Rob Read

Recorded Sixteenth May 2013

Byron: So I'll start off by asking, how did you get involved in Occupy Christchurch?

Rob: I heard about it through a few different groups but the Christchurch one, I'd been following the overseas movement a little bit, but then I'd heard though a couple of the different activist groups that I've been involved with about them wanting to do one hear in Christchurch, found out that yep it definitely was go and then started getting on the organising committee for it.

Byron: So you were involved before even the camp site started?

Rob: Yep definitely I did a lot of the advertising getting posters out there getting the word out there a lot of online media for it

Byron: And what was your role on the initial march that started the occupation?

Rob: A few different things, when I first turned up there on day I one I was the first to arrive and kinda looked round and was like, "there's next to nobody here" but I mean with an hour there was a good couple of hundred people already there and then by the time we actually marched having that couple of thousand, during that march I think I took my usual role of being the human megaphone and leading some chants and getting right up there with everyone else

Byron: So you'd obviously been an activist before Occupy?

Rob: Yep I've done quite a bit of different activist work with the workers’ rights, human rights all those sort of things

Byron: And you camped there that first night?

Rob: Yep I stayed there right from that very first night right though till about day eighty, I think I was only away all up for about a week of that and that was during the time I went down to check out a couple of other Occupies in the South Island

Byron: So what was the atmosphere like at Occupy like on that first day?

Rob: I think to begin with there was a lot of uncertainty, I mean arriving there day one we weren't even sure if we were going to be camping there the first night whether it was just going to be a huge march and that was it or whether we were going to do, follow the overseas Occupies and actually set up camp, and you know, occupy that space. So on that very first night I think everyone was just on massive highs, I mean there were people doing fire poi and all that sort of stuff there, there was a lot of celebration and everyone was quite in high spirits.

Setting up camp I think the first night we only had about dozen tents set up then yeah it just kept exploding from there. That first night was definitely, the first day was uncertain, but the first night was just a huge celebration

Byron: And then what happens when everybody wakes up the next day and realises they've made the commitment to occupy a space sort of indefinitely, so how did the second day go?

Rob: I think it was kinda the uncertainty came back as you know, "what do we do from here" there was a lot of different views coming out from different people from obviously different backgrounds. Some people were saying, you know, we need to get out and do daily in-your-face sort of stuff with people, and then other peopling saying, no we need to get ourselves set up secure here trying to set up basically a home base.

Other people saying 'let’s just go with the flow' there was just so many different ideas coming out, I think there was a lot of throwing back different ideas between us all to work out what we want to do as a group.

Byron: So this is probably when the general assemblies began?

Rob: Yep. The GA, I think, can't remember whether the first GA was that morning or if we did it in that evening, I'm pretty sure was that morning as you know we started off doing them twice daily. But yes So then the first GA was exactly that, basically it was ideas flying around and working out what we wanted to do.

Byron: And obviously the decision was made to continue camping. But then obviously there were other activities as well that the Occupy sort of group was doing, so what were the activities that began?

Rob: There [were] quite a lot of different things that happened throughout the time that I was there. we did get behind quite a few different protests including when the wharfies and meat workers got locked out, We got in behind helping those protests, including I remember one particular protest that we did down on Blenheim Road outside Westmeats and there was only a reasonably small select group of us that went down but we definitely made an impact, which is kind of more what I was hoping we would do as part of Occupy, more than the actual getting out there being, you know, activists and getting the word out there about the corporate greed and that the way so many businesses in New Zealand are so corrupt.

When people just go "oh no we don't have corruption in New Zealand" but yeah. On top of that we also had people going on talking to general members of the public as they walked by or ran around the park. We did quite a few different marches, like we did a march for Human Rights Day and we, you know, that was more of a parade than a march though, it quite a, more of a celebratory thing you know. There was so many things, and there was on site we did picnic days, when people came down and had picnics, we did on the free market where people would come down and donate goods and you know literally if there was something that you needed or wanted you to take it away with you. I remember the first time we did that I was a wee bit iffy about it because I personally wouldn't have been the sort of person that would go along and just "oh yeah that looks nice I'll take that with me, it would feel a bit odd to me" but the thing that kind of lifted my hope with that was I remember this father coming down with his two kids and the father said to the two kids, you know, you can each pick one thing, and the kids picked their thing, they left and then about half an hour, an hour later, you see them come back and donate probably about eight to ten things back to it, and to me that was just like exactly what we need, you know that sharing of resources, sharing of things where we've all got when there's so many other people out there that don't have them.

Byron: So there's a couple of things from that I'd like to touch on. I guess first of all just that idea there, d id you feel that Occupy was kind of creating a community that was a bit like what the people there wanted to see, kind of wider society?

Rob: Yeah I definitely think we got, we definitely heading to that point, I mean we had a community garden going there for a while. There was just literally a lot of people just sharing their skills, their knowledge and their particular resources to help everybody else out, which is exactly what, you know, we should be doing day to day anyway in my opinion.

Byron: And the other thing was just about the overseas movement, you obviously saw or the ideas of Occupy as being really relevant in New Zealand. Did you feel that Occupy was just as relevant here as it was on Wall Street or London?

Rob: yeah I definitely think it was just as relevant, I just don't think that that New Zealand Occupiers were as clear about pointing out what the message we were trying to put out there was, so I definitely think for me one of the big reasons I got in was the corruption inside the New Zealand- not just inside New Zealand government, but inside New Zealand businesses as a whole.

Getting that message out there and going, you know, it doesn't have to be this way, was kind of the original big reason I want to get involved. I definitely would say it was just as relevant here as it was overseas.

Byron: And so you, being there for long and quite often, you really saw the camp site develop, so it started with about a dozen tents, how did it build from there? I mean obviously there were more tents, how else did the actual physical site change?

Rob: I think there was... we got a really good kitchen and, kind of, communal area going, where we had like a different tent for different things. We had a lot of electricity that we were providing on site for, you know, media and that side of things.

The different personalities coming in. I mean daily you'd have maybe someone new come, or someone that's been there a while go, so it was an ever changing environment, but it was always growing, there was always something going on, and I think one of things that really disappointed me in, especially in the earlier days, is a lot of the media reports saying, you know, we were sitting there doing nothing during the days. A lot of the times, you know might look like they're from the outside, but a lot of the time we were sitting around we were talking in groups about things that we want to change and how can we change these things. Yeah, so, I think that camp site itself, I think the highest I remember was that thirty two tents, from memory, and we had everything from local Christchurch residents to people that were travelling throughout the New Zealand Occupies, too people that were media affiliated that were coming into check it out and staying with us for a few nights, to complete out of towners, backpackers, people that, I remember a few people that had been overseas to the London and the New York Occupies and just happened to be in New Zealand at this point so they thought they'd come and check it out and stay for a few days.

It was, yeah, such a huge global movement that was recognised globally and somewhere safe and somewhere you could go if you really want to help make change.

Byron: So these sort of talks, this sitting in groups talking were obviously a big part of Occupy, something that seems to be a thread running through these interviews is 'contesting ideas', did you find that there were contesting ideas, you touched on that a little already, but among the people who came along to be involved in Occupy, contesting ideas about what Occupy should do but also what society should be like and so on?

Rob: Oh definitely, I mean one of the things that before Occupy, I only kind of heard a little bit about kind of just in passing, was things like the Zeitgeist movement, and the resource based economy side of things. And I mean you could sit down with somebody and talk about what their ideals were and you'd hear a complely different thing to what you are, but you'd go "that could make sense" and then of course there was a lot of people where they'd sit and they'd debate, I wouldn't say it was arguing, a lot of people tried to say there was a lot of arguing, I thought a lot of that was debating different ideas.

Like from my point of view I think, you know, Christchurch showed it quite well after the earthquakes that we could look after ourselves. Those first few days before the government really got involved, we kind of looked after ourselves and that's what I'd like to see as a global sort of thing, is people looking up to people rather than having to stand by this one set of guidelines sort of thing, and then at the same time hearing other people's point of view, things like the resource based economy and that sort of stuff. It really opened my mind at least, as to different ideals out there that really could work.

Byron: And probably it was one of the few, maybe the first time that people from so many different kind of, so many different ideas had really came together in a physical space

Rob: Definitely. Again I wasn't even aware of certain groups in Christchurch, let alone in New Zealand, suddenly these people that, you know, I wish I'd known about years ago, pop up and come along with the different ideas and their different backgrounds, it was just amazing the amount of different people and different ideas that really were in this one shared space.

Byron: Do you think that they kind of network of people has remained even after the camp site is gone?

Rob: I can only speak for me personally but I've kept in touch with a few of the people that really kind of opened my mind. But I don't think it's as strong or as prevalent as it was at the site. I think having the site there definitely was kind of this nice open forum for the sort of conversations to happen, but that, I mean these are the conversations that you don't generally get into unless you run into the person.

Byron: We're in a time now where a lot of people will say that because of the Internet we have this amazing tool for communicating and spreading ideas and information sort of globally, but despite that do you think that, having a real sort of concentrated physical space was also important for that sort of thing, for the spread of information and ideas?

Rob: Oh definitely. I mean, you can sit at home on the Internet and search anything, but you're always going to come up with a thousand different theories, a thousand different people's ideas, whereas if you're able to physically sit down with somebody and have that conversation with them, then you can hear where they're coming from, you can ask him direct questions about it and actually have a full on in depth conversations instead of sitting there just reading a couple of articles. So I think have a physical space there for that, definitely was a huge, huge movement in itself.

Byron: the other thing that a physical occupation raises is the question of, is... 'What’s the meaning of public space' and 'how can public space be used' do you have any comments on that?

Rob: I think a lot of people need to probably become more informed as to, you know, what is public space and who actually owns that public space. Because from doing different protests and stuff in the past, you can be standing literally right that's what a business as long as it's, you're standing on the footpath and that's public space, you're not doing anything wrong, but you take a couple of steps back and you're now on private property, I think people need to become more understanding of what, for instance what our taxes actually pay for, you know, it's a tax they pay for the up keep and for us to have the space, but it's not very commonly actually realized. So I think, you know, the global movement sort of taking back what is already ours, and then having, you know, police or government come in and say 'no you can't' and then go 'well we actually own it' was a huge thing because it showed people actually willing to stand up for what is already theirs.

Byron: because like you say as well, private space is not... cannot be political space, if you are protesting and even when it's a sort of pseudo public space like a mall, it might be publicly accessible but you can't even hand out a leaflet there.

Rob: As we encountered [Laughs]

Byron: Do you think a different attitude was had to us in Christchurch, being in Hagley Park, simply because we were, a little bit off to the side due to the fact that the central city was pretty much inaccessible at that time and we couldn't be in the main square as Occupy encampments in other cities were, do you think that made a bit of a difference?

Rob: I definitely do I think we would have got, I don't know whether it would be called a better response, but we would have got more of a response if we could have been in the heart of our city. I mean there was constantly talk, especially towards the last couple of months of me being there, of moving the camp as the C.B.D. got slowly opened, moving ourselves closer and closer to that C.B.D, and in fact I remember one of the sites that we went and looked at was directly opposite the Christchurch Central Police Station, would have been ideal space other than the fact that it got flooded out. But I think, you know, for me, the Occupy was a movement, we were never set to be in a stationary place, and I think that was what a lot of people kind of got caught up on, as 'we need to look after this one place because this is our place' and there is so much public space out there that we could have used, so much more room that we could have gone to, but I think the conflicting ideas from different people, kind of maybe pulled that back, because I know for a fact there was a group but they were quite happy to go out there and be right in the face of the public and go "we're here, this is what we're standing for." But then there’s other people going "you don't know, we need to be fun friendly sort of atmosphere". For me, you know, a protest does need to have its peaceful aspect, definitely, but I don't think that means straying away from being right out there you know in front of people.

Byron: In what other ways do you think Occupy Christchurch was different from Occupy elsewhere, because we were in a city that was in the aftermath of a natural disaster?

Rob: I think we had a lot of people being a lot more sympathetic to us in Christchurch in comparison to the other places, I mean when I went down to Occupy Dunedin, when they were in the heart of their city right in the Octagon surrounded by night clubs, the two nights that I stayed down there was a Friday and Saturday night, and you don't get time to rest at that site on a weekend because you've constantly got drunks coming up, drunk people coming out wanting to either debate with you, which was actually really cool, we managed to, you know, open a few people's minds doing that, at the same time you had people constantly trying to smash down tents, set things on fire, fight people, and we never really got that in Christchurch which I'm very glad about.

Byron: not even on the night of the Rugby World Cup.

Rob: No. I mean, I think we only had, from what I remember we had one threat to somebody trying to, actually do damage to the tents, and one group of drunk people come through, and they were a group of about thirteen, fourteen year olds that had just come from Sparks in the Park or Christmas in the park, and that was it. At least, you know, for that first wee while at least that I was staying there full time, there was no issue, whereas if you go down to Dunedin, Invercargill- even Invercargill which was quite set back from the main road, they still constantly people coming up to them, whereas in Christchurch I think people were a little bit more open minded a little sympathy because they could see the corruption going on around them. They could see the way people like CERA and EQC were treating people and treating their homes. So yeah, I think people in Christchurch were a lot more sympathy than other cities, at least that I visited

Byron: Do you think that Occupy changed Christchurch at all? Do you think anything is different in this city because there was an Occupy movement that had such a presence for several months?

Rob: The only thing I would probably say is that, a lot more people now are willing to stand up and actually have their say, and you know, realize that getting out there and getting involved, having your say, and just making your voices heard. People realize that actually does matter and can be done. I remember from the all the projects I'd done prior to occupy it was always very familiar faces, familiar people that went along to these protests, and then Occupy hit and I was surrounded by hundreds of people that I'd never seen at a protest before my life, and now seeing a few of those same people getting involved in other protests to do with very similar ideals to what Occupy was, that corruption within the system. So I think, you know, a definitely made people more willing to stand up and have their say, rather than just sit back and be told "this is how it's going to be". Yeah.

Byron: Do you think the experience of Occupy changed the people who were involved in it? people directly involved, like there on the site?

Rob: I think for some people it did, and I think others, not at all. I think everybody took something away from it, but I don't know whether it actually made really a difference to some people that were there.

Byron: So what were the, the sort of the demographics like, who were the people who came and Occupied?

Rob: To begin with quite a, kind of like almost three separate groups, there was the uni students [who] were well educated, very up there, but still quite young. There was the seasoned activists, the ones that have been kind of in this sort of world for a while, and then he was kind of, to begin with at least it wasn't so much of it but especially as the Occupy movement moved on a lot more of the youth, and for me anyway I think some of the youth were purely there for the thrill of camping in Hagley Park, rather than the actual cause that we were there for. I remember sitting down with a couple of youth and asking, you know, "what brought you down here, what made you want come here?" and a lot them were just like "it’s just cool man!" and then I remember sitting down with one, and I was like, this guy is going to have no clue -no clue- sat down and ended up having a couple of hours conversation because he was there for the cause, and I remember a few people coming down, originally for the fun, the excitement of sleeping in a tent, in the middle of- well as close to the middle of the city as you could get in Christchurch- but then actually realizing what we were doing there and actually then fighting for the cause, that was so amazing for me anyway, just seeing these people come down, just for the thrill of it and then having the minds and eyes opened to what actually goes on daily around us.

Byron: And there were of course homeless people as well would come to Occupy.

Rob: Yeah that was for me, I don't think it was so much that to begin with, definitely later on there was a lot more of the homeless people in Christchurch coming down, which of course post-earthquakes just hundreds of these people that are now even still today sleeping in the backs of their cars and stuff, but coming down, and, there was a lot of mixed emotions about that. There were people saying "that's awesome that's exactly why we're here" and then there were other people saying "all they're going to do is cause trouble" and then were was other people that would just be like "you know that's cool, but if you gonna come down here you're going to be staying at the site you need to help out on the site as well" which nine times out of ten the homeless community that came down was actually more prevalent and more willing to help out around the site than some of the other people that had been there for ages. So yeah I think definitely having the homeless people down there definitely helped bring part of the point we were trying to get across more real, and the fact of, you know, there is such a huge third world culture in New Zealand, that these people are living on the streets and, you know, so many people support overseas kids and things but they don't notice what's actually going on their own backyard, and I think charity has to begin to home, I think you have to look after your neighbour first, because if we actually all looked after each other then there wouldn't be this, such a huge issue.

Byron: Do you think that Occupy in part drew more attention to the fact that there was that sort of situation in Christchurch, with the homelessness?

Rob: Oh definitely. I mean I think pre-Occupy there was next to no real open conversation about the housing crisis in New Zealand. But post Occupy I remember coming and sitting at home watching the news and seeing it all over the news that at long last, that it was finally actually being recognized that there were these issues and these things need to be addressed because all it's doing is, eventually it's going to hit, you know, the tourism market and things that and it's just going to make people not want to come here, and I mean New Zealand is such a beautiful country that, why would you not want people to come here? So, yeah.

Byron: Do you think that because of Occupy the media started looking a bit more at the things we were talking about like that and like corruption and so on?

Rob: Yeah I definitely think that the media started looking more locally and nationally rather than globally, which was one of the big things that we wanted to achieve, is to, you know, get people talking about these issues rather than just going, "oh yeah, that happens, it sucks but it happens" how about we actually start doing something about it, and I think that's, one re this is one real change that's really been brought from the Occupy movement, is that people are actually out there now trying to create this change.

Byron: So do you think people who were involved in Occupy continued working for social change in different ways?

Rob: I think a good majority the people that were involved probably have yeah.

Byron: And again on the media, what are your thoughts about how the media covered Occupy Christchurch itself, as in the people in the camp site?

Rob: Well because I was down there permanently I didn't get to see a lot a of the media, however I was in regular contact with one of the girls from NewsTalk ZB she was ringing me almost every two weeks to get an update, where we were at, what's going on, what we have we got in the pipeline, all the sort of thing. So from the bits and pieces I heard I thought it was actually quite well portrayed but at the same time there was still that mainstream media, a little swing on it where it's, "these are just freedom campers trying to do nothing but cause trouble." But then there was a lot of, I remember a couple of radio times with it open it up to a conversation and then you'd hear more people talking positively about the Occupy movement, than you would negatively, and I mean I remember us all sitting there about fifteen of us all sitting there with our cell phones one night ringing through trying to get airtime to have our say, and you know the second somebody gets off the phone it was high fives around and hugs and, yeah.

Byron: So you feel that the position of Occupy among the public, it was more positive than negative?

Rob: I think for the time that I was there definitely, I think the time after I left, In my opinion anyway occupy had really changed, that was part of the reason I left. But I think to begin with, you know, it definitely was- there was a lot more positive public opinion about it than there was negative, and I think even, you know, even towards the end of the Occupy movement in Christchurch he was probably still more people in support than there were against it, as a movement as a whole, I think it was just some of the practices that were happening at the site that people were more against than the actual movement.

Byron: So where did things go wrong?

Rob: that that's a really hard kind of situation to [be] put in. For me, I think... we needed to be more... working together as a group, we became quite divided, there was a lot of, like, two particular groups that would constantly go off and either drink or do drugs, and the opinions on that, as to whether you could do it on site were also divided. I mean, there was, towards the end there was so much kind of disagreements on how things should be going on side then actual people trying to work together to create change, and more trying to sort of selves out than actually trying to sort the issues.

Byron: It became more inward focused than outward focused?

Rob: Definitely.

Byron: Do you think it could happen again, something like Occupy?

Rob: I definitely think it could happen again. I think if it was going to happen again they'd need to have a clear sense of direction and a clear sense of exactly what we're going to do and how we're going to achieve these goals rather than all going in and just going "right, so what now?"

Byron: so something more organised and less haphazard?

Rob: Yeah.

Byron: But occupying spices as a method of protest, do you feel that's an effective method of protest, and worthwhile?

Rob: I think if executed correctly then definitely. I think when executed incorrectly it just, kind of makes everybody laugh to be honest; it just makes everybody go "Well you can't even sort yourselves out, so how you going to solve these problems?"

Byron: So what are some of your best memories from the time you were at the Occupy camp site?

Rob: hands down the best one has gotta be that day one day one march. Hands down one of the biggest marches I've been a part of, and so uplifting reviving to see all these people actually coming out gave a damn. I think some of the GA's, just, you know, to begin with It was kind of all, we don't really know each other's personalities, we don't know each other we don't know how each other going to take to this point. But towards the- you know, once we got a couple of weeks in, everybody kinda knew each other, was on more 'fun, friendly' conversation in it rather than just disagreements. It had a lot more older [people]. Things like doing the fire poi and stuff at night, just doing things as a community, were absolutely awesome. I remember having musicians coming down and playing on the weekends, and doing the free barbecue. One of the marches they did that I ended up staying back at the site for, they all came back and we had the barbecue fired up with, you know, serving both vegetarian foods and non-vegetarian foods, and everybody just coming together and talking. So actually you know, people from so many different backgrounds, so many different worlds, all just coming together and actually talking, was just, yeah, absolutely amazing.

Byron: So you feel of something like Occupy were to happen again would you get involved?

Rob: In all honesty yes I probably would, but I'd probably be a little bit more, cautious about how I approached it. I went in kind of, all arms swinging ready to go, let’s really rip up some issues and let’s make some true change, and I just remember over time just having that slowly drained out of me. But yeah, I mean, I'd definitely go- I'd probably get back involved, but I just be a little bit more cautious about how I approached it.

Byron: And just finally, are there any further things you'd like to share or say about Occupy Christchurch?

Rob: I think the only other thing would be, there was a lot of controversy and stuff around when me and my partner left. We left for a few different reasons, definitely the biggest one being -and I mean it was probably when the media went absolutely berserk on Christchurch Occupy-when my partner was the victim of a sexual assault there. I remember saying to her, because we left the site that night and went back and stayed at her dads, I came back the next day and was by actually ready to pick my stuff up and go home with her, but then without her even telling me she turns up and she says "no we're staying" that was just huge to me, that you know, she's just had this happen and yet she still wants to be here for the cause. That was huge. But to me that definitely kind of pulled me back and made me want to go 'hang on we need to re-evaluate things here'.

And then, the other kind of the big reason is, for me, as I said the biggest reason I got involved is I am an activist I like to get out there and make the points known, whereas it became a lot more inward focused and to me that's not why I was there. What they were doing on site I could have been doing just as easily from home, and making probably just as big if not a bigger impact. And there was a lot of, kind of, stuff that I didn't agree with happening on site, including a lot of drinking on site, a lot of drugs being done on site, I had no problem if people went off and had a couple drinks, in fact there were a couple of nights where I went away and had a couple of drinks and came back the next morning. But I think to be doing it on site; all it was going to do was get the space shut down quicker, and getting the space shut down... Basically I think at that point is what drove the ones who were there originally for the full cause away, is that the amount of drinking and amount of, people just not caring about the site anymore and I think that was really disheartening to a lot of people, but, you know, as I said if they were to launch something like it again, I'd definitely want to get involved knowing me, but I think it just needs a little bit more organisation, and a little bit more direction. So yeah.

Byron: so you felt that you were involved for as long as Occupy was doing something useful in terms of activism and you ceased to be involved when that time could be more effectively used otherwise?

Rob: Yep. I mean put it, and I said this to a lot of the media and stuff that I did speak to is, I was the first to arrive on day one and I'll be the last to leave on the last day, the way I view it, in my opinion, I probably was the last actual activist to leave. I went back after that day eighty, after that I went back a few times and tried to re-launch or to get it back into shape and give it another real shot with a couple of other people like Tina Dockerty was a great one there. But just giving it a real chance, but it just keep falling down, which was definitely disappointing, I mean we get it going great for a couple days and it would just fall flat. I definitely wish that we, if it had still been able to, if we'd still been able to run it the way we'd began to, that we could still be here today, and still be making that point and actually doing some real change. But yeah, the second it stopped becoming active and actually getting out there and saying this is what we're doing, this is how we're going to make some change, It lost its direction, lost its focus for me. So yeah.