The sheer indecency of Phil Goff’s and David Parker’s scramble to pour as much as $185 million of public money and assets into another America’s Cup village on the Auckland waterfront appears to have escaped most people’s thoughts or imagination. Not only the indecency of the corporate welfare which this represents, but the fact that we have a homelessness crisis in Auckland which appears to be of little interest to Goff or his Council colleagues. The spectre loons large of perfectly decent Aucklanders having to step over homeless people in the streets as they go to visit the America’s Cup village with all its billionaire backed syndicates.
A problem for me is the apparent complicity of perfectly decent Aucklanders in this indecency. We are not only paying the bills but passively agreeing to the priorities which our apparently left-leaning political elites are deciding for us. This is mainly because the homeless don’t matter politically – they most likely don’t vote and their plight is not that politically relevant to your average well-housed middle of the road voter.
However I believe that these well-housed middle of the road voters still care about such things such as homelessness but are at a loss to know how to respond outside of dropping a few coins into a hat from time to time.
But it is the lack of courage and imagination on the part of political leaders which is really responsible for what might be seen as our moral stalemate around homelessness.
Canadian political philosopher Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent essay on activism in 2010 in the New Yorker magazine. It was titled ‘Why the revolution will not be tweeted’ and is a reference to Gill Scott-Heron’s great song ‘The revolution will not be televised’. Gladwell’s argument is that on-line activism doesn’t really change the world – that it requires actual physical on-the-street and in-your-face activism to do this.
Gladwell’s essay starts with the story of four students from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University who in 1960 in Greensboro North Carolina sat at the whites only lunch counter at the local Woolworths store and simply asked to be served. With their friends they went back each day asking to be served – they were abused, spat on and beaten but they continued. As they did similar protests broke out across the American South until 70,000 students had participated in similar acts of civil disobedience aimed as challenging segregation practices and rules. Many of these students were white as well.
Gladwell compares this sort of activism with the on-line activism or Facebook and Twitter which are claimed to have been the source of popular protests in such places as Iran and Moldovia. He scorns such claims and suggests that real world, uncomfortable – even dangerous activism is based not on the weak social ties which are mediated on social media but on the strong ties of face to face friendships.
Gladwell is in fact scathing of on-line activism suggesting that ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’.
I have not been much of a street activist although I have been involved in street marches and small protests since my baptism in such things as a student during the Springbok tour. I have seldom felt afraid during these protests not because I am particularly brave but because most of them have been typically Kiwi – low key, tolerated and if possible ignored.
With eight friends I helped start the Park-up for Homes protests in late 2016 which I think brought housing and homelessness centre-stage into our politics and contributed to a change of Government last year. I was a little apprehensive as I organised the early part of the occupation of the Mangere Town Centre carpark for the first protest which attracted around 1000 people to sleep in their cars and vans. Initially we thought there would only about 50 of us so we were overwhelmed by the support which the event and our cause received. It was one of the most joyful community events I have been part of as South Auckland mums brought their kids in their pyjamas and onesies to sleep in their vans to show solidarity for the homeless. Sure it was just one uncomfortable cold night sleeping in my van so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice but 1000 people took tangible action to show their concern and this motivated change.
But the change to date has not been enough. No doubt as a result of our protests and the amazing efforts at Te Puia Marae we convinced the previous National Government to begin an emergency housing programme which is only now being completed. However these emergency housing options most likely will turn into barely tolerable semi-permanent housing for many families simply because we don’t have the state houses for them to shift into.
As well there is no end in sight to the housing shortage as we continue to experience high rates of immigration and to build to few and to expensive houses to house our growing population. Furthermore the exodus out of Auckland caused by high housing costs is causing rental housing shortages in places like Rotorua, Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.
We continue to have a homelessness crisis in Auckland even while Auckland Council makes plans for an America’s Cup Village and it is important that we challenge this priority in part to simply to speak truth to power. If it is not challenged it is condoned as is the indifference which Council is showing to doing anything meaningful about homelessness.
Auckland Council has within its capacity an ability to help with some immediate relief to our homelessness crisis. It has ample land which it could allocate to emergency housing for five years or so. It could easily forget about its expensive and onerous consent processes and postpone any infrastructure charges on the basis that the housing being built will eventually be moved somewhere else. These are the asks of the Build-Up Emergency Housing project.
The Build-Up Emergency Housing project is a form of minor civil disobedience. We will be occupying a piece of Council land temporarily in order to build a demonstration emergency house. This house is a 27m2 self-contained cottage which will be donated to Te Puia Marae to assist them with their homelessness programme. Build-Up is happening on 17th and 18th March on an undisclosed site in Manukau.
You can follow Build-Up on Facebook but do more than like us. Come along and be part of the protest/demonstration.
Gladwell is probably right – that actual activism relies on strong social ties. However I have learnt that such activism also builds and sustains such ties. If we are to really challenge neoliberalism and its priorities, such as America’s Cup villages, we need to start where we can build solidarity and awareness around concrete issues with concrete ideas. Hopefully Build-Up is such a start and I commend it to you.