Monday, 10 September 2007

APEC Protest

I was quite excited about APEC being held in Sydney. Not because I buy into that "Stop Whinging, You Should Be Grateful To Have 21 World Leaders In Your City" rhetoric (those leaders were effectively walled off in another city anyway, so why did it have to be in the middle of Sydney?!) - but because it was the first time I had the opportunity to go to a mass protest.
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I went in on Friday, the public holiday, but there was little happening. There was a Falun Gong group meditating in Belmore Park, protesting against the Chinese government.
Things were a bit more interesting in Hyde Park, where a few small groups were giving speeches. There might have been a hundred or so civilians - a number very nearly matched by the police standing by. The police weren't causing any obstruction, they were just very obviously present - arrayed in precise formations across paths so you had to walk between them; marching in step through the park; riding in packs on bicycles; and even several standing by ready to mount up on dirt-bikes.
Across the road from Hyde Park were a group of U.S. visitors or ex-pats (to judge by their accents) holding up a huge "We <3 America! Welcome George Bush!" banner and wearing all-American tshirts stretched across all-American beer-guts. Needless to say, this group wasn't particularly popular, but you have to give them credit for coming out!

I wandered down towards Circular Quay, which is where all the hotels being used by foreign dignataries were linked together by a network of concrete-and-steel security fences - a wall separating us from them. It was the fence that was the clearest symbol of how ridiculous it all was; a stark visual reminder of how disconnected these world leaders were from us.
I watched the comings and goings outside George Bush's hotel for a while. Unsurprisingly there was a huge police presence here as well. There was a gate in the security fence on either side of the intersection, half a dozen police permanently standing by each gate. Whenever someone bearing their APEC security pass needed to get in and out, the gatekeeper unlocked and unchained the gate, opened it just enough for the person to squeeze through, and chained it up again immediately! A pedestrian asked how they could get to the the other side of the security corridor, and a policeman behind the gate pointed the way up along a stretch of fence between the footpath and the road, explaining they could get around the fence if they walked far enough. Someone else deadpanned "Can't go that way mate, there's this fence... dunno if you've noticed..!" and he was right; later on I tried walking that way and a block up the footpath came to an abrupt dead-end where the fence cut across it, securing the driveway into a hotel. The whole affair was a mess.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the main demonstration. Protestors gathered outside Town Hall, filling the public space around it and the entire block of George St in front. There were a wide variety of groups protesting a wide variety of issues - Aboriginal rights, global warming, the Iraq War, and WorkChoices chief amongst them. It was great to see a strong Greens presence there as well. There were a number of speakers here, but the stand out speaker was from Iraq Veterans Against the War, a charismatic man whose talk was by turns depressing and moving.
We marched - rather leisurely, it must be said, almost ambled - from Town Hall to Hyde Park. The roads along the route were blocked off by buses converted into police holding cells, and helicopters were overhead. When we reached Hyde Park, which is massive, we found it entirely surrounded. The entire block was ringed by police in riot-gear standing side-by-side stonily facing inwards - some with batons out and tapping gauntleted palms - more buses and police blocking off streets on the other side of the road, and heavy patrols marching along the wide empty thoroughfares like some no-man's-land in between. Afterwards, when we began to disperse from the rally at the end, we found that the police were only allowing passage in or out of the park from one entrance, the way we came in. If ever there was a cause to spark a real riot, I thought that was it. Hyde Park is wide open; the streets around it were nowhere near the restricted zone; and yet the police were senselessly unyielding. There was no need.
And yet the rally at Hyde Park itself was heartening. Admittedly, some of the self-congratulation at "standing up to the police intimidation to turn out today!" and "peacefully defying their expectations of violence!" got a bit embarrassing. I may have dwelt much on the police presence above, but really there was never any chance of violence and the rally organisers greatly exaggerated the hardships. It was as though everyone - including the police - wanted it to be a bigger deal than it was, whilst at the same time decrying violence. Someone in the crowd said it best with their sign: "I Don't Believe In Anything; I'm Just Here For The Violence!" :)

I picked up a number of pamphlets and the like from the groups there: some of it good; some of it not so good; and some of it somewhat disgusting (and regrettable that I gave the publishers any money). One worthwhile group was Socialist Alternative. They're interesting; an Australia-wide revolutionary socialist group comprised largely of students and ex-students. They were sufficiently persuasive that I, curious about far-left politics, decided to go along to a small conference they were having the next day, and to their weekly meeting last night. I'm not about to join the revolution just yet :) but it does make for lively discussion. I'm certain that Luke would be down with this group. I'll write more when I have a chance.

But for now it's back to regular work - APEC has come and gone.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Thanks for posting this Nick. The bits we get to see on the news don't really show much of anything regarding the protests (other than any form of violence that occurs).