Activists from around Australia demonstrated against the World Trade Organization in Sydney this week despite attempts by the government and police to halt the planned protests.
The trade ministers of twenty-five countries, including Canada’s Pierre Pettigrew, attended the WTO informal “mini-ministerial” held at Sydney’s Olympic Park in Homebush Bay on November 14-15.
Citing security concerns, the police issued a five-day ban on public protest in the city and turned Olympic Park into a fortress.
“This is because of the threats of violence emanating from an extreme element among protest groups,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Dick Adams. “Those who seek to break the law or disrupt the community, whether it be at Homebush Bay or in the CBD [Central Business District], will be dealt with decisively.”
“The only way the protests will get out of control is if the police try and stop it,” James Arvanitakis of Aid/Watch said in a media statement.
Approximately one thousand people defied police for the march through central Sydney on Thursday morning. The colourful and noisy crowd brought traffic to a standstill as police struggled to keep up with a march that followed no set route.
In a series of demonstrations outside corporate offices and the U.S. consulate, activists protested against corporate-led globalization, American foreign policy in the Middle East and the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers in Australia. Acts of civil disobedience included the occupation of a Citibank lobby and a brief blockade of a busy McDonald’s outlet.
Although the march was overwhelming peaceful, scuffles with police occurred when the crowd tried to prevent the arrest of a freelance photographer who had climbed onto the roof a bus. Several subsequent arrests were made. An Australian journalist was rushed to hospital after being trampled by police horses.
Police Commissioner Michael Costa said the incident, which lasted only minutes, proved the security precautions were justified: “The atrocious behaviour of this ratbag element who tried to seize Sydney’s streets shows clearly these people came here to cause trouble, not to protest.”
Organizers maintain the protest was a success and characterized police actions as “excessive and unlawful.”
The three-hour march ended with a rally attended by about two thousand people in a downtown park.
By Friday morning, the police had sealed Sydney’s Olympic Park behind a three-kilometre fence guarded by hundreds of police officers. The local train station was closed and security checkpoints were erected to corral protesters into police designated “passive protest areas.” No shade, toilets or drinking water was available in these zones.
The Sydney Olympic Park legislation, passed before the 2000 Games to prevent embarrassing demonstrations, gives police unusual powers of search and seizure, increases penalties for offences and prohibits the use of PA systems, megaphones, banners and signs.
“It’s what we have come to expect from the policing at these types of meetings,” said Damien Lawson of the refugee advocacy group No One Is Illegal. “These security measures are used to repress our legitimate right to protest the undemocratic agenda of the WTO.”
Confrontations began immediately after the forty-five-minute walk from the nearest train station. Direct action activists repeatedly attempted to breach the perimeter by separating the concrete barricades from the wire mesh.
Police formed a human wall that divided the protest area in half and created a 10-metre buffer zone in front of the perimeter. Officers charged the crowd in a “flying wedge,” snatching protest organizers and those suspected of challenging the fence. Flags, banners and musical instruments were also seized.
Assistant Police Commissioner Dick Adams maintained the police had used a minimum amount of force. “Our tactics were quite clear,” he said. “The actions of many of the protesters here was quite irresponsible.”
After nearly two hours of clashes, the police tore down the “passive protest area” signs and threatened to arrest anyone who remained in the area. The cohesiveness of the protest broke down and a hastily assembled spokes council decided withdrawal was the best option.
“We have made our point,” said Simon Butler of Resistance. “They are picking us off one by one. To stay in a smaller group with these laws is ridiculous.”
Despite its abrupt end, the demonstration was considered a success by organizers.
“It was a fantastic, colourful, active and diverse display of resistance to the policies of the WTO,” said Damien Lawson. “We have put the global movement against neo-liberalism on the map again in Australia.“ Last week’s protests were the first large scale demonstrations in Australia against corporate-led globalization since the blockade of the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne in September 2000. During that action, dozens of protesters were injured during police baton charges.
The two-day security operation for the “mini-ministerial” cost an estimated $5 million and resulted in fifty-five arrests.