Australia: 10 years ago -- S11 2000 blockade: 'This is what democracy looks like'

September 11, 2010 -- Ten years ago, thousands of Australian activists joined forces to blockade a meeting of the powerful World Economic Forum in Melbourne for three days, beginning September 11, 2000. Despite a massive show of police force and violence, the unity of the protesters prevailed. The atmosphere of the protest was one of of determination and festivity. There were puppets, humour, banners and placards, songs, wandering drummers and minstrels. The crowd was diverse with trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, social justice activists, high school students, children, pensioners: a strong diversity of people united in opposition to an undemocratic and powerful elite.

The Actively Radical TV documentary above shows what happened at this historic protest, with interviews of blockade participants and live footage of the blockade and protest. Below are articles that appeared in Australia's leading socialist paper, Green Left Weekly (issue 421, published September 20, 2000), which describe the event, its organisation and its impact. Central to the organisation of the protests were the Democratic Socialist Perspective and Resistance, and the International Socialist Organisation. Soon after, spurred by the what the protests represented in terms of the possibilities of left unity, the Socialist Alliance was formed with those organisations at its core.

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By Sean Healey

MELBOURNE, September 20, 2000 — At the end, those blockading the World Economic Forum (WEF) were exhausted and euphoric, in equal measure, but with only a taste for the magnitude of what they'd achieved. At S11, the veil which separates the people from the sense of their own power was torn down; it may get nailed back up again, but it won't ever be the impenetrable wall it appeared to be before.

It wasn't easy. It was a struggle. The movement could quite easily have failed. But it didn't — it triumphed.

Everything was thrown at the protesters. Politicians, both Labor and Liberal, accused them of being "fascists" who opposed free speech. Business analysts said they were working against the world's poor, by denying them the bounties of free trade. Newspaper editors condemned them as a "violent mob", even when their own pictures proved the opposite.

Constant attempts were made to split one section from another.

When words failed to stop the protesters, hundreds of riot police baton-charged them with a viciousness with few parallels in modern Australian history. More than 50 protesters were hospitalised.

But the protesters would not intimidated. Each time the protesters were baton-charged, they came back, not with violence of their own but with a new affirmation that the slogan is true: the people united will never be defeated.

Day one

It looked like it would turn out very differently at 6.45am on Monday morning, September 11. It was still very dark and very cold when the torrential downpour began, soaking everyone to the bone and forcing them to find cover anywhere they could, under banners, under the stage, under the nearby bridge across the Yarra River.

The next hour was pure chaos. Attempts by the S11 Alliance's marshals to get the blockades organised and coordinated were being undone by the weather, a waterlogged PA system which prevented the stage from getting up and running until 11am, protesters' lack of familiarity with the venue and ultraleft groups on megaphones trying to direct everyone every which way.

By 8am, however, the blockades were established and solid. The Green Bloc of Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups had sealed off the car park entrances on Whiteman Street, and S11 Alliance marshals were getting people to link arms and settle in at more than a dozen blockade points.

The early birds were reinforced by a constant stream of reinforcements and, at noon, by a march of 500 high school students who'd walked out of class.

The numbers, which had swelled to 15,000-20,000 by lunchtime, put police on the back foot. Stunned by the turnout, they stayed within their concrete and wire barricades, with worried looks on their faces.

The only major police operations on the first day were a brief push through a blockade of hundreds on Clarendon Street, from which they were soon forced to withdraw, and a mission to rescue Western Australia's Premier Richard Court, who had driven his car straight into a blockade line on Clarendon Street and was stuck inside for an hour.

By midday, Community Radio 3CR was able to report that no member of staff had been able to get into the complex since 7.45am and that at least a third of WEF delegates had also been prevented from entering. Victorian Liberal leader Denis Napthine admitted to delegates that the "protesters have unfortunately won the first round".

The atmosphere for the rest of the day was determined and militant, but it also hummed with enthusiasm. The blockade lines became a "festival of the oppressed", with speeches and songs, drummers and dancing, rap artists, impromptu raves, giant puppets, people decked out as the "World Economic Fairies" or as "Clowns Against Capitalism".

At the end of the day, S11 Alliance spokespeople were able to claim victory.

"These people have made history here today", said one spokesperson, Jorge Jorquera. "They've cut through the tissue of lies that this protest was going to become a riot. They've been totally committed to non-violent blockading but also just as committed to doing it properly, in an organised and effective fashion. They've been diverse and united and strong."

"As for the World Economic Forum", he added, "well, its credibility has been shot to pieces by today's massive mobilisation. Now, it has no credibility; the people have spoken."

Day two

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard revealed at a media conference on September 14 that, during the evening of September 11, WEF conference organisers threatened to "pack up and go home" if police could not get more delegates in the next day.

Humiliated by the protesters, bolstered by orders from Victoria's Labor Premier Steve Bracks and incited by media hysteria about protester "violence" which never occurred, hundreds of riot police attacked the blockade lines the following morning, in an attempt to regain the initiative.

With batons drawn, police set upon a seated blockade line on Queensbridge and Power streets, trampling, beating and kicking them before police on horses were unleashed on the crowd. The blockade lines were cleared, allowing delegates' buses into the complex. Twelve protesters were hospitalised.

Police kept the initiative for only a few hours before protesters wrested it back. Weeks of tortuous negotiations between the S11 Alliance and Trades Hall had led to a final agreement that, while Trades Hall would not back the blockade itself, the mass union rally for labour rights, scheduled for Tuesday, would at least march to the blockade site at Crown Towers.

Up to 20,000 unionists filled the city streets with sound, colour and people, chanting "Stop global sweatshops" and "The workers united will never be defeated", before filling not only Queensbridge Road but also most of the nearby bridge across the Yarra River.

Hubbard held to the position that the Labour Council would support only the protests and not the blockade. But many more militant unionists ignored Trades Hall's injunction, and several thousand marched around the casino before joining the blockaders at different entrances. Many were members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, whose militant Victorian leaders had backed the blockade all along.

The most brutal incident of police violence occurred that night, when delegates' buses sought to leave. Five hundred riot police set upon a blockade line of 200, viciously clubbing not only protesters but even establishment journalists. This time, 30 protesters were hospitalised and treated for head and neck injuries.

This is the incident which will most come back to haunt police. A spokesperson for the legal observers' team at the protests, Damien Lawson, said police created a "potentially lethal situation", while prominent lawyers and civil libertarians have not only called for a full ombudsman's inquiry but are also planning civil action.

Day three

The third day of blockading followed a similar pattern. Hundreds of riot police attacked an understaffed blockade line in the early morning to get delegates' buses in, hospitalising at least one demonstrator, then were forced to retreat back inside their barricades by the force of protesters' numbers.

The blockaders' piece de resistance came at noon: a joyful "victory march" through the city streets. An estimated 10,000 marchers made their way through the city, stopping at Nike's superstore and then at the Australian Stock Exchange before looping back to the blockade site.

The streets rang with cries of "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "This is what democracy looks like". The air was full of red and black flags and thousands of mainly hand-drawn placards.

On returning to Crown Towers, protesters linked hands in a spectacular human chain which reached all the way around the casino.

The three-day blockade then finished as it began: with people standing together against police violence. At 5.45pm, as people were dispersing to post-blockade celebrations, an unmarked police car drove straight through a blockade line, running over one woman, before speeding off.

New movement

In the words of S11 Alliance spokesperson Anne O'Casey, at the alliance's final media conference on September 13, "We can say, without any doubts, that this action, these three days of protest, have been an unqualified success".

The success belongs first and foremost to the estimated 50,000 people who took part in the three wild, joyous and chaotic days of protest. Under extreme provocation from police, they maintained their commitment to a mass, non-violent blockade, they kept their unity and never backed off.

But S11 also took months of organising and conferencing, of honing the message and getting it out, of painstaking alliance-building and sometimes sharp argument.

Its success belongs most of all to the alliance of forces which kept S11 together — environmentalists like those in Friends of the Earth, socialists like those in the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, militant unionists like those in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and many other committed activists of different political complexions, whether anarchist or feminist or independent. Without them, it would have failed.

The S11 Alliance was not able to achieve its stated goal: to shut down the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum.

The alliance did, however, deliver on its promise: that the blockade of the Crown Towers conference site would be massive, peaceful, disciplined, militant and joyful.

More importantly, the protesters won the political battle, for legitimacy.

The World Economic Forum, aided by a compliant and servile mainstream media, had pumped out the message that its mission was to improve the state of the world, by "bringing the fruits of globalisation to the people".

By the end of the three days, such claims looked like exactly what they were: the pathetic PR attempts of a tiny, well-fed corporate elite, who needed the full brute force of the Victoria Police just so it could meet.

Holed up inside the casino complex or stuck in buses for hours trying to get in, not able to get out except by boat, helicopter or baton charge, the assembled CEOs seemed glum, confused and somewhat fearful whenever caught on camera. Accustomed to toadies who wait on every word, they didn't appreciate a confrontation with people who just didn't believe them.

The corporate executives had been dragged out into the sunlight and didn't like it. The new movement, however, revelled in it.

Melbourne has now added its name to the growing list of insurgent cities: Seattle, Washington, Quito, Jakarta. Another city, Prague, will join within weeks, when it rises up against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

This rising global movement has blown its trumpets once again. It has declared war not on a particular injustice, but on a world of them. It has named its enemy: capitalism. And out of its first major battle in this country, it has emerged victorious.

S11: 'We made it work by all sticking together'

By Susan Price

MELBOURNE, September 15, 2000 — The S11 protests against the World Economic Forum were a triumph for the Australian left. But it was a tough job to put them together and took enormous efforts of many different people from many different backgrounds.

The group which organised the blockade, the S11 Alliance, was symbolic of this difficult but ultimately productive diversity.

The group was a coalition of the major political forces to the left of the ALP, particularly the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, the progressive, activist environmental movement, especially Friends of the Earth, and a cross-section of independent left, green and progressive activists.

They were joined by a host of smaller left groups: the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), Socialist Alternative (SA), Workers' Power and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). Anarchist groups also came and went within the alliance.

Twenty-four hours after it was all over, Green Left Weekly held a round-table discussion with five of the S11 Alliance's blockade organisers about how they did it: JORGE JORQUERA, the Melbourne secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party and one of the chief spokespeople for the S11 Alliance; JACKIE LYNCH and ROB MILLER, two of the S11 Alliance's marshalling coordinators; and MARGARITA WINDISCH and JUSTINE KAMPRAD, who were blockade marshals. All five are DSP members.

Miller: The task of blockading was a complex one. We had 15 points around the casino to cover, over an area equivalent to two major city blocks, and the cops tried to break all of them at one point or another over the three days. The reason the conference organisers were forced to bring people in by river was because we were able to blockade those 15 entrances on the first day.

I was in the marshalling "communication base". It was a massive task. We had to have spotters at every point where there was a blockade.

Because there were also people running around crazy saying "this is happening here, this is happening there", the spotters at each point allowed us to confirm what was actually happening at any time.

There was cop movement all the time and all over the place. We prioritised where they were trying to bring buses in, and that's why we turned most of the [WEF delegates'] buses away. If we'd done otherwise, people would have been flying around all over the place and it wouldn't have been as effective.

Lynch: We put forward a position that we meet at the stage at 7am on the first day, and the alliance agreed that when we had enough people, a critical mass, the marshals would start to move people around to block the entrances. I was really surprised how well it worked.

Windisch: The idea of a central rallying point, where people could meet and from where we could lead people off, really worked because people were expecting the S11 Alliance to provide leadership and guidance about where they should go.

The stage and communications were absolutely crucial. Having Rob and Sarah [Roberts, another of the marshal coordinators] there at base meant that when the spotters were coming in with their information, we then had the stage to be able to announce that we needed a contingent to go to a certain area.

It also meant that there was a marshal right there to lead those volunteers off. Through the marshalling, we were able to keep the politics up and chant along the way and to boost people's morale.

Lynch: We had decided within the S11 Alliance to have a coordinating team of marshals, of which Rob and I were a part, along with three others. The majority of that committee were committed to building up mass blockades.

If we hadn't had walkie-talkies, and if we hadn't had a plan and maps so that for three days in a row we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, then we would have lost people.

The other big issue is that if we hadn't had marshalling, we would not have been able to coordinate first aid and legal resources, and we worked with those two important teams throughout the three days.

Jorquera: There were heaps of arguments within the alliance about how to make the thing work, but that's not really so surprising. The S11 Alliance was always a temporary, pragmatic agreement amongst the organised left. The debates really only came out in a substantive way during the action. They were played out in a street forum, rather than a committee forum.

There were only three main groups which worked to provide any leadership and coordination in this blockade: ourselves, Friends of the Earth, who were pivotal, and also the Socialist Party.

Many of the other groups, particularly the ultra-left anarchist and socialist groups, sought to promote spontaneity. By Monday midday, they were pitting themselves against the leaders who were emerging through the course of the day. All of these leaders in the end were opposing the actions of the ultra-left.

Miller: The fundamental dividing line was over the affinity group model. The people who supported that model believed that that was what made the Seattle protests successful — the model was basically spontaneous, unorganised; it stressed groups' "autonomy", with little coherent plan. The alternative, which members of the DSP and Resistance supported, was an overall organisation with a political focus and an agreed method of organising the blockade.

The sheer size and complexity of the task meant the autonomous affinity group approach was never going to work.

Many of those who subscribed to the affinity group model also had an idea that it meant not just a different way of blockading but also just doing something different to what everyone else was doing.

The blockade at Clarendon, for example, was at one stage viciously attacked, and a whole lot of people got injured. Half an hour later, rather than strengthening blockades which were still very weak, one of the affinity groups started going out onto Clarendon Street, blocking trams and trying to provoke fights with the cops.

I had to go out and say to these people, "Do you want to try to close down trams or do you want to stand with these people who are facing cops?". And they sheepishly went back into the blockade.

Lynch: What made those three days so successful was that we were so organised. I even heard an anecdote of one journalist who said, "I was in Seattle, you guys have it all over them, I could get in and out at will there". One of the Cuban international guests said a similar thing.

Jorquera: The other side of all this debate about tactics was all the negotiations that took place with Trades Hall to make sure their labour rights rally came to Crown Towers. Initially it was just going to stay on the north side of the river. Trades Hall was under huge pressure from [Labor Premier] Steve Bracks to distance itself from S11.

We'd stressed all along that an agreement with Trades Hall was important to the S11 Alliance. The fact the alliance was as organised as it was, that it had the stage, that it had some degree of direction over the blockade, helped immeasurably in our negotiations with [Trades Hall secretary] Leigh Hubbard, as did [Australian Manufacturing Workers Union Victorian secretary] Craig Johnston's explicit support for the blockade.

Trades Hall's public position in the end was, "We support the protests but not the blockade" — which should have been stronger and did get them in trouble with more militant unionists. But the labour rights rally did have a big impact on the way the second day panned out: it helped enormously and lifted morale after some pretty brutal treatment from police that morning. If they hadn't come over the river, that whole Tuesday could have been a bloodbath.

Kamprad: With 15 different points around the casino, all isolated from each other, the role of the marshals in facilitating a democratic decision-making process was really essential.

When the pickets were run in a democratic manner, even those who had formed affinity groups respected the decisions that were made. What set us apart was the seriousness with which we took the organisation of the blockades.

Lynch: The Kings Way bridge had been attacked all morning, and I went over to relieve the marshal who had been there. When I got there, Angela [Luvera], a Resistance organiser from Brisbane, was leading a picket, a gigantic picket across six lanes of traffic, and she had them chanting and cheering and singing songs.

It was probably one of my most scary experiences because we were waiting for the cops to attack at any moment. Angela and I had our backs to two lines of police, and everyone else was facing us and the police while chanting and singing. This was a typical line — we made it work by all sticking together and having solidarity with each other.

People were there for hours and hours. People would say to me, "I've been here since 7am. I'm going to sit down now." So we'd have a rest in a coordinated way — we'd get the first line to sit down, then 20 minutes later they'd stand up and the second line would sit down.

Kamprad: Marshals were conducting blockade training and encouraging people to stay together and not go off by themselves. My picket was brutally attacked on the Tuesday morning; several protesters were badly injured. Keeping everyone together really stopped people from panicking.

Miller: When we could start to see towards the end of the day that blockades were thinning out, and there were no reinforcements, the marshal coordinators would send around a couple of marshals to each site to motivate people to discuss whether they wanted to finish up or continue blockading, and let them make a decision whether to stay or go. And we'd leave them to have a discussion about what they wanted to do.

Jorquera: You could tell that the people who took our lead and appreciated it were those who had had some experience of working-class solidarity, it was so clear. When you went around and saw people who had been there the whole day, they weren't all the classic worker types, but they had some experience of working-class solidarity.

Certainly the Green Bloc [of Friends of the Earth activists and other environmentalists] fitted into this category — they just stood their ground, they knew that they were critical to a particular point, they didn't just run off and look for some action.

Windisch: When we put the proposals to the blockades to have a victory march on the final day, my experience was that people were waiting for somebody to come up with that proposal. People were saying, "Yes! This is exactly what we want to do."

I think it was partly because we had always motivated this action as a blockade, but also as a protest. We hadn't shut the forum down, but the main thing was to show our opposition to corporate tyranny, and to make it as hard as possible for the summit to go ahead. Most of the people were so happy when the "victory march" proposal came through.

Lynch: The success of the blockade depended a lot on the political alliances we had built up between ourselves, FOE and the Green Bloc, along with key independent activists, over many months. It did rely upon the level of authority which the marshals had won over the course of the blockade.

Miller: The march reflected the strength of the blockade. People all the way up Bourke Street were hoarse, chanting, "This is what democracy looks like".

Lynch: People told me that the "victory march" was the most political, revolutionary march they had ever been on.

[These article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, issue 421, published September 20, 2000. That issue included more coverage of the S11 protest. Click on the link above.]