Sionainn Byrnes

Recorded Fourteenth February 2014

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

Sionainn: I, at the time, had been following closely the Occupy movements elsewhere and was just sort of talking about them with friends and things like that and my closest friend who I went to primary school with mentioned that her other best friend from high school Regan was going to be involved in organizing a sort of small Occupy. At that stage I think it was only a protest and so everyone got really excited about that and yeah, so my feeling was that I was going to be participating in the first day of the protest and that we weren't really too sure what was going to happen after that that there were talks of setting up a wee camp and things like that.

Byron: So you were going to some of the organising meetings that happened before the…

Sionainn: Largely my involvement was over Facebook at that stage, I met Regan and started discussing things with him online, just in the lead up to that, and it was sort of about who we might like to talk to beforehand and I got really excited about perhaps this being a good way for us to start some public lectures and things like that, that’s what I'm really interested in. So I spoke to him about various different things we might be able to do throughout the community as a result of this like meeting of people because I hadn't really, the only protest that I had been to before that really was to do with like the Iraq sort of, the coalition going into Iraq, and that was ages ago so we, yeah, didn't have a huge idea of what we might be doing afterwards, but, you know, just talking about that sort of stuff

Byron: So you went along on the first day?

Sionainn: Yep, yeah so I went with four other people, close friends of mine. We turned up, it was meant to start at a certain time in the morning and we turned up and there was no one there and we weren’t really sure what was gonna happen, there was a couple of people milling about by trees and stuff, but we just, you know we were like 'we’ll just wait and see how it goes’. People had talked about there being a, like, poster or placard-making period before the actual protest, but then as people started filing in there were, you know, a couple of tents, lots of people had brought heaps of cardboard and we had as well and paints and things like that and the big Occupy sign and stuff that went up and so people just generally started talking and kind of mingling. We didn't know heaps of people there at that stage. Yeah, just started making posters and stuff, yeah, to be able to take on the march

Byron: Great. And then the march happened of course.

Sionainn: Yup, yeah, so we marched right up along Riccarton road past Westfield and up to the wee park. There was a little bit of opposition from people in the street, I remember it being actually a little bit fiery at some points, and, yeah, we spent a lot of time at the wee fountain and garden etc yeah. So yeah, I don't know what [laughs, trails off]

Byron: And you returned to Hagley Park at the end of it?

Sionainn: Yep.

Byron: And so what happened next? This first protest that happened...

Sionainn: So we were really like charged up by that, it was really good, you know, a lot of us were feeling kind of weird though ‘cause I think for me I did get a really big sense of there being quite a bit of conflict throughout that. When we were walking back down Riccarton road and we decided to walk through Westfield to be a little bit more visible to some of the people there and we were being heckled a lot and a friend of mine and myself as well sort of were getting shoved by just people who were on the road and really angry that we were there. But we went back and it was sort of quite relaxed, people just sort of split up into wee groups and started discussing what they thought about things, what they thought about, you know, local democracy in Christchurch and that was a really big kind of topic for discussion and just as the evening went on I think people just, yeah, were sort of trying to work out what they might do and what was the purpose was going to be. I can't remember, it might of been before the march actually that we had a lot of the open mic’ stuff, and that was kinda interesting. There was a bit of a presence from the young's Nats, and young ACT which was a bit interesting as well, and I think they sort of cleared off not long after the march and stuff, so. Yeah, they just sort of hung around for a bit. But it wasn’t, like it was really relaxed, and sort of just like a family picnic or something really.

Byron: And did you stay there that first night?

Sionainn: I didn't stay any of the nights. I didn't really, at the time, feel super comfortable doing it. That’s just not really because it had anything to do with the Occupy movement or anything like that. I just sort of didn't know how I felt about it and because I didn't know heaps of people at the time, as well, that’s probably not a good excuse because the whole point of it was to meet other people but I just went back during the days when I could. I had a really busy work schedule as well, so I had had to take the day off for the march and yeah, I maintained a lot of contact with people online as well and tried to get involved in helping organise other offshoot kind of community-event-type things, yeah.

Byron: So what was some of those offshoots you helped to organise?

Sionainn: So we tried to get, largely it wasn't that successful actually, there were a lot of the groups at the original march like sort of community and neighbour-y type groups, you know, so we tried to hook into their networks and get small, kind of, local community-type discussions going about things that were happening in Christchurch mostly. We also talked about having maybe panel discussions with people from the council etc ‘cause it - I mean the Occupy movement here really got morphed into something, it was a way of expressing dissatisfaction with our council post-earthquake so, I think a lot of the original occupy message got lost and it kind of got subsumed into that, which was good and bad, but yeah, we found that it was quite hard to get anyone who would want to be involved with that from an institutional kind of view like there were people who wanted to do it and who wanted to attend and ask questions and things but we didn't really get any responders from local council and things like that. Yeah.

Byron: So while you weren’t staying there, you would have came and visited the site, pretty often. What sort of things were going on when you visited?

Sionainn: People were generally just kind of workshop-ing ideas. I think there were kind of nominal themes for discussions, you know, so people were able to- there was actually quite good organisation around that too because if there was something you were particularly interested in you were able to kind of anticipate that and be there, so that you could be involved with those kind of discussions. Throughout my involvement it was sort of just, yeah, a lot of talk and a lot of fire poi and things like that you know. A friend of mine who originally introduced me to Regan, she stayed a couple of nights and I talked a lot with her about what was happening, and sort of she began to feel slightly uncomfortable with the actual staying over part of the Occupy thing. I think a lot of the females who were interested in staying did at that point, so we sort of, yeah, stopped kind of basing our involvement around the actual site and just continued to maintain the networks with people and try and organise other things and also get involved in some of the groups that were present, so that was pretty cool.

Byron: So, as well as the workshops and things that were happening, did you attend any more protests or anything?

Sionainn: I didn't. I wasn't really aware there were any major protests or anything like that bar ones that had to do with sort of the treatment of people in red zoned areas and things like that became sort of offshoots of it. I would of been really interested in maintaining some of the more sort of political aspirations of, that were kind of present in the first march, but I don't know whether that was because I missed it or what, but like I said a lot of the things that were like big events were on weekends and I found it really hard to consecutively take weekends off from my work so I had to sort of go when I could and that was usually during the week days and around Uni.

Byron: So how long did you keep visiting the site for?

Sionainn: Probably really I stopped at about the end of the week, the first week. So I had a short involvement at the actual site. For me the most important thing was, I guess at that time I was really interested in the capacity for Occupy to open up a dialogue about these sort of like critiques of capitalism and things like that and I didn't necessarily think at that time, I'm not sure how it changed, that being at the site was the most effective way of doing that. So we tried, I think for me it was just really useful meeting up with lots of other people who had similar ideas and that’s kind of the stage of which I began to meet people who are now heavily involved in the Mana offshoot of, the Christchurch offshoot of Mana and things like that. So when these sort of like ideas started to form in young people’s minds about what potentially we might be able to do. Yeah.

Byron: So do you think those sort of, those networks built from Occupy have remained?

Sionainn : Yeah I do. I think for me the original Occupy protest was really successful, but the movement after that, or the sort of actual occupation of Hagley Park didn't do a lot, it was really easy to ignore, partly because of where it was. We are not really a city that’s planned around having kind of a place like that, you know, it wasn't necessarily the most visible and also because at the time I think the cooperation of like the police and council and things, which was kind of, I don't know, a little bit, not suspect but, you know, they were doing it for their own reasons, kind of letting Occupy be there, so it didn’t really have a chance to be anything really challenging. But that is where people of our generation were able to meet and those other relationships that are now I think are having quite a big impact on local politics and on student mobilization now, which is getting quite big at Canterbury I know and it’s taken some time but it’s those original relationships that came from Occupy that are now, yeah starting to actually have tangible, kind of like, effects and consequences on the way that we kind of work our communities and stuff.

Byron Do you think that Occupy sort of changed the people who were involved?

Sionainn: I don't know if it changed people. I think it was really good for kind of helping people to make sense of, or express things, that they already felt that might of been kind of like nebulous, kind of these ideas that weren’t really coherent and this was the first kind of platform that we saw like the rhetoric that’s still being used, like the 99%, you know that sort of stuff, that wasn't really like accessible or well known stuff, it really did democratise it for people who weren’t part of the Uni or whatever and that’s what I think was really good about it, but I don't know if it changed the people so much. Maybe...

Byron More of just able to make those ideas coherent and more among the group of people and...

Sionainn: yeah, yeah, exactly and I think it was really good especially in the sense that it was also criticised, it was quite good for teaching people of our age, of my age sort of specifically but you know there were older and younger people there as well. But for people my age about how you might actually feasibly be able to work with existing institutions and stuff or what are the best ways of going about kind of actually, or actualising some of this stuff that you want to see.

Byron: And do you think that you feel that today which is more than sort of two years since the movement was happening, do you think that there’s that lasting influence there?

Sionainn: I do and I think a lot of that is because at the time people in Christchurch specifically were exhausted, they were so, you know, I know for myself I was constantly moving house. I had one flat that was destroyed in the wake of the earthquake and things like that and I think, I think I'm getting this right, [laughs] yeah people were just like not really in a position to be able to do much with that information maybe, and it’s now that people are starting to be more future, kind of, minded, more forward thinking about where we are actually going to go from here, in Christchurch and in our country and then in regards to the rest of the world that’s it’s actually becoming useful.

Byron: So you talked about a lot of the local stuff happening. Did you feel that being part of Occupy, did you feel connected to the Occupy movement around the country and the global sort of movement with Occupy Wall Street?

Sionainn: I felt much more connected to the Occupy Wall Street stuff which seems odd I don't, I wasn't really involved in any of the sort of networking between Christchurch and Auckland or Wellington for example. And I think we were set apart in that because there was a bit of tension to do with what Christchurch’s movement actually meant and what people were trying to do, so it was a little bit different, but I certainly, I was really, I don't know, there was a level of passion in trying to actively pursue information to do with the global Occupy movement and things that I might not otherwise have really learnt about and things like that.

Byron: Do you feel you learnt a lot from being involved in Occupy?

Sionainn: Yeah I definitely did. It was great too ‘cause at the time I was finishing my undergrad Degree which was in Pols and English and I hadn't really had, like there had been talk about things like this kind of Occupy stuff that was starting to form in my classes, but it provided a really different and really valuable kind of set of values and things like that to what I had been learning. So I think it supplemented the way that I viewed my whole degree and my whole idea about politics and stuff.

Byron: Interesting. Do you think if something like Occupy were to happen again you would get involved?

Sionainn: Yeah I think I’d be much more heavily involved now than I was at the time. Especially I think because for me a lot of my ideas about why we're in, living in the kind of structures that we are, have been formed, yeah, they’ve been solidified a lot more. So I feel like I have a better understanding of like this overarching structure of ideas and systems and things that I don't like and how I might be able to actually actively do something about that.

Byron: So what would you do differently if it was happening again?

Sionainn: I think it’s really hard because at the time it wasn't necessarily the fault of the people organising the Occupy thing, or anything like that, I don't think the level of reception had much to do with the organisation really. I mean towards the end probably, when it started to become a little unsafe, the whole area and things like that, and that’s my actual- that’s my kind of perception of it as well as I wasn't actually there at the end so I don't know how unsafe it was, that’s what I did here. I think timing would make it something like that more effective now. People have more, especially in Christchurch, more energy to be able to do stuff and are a little bit more politically versed out of necessity so I think things would be more effective now.

Byron: Is there anything else that you haven't talked about yet that you would like to mention?

Sionainn: I guess, I don't know, when you mentioned that people have been talking about stuff that they have been doing now that have roots in Occupy. For me and a lot of the people that I've been working with recently, and organising the FemSoc [Feminist Society] at Canterbury, like these are the same networks largely that came out of that and the kind of ideas as well so it’s pretty cool there’s a lot of this like social justice stuff going on at Canterbury, FemSoc is one part of that, and I think as well the Marxist Society and stuff so these groups that are really committed to kind of having open discussions about alternatives to capitalism and how to better make use of our democracy and how to better represent people who maybe have not been so well represented by the systems we have now and by the kind of organisations, even Occupy is that kind of method of organisation has been really good at representing some people, but maybe not at others, so it’s about working out compatible ways of doing that.

Byron: Just on that note, how did you feel about sort of the way Occupy was organised and the sort of leaderless structure that it had where...what were your thoughts on that?

Sionainn: I really, I liked the idea that it wasn’t spearheaded by any sort of one particular person or one particular group. And that’s something that you can see now in the organisation of these societies that I just mentioned as well which are adopting really like lateral kind of hierarchies. They don’t have like, you know, people in charge or things like that so that’s been a lasting idea. I think it was difficult because of the sense of anonymity as well. It was hard to know who you might be able to go to, especially in the early days, to kind of speak to a wider crowd or that it was hard to, yeah, I don’t know, it was, there were times of feeling a little bit isolated because of it. But I liked the idea. It was also kind of safeguarding people as well, from being held accountable for anything that might go wrong, which was good. And also like symbolically it’s, the movement wasn’t about an actual answer to the question of capitalism, it wasn’t about a party line or something like that, so it would not really have made sense to have a group of people with a specific ideology who were running the protests and the camps. It was definitely, I think, that’s the thing, all these ideas were really, I don’t know, not presupposed too much about it. People had ideas about what were good ways for us to move forward, but it was a really open discussion and also, yeah, it was just, no one kind of had the pretence of having an answer, so it needed to be really inclusive, yeah. So I think that was good.

Byron: And you think, you feel it was inclusive? In practice?

Sionainn: I do. I feel like at the start definitely, especially on the original protest day, like that was really cool. The open mic’ that they had before the march, I mean that lasted for ages, way longer than I thought it was gonna because so many people were coming up and being able to talk. I just, I really liked that.