand I felt I had some kind of duty to keep everybody safe, including the people who I was concerned about, and I ended up knowing things that nobody else knew, and not really being able to talk to people about that, but also having to just do things behind the scenes really, so.. to help out a bit. And not being sure if what I was doing was actually helpful in terms of what I felt were Occupy principles, but on the other hand feeling that I needed to keep people safe. Quite a few people who I knew from my other working life did turn up at Occupy, and that made things slightly awkward, seeing people in a... no, it wasn't so much awkward seeing people in a role that wasn't where I normally saw them, but I thought that it would be awkward for.. It was awkward for me, for them to see me in that role and also I wanted to ensure their confidentiality and also my own privacy and that of my family.

Byron: Of course.

Karen: So I was just kind of terribly wary about, with some people about saying who I was and where I lived and that kind of thing, ‘cause my family were also involved, my husband came along to a few things, and my daughter and her partner came along to a few things, so.. yeah. It was... yeah there were some awkward moments, and there were some moments where I felt that I needed to behave very professionally.

Byron: So having that sort of a role in Occupy and in your working life, what did you think of some of the attention that the media gave the Occupy campsite, because it did definitely focus on some of the negative aspects of the campsite, and I heard one talkback caller, when it was the topic on talkback, say that Occupy had created a place for all the dregs of society to gather together, and these are people who... so some of them are people you'd worked with and are the types of people that you'd worked with, so how did, what did you think of the way that the media sort of portrayed these people and their involvement with Occupy?

Karen: Well I think talkback is pretty much crap anyway.

Byron: [chuckles].

Karen: If you want to talk about the dregs of society... [Laughs]. They turn up on talkback. I think I wasn't so much concerned about the media because I didn't the media would portray it well anyway, and of the media that I saw about Occupy in New Zealand in general they portrayed it badly. Like, there was a woman who came along and did an interview, and what she focussed on was that there were no toilets and that it was cold, and said nothing about the principle of Occupy, of what Occupy was there for, the fact that it was a global movement, anything, it was just that she went along and sat in Hagley park and got cold and there weren't any toilets. I think that's a really poor standard of journalism. I was more concerned about people I knew who wouldn't have associated themselves with Occupy, who began to associate it with the people who were also seen down in the cells for example, they might have come from Occupy or were heading for Occupy or, there were several groups of young teens who were either running away from home or were camping there, because I think it was kind of briefly fashionable to do so among a certain group, and they were often quite troubled kids, and it just became a, I think it did become a place where the police would swing past when they were looking for someone who'd breached a bench warrant for example, and yeah, I thought that was really bad. It should never have been a place to go and look for people who had offended against the law. And I'm unsure how that could've been handled better... people shouldn't have been there, because they were in breach of their bail conditions or whatever, or they should have been able to be more safe there, so that the police didn't swing past all the time. Because the police had no interest in the activism side of things, it just quickly got a reputation as a place where you can find either people or information about people. And that was wrong too, I think, the fact that not only were there people there who the police wanted, but people who could inform on people who the police wanted. So, all of that was a side of things that probably other people didn't see so much because they didn't have that other side to their lives.

Byron: How do you think the lives of those people were affected by being involved in Occupy in some capacity?

Karen: I think some of them, it did affect them. You know, like... I don't know if you'll interview Gary, but he was... he started off saying “I'm just here to help”, or “here to provide security”, but he ended up saying “I am part of Occupy”, “I'm from Occupy” which was awesome. So I think a few people it did have an effect on their lives, and some of them tried to remain drug free, and all of that, and... I think it's very difficult because Occupy was so fleeting, it was difficult to work out what an effect it would have on their lives long-term, but they may well have come to it without any notion of what activism was, and left with some idea of what activism is, and that's got to be a gain. I dunno, you'd have to talk to them in five years.

Byron: Yeah.. yeah..

So what would be some of your best memories from being involved in Occupy?

Karen: Probably at the very beginning, where there were people around who were mostly young guys, who were people who were really different from me, I've never been a young guy, [chuckles], it's a long time since I was “young” like that, so it was just interesting being at a meeting with, like at the GA, with all these people who were just so enthusiastic and so kind of filled with.. You know the way guys compete for stories, and just that kind of energy that I'm not used to and that is really different, and that people seemed very positive and very welcoming, and it looked then like it might run for a while, and it did. So it's the beginning days that I think had the best memories for me, even though I know that there was division there, that. Like between the Zeitgeist people and some other people and... who... these were things I'd never even heard of, so I went into it like a naïve enquirer really, I'd never heard of Zeitgeist I didn't know anything about Beyond Resistance, I'd go home and Google them. And none of that I took terribly seriously, but, like it was interesting because the Zeitgeist people were kind of being pegged as a sort of right-wing subterfuge, and kind of moved on, and I don't know what was behind any of that, and it didn't really confront me. But I felt that Occupy Wall Street was at its best when it was a mass movement, or in Oakland, when again, people really took the streets, and I wanted that to happen at least once. I think that Occupy Wall Street was at its best when thousands of nurses actually marched, and nurses for me are always kind of “bell-weather” people in a way, in that they're the sort of “decent middle class New Zealanders”, who are a pretty conservative bunch, in my view. Certainly the nurses I work with had no clue about what I was on about, but when they all went marching down Wall Street, I thought that was great and I hope that something like that would happen here.

Byron: Do you think that Occupy Christchurch achieved anything?

Karen: I really don't know. I've wondered that. I think it had the potential to achieve lots. I haven't really been involved in much since, but what I suspect is that the people who came out for Occupy have then gone back into their corners, and that those corners are roughly similar to the ones that they were in before Occupy. It may have done some good for individual people who didn't have a history of activism, or who didn't have a very political mind, who came out and did stuff.

Probably if it comes to that, people like myself, because I hadn't been involved in anything like that for many years. So the fact that Occupy called me out of my corner was something. But I think the effect it would've had would've been on individuals rather than policy making or the way the Christchurch vibe has moved on, I don't know that Occupy has had much of an effect on that. And I mean that could've been a good thing to do potentially, would've been to affect the Christchurch rebuild, or to affect how people thought about the city council. I don't know if that happened or not. 'Coz we've just got those local issues here, and I think that those, in some ways those confounded us, because they were there to be dealt with but, they weren't the same issues, or they didn't seem to people to be the same issues as people were facing globally, like yes every Occupy has its local issues and the global side of it as well.

It's difficult to know what, there needs to be some overarching principles, or ideas that inform all the local stuff, but on the other hand you can't make it so that all you're doing is sitting thinking about what's happening on Wall Street, because there's issues happening here as well. All the time people were torn between one thing and another, and often several things and I think that it stopped people moving in any particular direction. People did spurts of random things that were often fun and exciting, but there wasn't much direction and it was hard to get that. You know, like they'd debate the same things over and over and over again and there seemed to be no memory. You had to be all the time to have that kind of, like an institutional memory of what went on last week. Or even yesterday.

Byron: So something that's sort of been a theme in these interviews is that there were those sort of competing schools of thought within Occupy, and you found that yourself with the Zeitgeist and Beyond Resistance, and these other ideas that were... and I guess different ideas of what type of actions to take as well?

Karen: Yeah and that could get... people would go round and round and round with that, do we see the city council? What is our relationship with the city council? Do we defy them to the last, do we fold up our tents, do we talk to them, do we not talk to them, is it dangerous to talk to them, is it bold to talk to them, if we talk to them and they offer us something will we take it? All of those things went round and round and round and they're, I think they're terribly real issues, because it's not just about the city council, it's about how to we see authority under capitalism, and how do we see the agents of authority, such as the police, and I don't think that anybody really came to any conclusions about that. I'm not sure it would've been easy to come to a conclusion that wasn't overturned later on, or that didn't just move on as events moved on. Because in the end, events governed things for us I think.

Byron: So what way were the... how did the events affect what happened?

Karen: Well I think the moving in of, well I think the moving in and moving out of individual people changed it, 'cause the atmosphere there changed over and over and over again as different people moved in and out, because it was never big enough to become like one of those real- Like in Zucotti park there were different, quite big disparate groups you know, like there was a... one side of the park was, I gather, was kind of family friendly and activist, more openly activist-orientated, whereas the others were the mopping up of most of Manhattan's homeless. And I'm not sure how well that would've worked, but for Occupy Christchurch there wasn't really room for that, so there were more and more people who were actually “Streeties” or people who were in-between things, and of course meanwhile the housing problem in Christchurch was so enormous, and getting worse and worse and worse by the week, so that there was more... some people were thinking this is what Occupy was about, was trying to find a space for homeless people. That didn't answer your question.

So the effect of the events, the events were the people coming and going and the gradual mix of people changing over time, and in the end the city council's actions when they decided to shut it down, and, you know, the fact that people were committing offences as well. Those sorts of events.

Byron: So something else you were involved in was the Occupy Women's group that formed, do you want to talk about that?

Karen: Well I only went to two things, and from what I could see by the Facebook page people attempt to meet and then often don't seem to manage it. Of the meetings that I went to it was really good to be catching up with each other. No decisions were made exactly, or, there wasn't much sense of a way forward, although there were some suggestions that were made. Personally I'd be really keen to see things like banner drops or artistic installations or pranks or, things that could be quite small involving not many people but could make a lot of noise. And, that could be something that the women's group do. Because it doesn't take thousands of people, it just takes five or ten people with a bit of time and a sense of humour.

Byron: So what, well you've already mentioned a few things I guess, but what do you think were the reasons that Occupy Christchurch wasn't more successful as a social movement?

Karen: Partly because it became actually quite frightening for some people, especially for women and children, as the mix changed and there were more people who were frightening to people, and it certainly bothered me that hospital staff were being warned away from the place by their officials, and it was that kind of thing that stopped it gaining more ground. And the ground that it would've gained would've been more moderate ground, and probably people like myself who are more moderate thinking, or even more moderate again [chuckles]. And yeah that would've diluted things, and you know, we would've ended up with people who had concerns that were different from the concerns of the people there such as mortgage rates or bank fees or... I dunno what concerns middle class people, but it was... yeah originally Occupy was for the... because I'm a literal thinker, I took the ninety nine per-cent thing quite literally. Like, if ninety nine per-cent includes me, and almost everybody I know, so I would've, I hoped that everybody I knew would've been able to find a place there. But they couldn't have, partly because of the camping, and partly because the message was probably just too far away from what their values are, in which case it simply may never have taken off because we're not taught to see anything that isn't in front of our nose. What people said to me who were relatively sympathetic towards it were “well it's not my concern” or “that's not happening in New Zealand” or, you know, not being able to see that it is happening in New Zealand, or that we're part of that same global system and, you know we.. The fact that we're doing relatively well out of it doesn't mean that it's ok. Yeah, so I think that it probably didn't mesh with the values of middle New Zealand, and in that case it probably wouldn't have got much bigger. But it would've been nice to see people seeing themselves as part of the ninety nine per-cent... because they are. And... that has its pitfalls as well, g this feeling of like “I know something that nobody else does, therefore I'm kind of superior morally, or politically, I'm superior because I know all this shit and other people don't”. I think that has its pitfalls as well, so it was endlessly frustrating trying to tell people about it. I guess one of the issues about, for anarchists, has been what to do with the intelligentsia, and what to do with people who are sympathetic but who aren't actually anarchists and who aren't keen on the mess of the methods of anarchy. I'm not an anarchist.

Byron: Do you think that something like Occupy could happen again in this country?

Karen: Yeah. Maybe one of the things that it has done is perhaps made it a little bit easier for the same people to regroup if they felt that it was worthwhile, and a little bit easier for people to recognize something. Because people didn't recognize it, I think, as being a movement, they thought it was hippies camping. And people couldn't get beyond that, partly because the media wouldn't let them, but also because they saw what they saw, and you needed to look twice to see that it was about other things apart from hippies camping. But if the hippies start to camp again, or to do anything similar again, people will think “Ok, that's like Occupy, I remember Occupy, therefore this is something a bit like that only maybe a bit different”, so it's.. It might harken back to Occupy and people will be able to recognize the next step. Perhaps whatever that is for them. I think it's different from things like marching because everybody marches, the Sensible Sentencing Trust marches, farmers march about subsidies in Europe. These aren't particularly progressive or politically interesting movement, but they march, because back in the fifties and sixties, the civil rights movement taught them to. So we've got an idea of what activism looks like, and it's marching. That's why I want to do things that aren't marching. Because there's lots of activism that isn't marching, and people don't quite recognize it as such, but I think now they recognize Occupy i.e. hippies camping as being some kind of activism, and the next thing, if it moves on from there, I think it could be quite recognizable and could make a difference.

Byron: So would you get involved again if something like that were to happen?

Karen: Yeah, oh, yeah. Yeah. But it would need to be broad-based enough, and it would need to be about the destruction of capitalism, to be honest. Because, I'm not interested so much in specific things, because all they ever do is point out small things are wrong and look like they can be fixed without making major changes to society.

Byron: Just treating symptoms rather than causes.

Karen: Yeah, and it doesn't work, because you've still got that fearful arid hell that is the system that we've got at the moment, and you know, I think... I think that that's what needs to be addressed, but also until people grasp that, then all they're going to do is, yeah is treat symptoms I suppose.

Byron: Is there anything further you'd like to say on Occupy?

Karen: I did say some stuff about being a woman, and Occupy, which actually ended up being published, which wasn't what I expected, but it was a very male place to be. And mostly I felt OK. about that, because I'm older, but I don't know how it would've been if I’ve been younger, and the energy there was very male. Well, you know like, at the beginning for example, men would tell lots of stories that kind of out-did each other, like “I know someone who got beat up by the cops”, “I know someone who got beat up by the cops times two”, “I know someone who got beat up by the cops times twenty million”, “I know someone who...”, you know, so it was sort of boyish, and it was very charming, but it wasn't actually terribly helpful, and it was quite time consuming. I mean women are good at time consuming, god knows, but that was another sort of time consuming which just made me roll my eyes really, even though it was kind of sweet. And, I think too, the... as I've said before the way men consult is a little bit different from the way women consult, and it does tend more to giving opinion than it does to attending to the situation, and I think you do need both, and I think that perhaps because the environment was so male it ended up allowing dominant males to kind of take over, and that just meant that the thing fell apart really. Yeah... I think one of the good things too was that we did have a dignified exit from the park, and it had got to the point where a last stand wouldn't have been helpful. Like, a month ago it might've been, but by that stage it had lost credibility, and people were frightened of it and the best thing to do would be to do a really good clean-up and that happened, you know. But it's funny because of course, working in the hospital sometimes, like I'll go out there, once I finished on the night shift I try to take a walk about six in the morning, and so I just go and look at it and remember it, and think it'll be really interesting if something sprouted out there again, because it would be quite redolent for anybody who's worked in the hospital or anyone who's driven past or, they would think “oh that again”, but it wouldn't be that again it would be something different, and perhaps better or... yeah... so that would be interesting to see. Yeah the site is still kind of meaningful for me.

Byron: And probably for a lot of people.

Karen: Mmm yeah! Yeah yeah yeah.