September 8, 2007
The Canberra Times

Defend our right to protest, but let the anarchists eat cake

Anarchy builds an appetite. Apparently. Which is perhaps why young anarchists in training were asked to ”bring a plate” to a solidarity meeting in Sydney last year. The mission, in between cake and cookies, was to ”confront and overcome all forms of social oppression”, a heady call for a Sunday tea party.

The internet invitation insists the would-be anarchists ”have no delusions about Ghandi”. Instead, they want to be ”brave and rebellious”.

But you’ve got to wonder what the hell was in those cookies given members of this group, who call themselves Arterial Bloc, were later arrested for some of Australia’s most violent protests at last year’s G20 meeting in Melbourne.

Today, those same people are in police sights. In Melbourne, they took police by surprise. But police are waiting for them in Sydney. In fact, it seems the well-armed riot police, swat teams, snipers, helicopter crews, even the bicycle brigade, are champing at the bit for a little action. Never before have we witnessed such a show of police muscle, nor such fortification of public streets.

Like most, I desperately hope it comes to naught, and the massive operation around APEC is proved a massive over-kill. But listening to the NSW riot squad commander in court this week, it’s clear the police inhabit another realm. Or they know an awful lot about anarchist intentions that we don’t. In arguing to ban protesters from marching inside APEC’s ‘declared zone’, or even to its perimeter, Chief Superintendent Stephen Cullen laid out a vision of Armageddon. He warned of unprecedented violence and ”full- scale riots”, with ”horrendous consequences” and even death.

Despite what sounded like alarmist hyperbole, it was evidently a compelling enough argument for the Supreme Court’s . Justice Adams listened to counter-arguments about Australia’s prized democratic right to protest, and granted the ban anyway. Although he did acknowledge the ”strong feelings” many had about APEC, the US President and Iraq.

Importantly, the march wasn’t banned outright. It was banned from taking place within restricted areas. The protest organisers, the Stop Bush Coalition, astutely highlighted this as soon as they left court. Spokesman Alex Bainbridge told the media, ”The court has made very clear that we have got a right to protest.” And it did – just not on the route for which permission had been sought. Within a day, the coalition drew up another more acceptable route that was approved by the police.

Protecting and supporting the democratic right of all Australians to gather in large numbers and march in protest is essential to the healthy function of our society. Right now it is shocking to see Sydney so heavily fortressed, and distressing to hear of ordinary people going about their daily business being stopped by police, searched, quizzed and left feeling intimidated and even humiliated. This is not the Australia we proudly brag about – the land of free speech, movement and association.

However, many of us grudgingly accept that this new way of things, is how it must be. But acceptance of an occasional infringement on our access to public places doesn’t mean we also accept any infringement on our right to speak, or be heard.

Many – if not most – attending today’s authorised rally and march outside the APEC zone will be doing so because they want to express their displeasure at a war being fought in their name. Some will be drawn by climate change concerns and a lack of action by various APEC member nations, including our own. Others will be drawn because of fears about globalisation and economic growth. And yes, a grab-bag of those fears and slogans will be misplaced, misunderstood, even perhaps mis-spelt. But whatever the reason for marching, we should defend a protester’s right to – peacefully and lawfully.

It’s disappointing that the Prime Minister – whose increasing isolation is thickening into a grey cloudy aura – was so dismissive of APEC protesters. Early in the week he dubbed them all simpletons who simply ”hate” economic growth and consider it ”poison to the poor”.

By mid-week an Australian newspaper editorial took a snide swipe at those ”otherwise well- educated and affluent people” who choose to protest at events like APEC. It suggested the march was ”little more than a resistance day picnic complete with water cannons”. And with bully boy huff, snapped ”the last time we looked, Iraq was not located in the Asia-Pacific”.

No it’s not. But the chief commander of the Iraq war is in Sydney right now. For those drawn to march today, under anti-war banners, the presence of George W.Bush is an opportunity to register concern. It’s an opportunity to say ”not in my name”. That’s all.

I have no doubt almost everyone at today’s march wants it to be big, proud and above all peaceful. Like the police, we can only hope the hungry anarchists from groups like Arterial Bloc, Black Bloc, Mutiny, Wombles and whatever other playgroup is out there, keep well away. Their violence is misplaced and abhorrent and does nothing to protect and advance freedom. Instead it goes a long way to ensuring we lose it. Let’s hope they’re still busy munching cookies and drinking tea.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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