by David K
This blog post comes from an essay published to Brisbane Solidarity Network’s mailing list in early 2017, and on Running Wild’s own website some weeks later. The article it was responding to, ‘Looking Good’, was also published in both places. At the time of posting this, Running Wild’s website has undergone some changes and both originals are no longer available there.
‘Looking Good’ by the collective known as Running Wild was an interesting read. It points out a lot of shortcomings in the anarchist movement, the broad left and even the centre left of Australia, and problems endemic to Australian politics. This short essay should be considered a review and reflection of some issues raised by their article rather than a direct response to the article itself.
Where the G20 in Brisbane, 2014, came from.
Was the G20 protest in Brisbane a failure at anything except Looking Good? Was it disappointing? If anyone had expectations for something other than talking to strangers, catching up with old friends and a heinously unseasonable heatwave, it probably was.
But our response (if we can be called an our) to G20 was the way it was because of a set of circumstances and events in relatively recent history and those are not due to simple complacency or a misguided approach.
Going back to 2000, S11 in Melbourne was somewhat of a Event Zero for summit protest in Australia, which was for perhaps a decade the Big Thing the broader, active left rallied around as a show of force, solidarity, presence and dissent.
S11 was about direct action, blockade to stop the WEF from meeting. It wasn’t about holding signs and making ourselves heard, but instead shutting the whole thing down. A direct and immediate descendent of the WTO “Battle In Seattle”, S11 has been largely forgotten in the global scheme when compared to the media storm in Seattle in ’99, the shooting death of a protester in Genoa in ’01 or the suicide of a South Korean farmer in Cancun in ’03, but S11 was nonetheless comparatively successful blockade – we managed to disrupt the WEF for about half a day.
We blockaded the casino in the heart of Melbourne, keeping delegates from proceedings by preventing their buses from reaching their destination by the simple act of standing in front of them, en mass, for a really long time. It was surprisingly popular outside the immediate circle of participants, making a significant impact on the Melbourne left and broader circles Australia-wide.
That shouldn’t be mistaken for widespread popularity with Paul and Sharon Australia, though – the press was in full force behind the government and the Forum. We, the people getting the shit kicked out of us, were generally viewed as scum who deserved the beating, and we told so by many passers by and those who knew us outside our activist lives. Until, at least, sunset on the second day, when a television camera crew were caught up in the fracas the Tactical Response Group brought down on us, and on the other flank of the same battle a photographer from a major paper went under a police horse.
In those two press outlets the mood turned against the cops. Neither Our Team nor Their Team’s actions had changed, but the press, and a significant portion of public opinion along with it, shifted because the equipment, egos and bodies of two press crews got bruised. The outrage of the media outlets at being treated as we were is what swayed public opinion, who interpreted the indignence of self-important journalists as righteous fury at a police state out of control. To the point – when a protester got run over by a cop car on the third day, there was barely a peep. When a protester got hit by a cop motorcycle on the first day nobody cared at all. And a month or so after the dust had settled public opinion went back the way it had been beforehand, the WEF was slowed for half a day and some sessions were cancelled due to low attendance, some of the general populace were swayed to our cause and the press got a dose of our lives for a moment. A win, but a very partial win.
When the Woomera Breakout occurred in 2002, People Who Shan’t Be Named managed to smuggle detainees out and into the community, some of whom were rumours to have eventually escaped and been resettled overseas.
There were very few journalists present and there is very little in terms of a visual record due mostly to the fact that Woomera is in the middle of nowhere and the time of ubiquity of video recording equipment was not yet upon us, so the press didn’t have a lot to sell to the public, and so the story was less well known.
Woomera was closed a year later – our team won, more or less. We proved the site was anything but secure, which was the last nail in the coffin for a camp that was notoriously overcrowded, violent and already a black eye on a heavily made-up and propped up refugee policy. It would have still closed without the breakout, but with a little help from a few thousand brave and hard-working people it was closed far sooner than it otherwise would have. Also a win, and also a very partial win.
In November 2002 the WTO met at Olympic Park and, emboldened by these partial successes, a contingent of concerned citizens (I use the term ironically) worked to stop it. The cops, though, had developed a strategy that we couldn’t overcome, having learned from our tactics and countered with resources we couldn’t hope to match. Where in Woomera and Melbourne they had a (relatively) small amount of fence fairly close to the target and, at least in Melbourne, a massive amount of personnel, the Sydney venue for the WTO featured a massive amount of fencing as far as possible from the venue and a medium amount of troops in the open space between.
If we hoped to get inside the venue we would have to make a good, long, wide-open and exposed sprint of several hundred metres across bare, unwelcoming concrete into the waiting arms of cops. When we managed to tear down the fence in a couple of places it was clear that quick dash into the building to confront the faceless officials of the WTO wasn’t happening, and nobody attempted it. Most of us were seasoned enough to know the crap time had in the back of a paddy wagon. We just moved on to the next section of fence. The delegates moved in and out by a variety of means we had no hope of stopping, like helicopters and vehicles under armed guard.
Where Woomera and the Crown Casino were strategically weak, which was the main factor in our success, Olympic Park was strong, and so we had none. CHOGM in 2003 saw Their Team follow the same strategy and the outcome was mostly the same – relocated to a resort on the Sunshine Coast, ringed by an electric fence and many bus loads of police, and the heads of state were brought in by helicopter or escorted vehicles. When Mad King George II visited in 2003, the rowdy part of the crowd were kept at bay by the very armed personnel, all visible on the roof of Parliament House and hiding in the grounds themselves, as People Who Shan’t Be Named found out, in the clear detail of extreme proximity.
The next closest thing to success from our perspective has to be the G20 protests in Melbourne in 2006, which was again held in a strategically poor location – the centre of Melbourne at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which allowed thousands of people to use city streets and alleys to get close to a building that was impossible to defend at the distance that had granted success at other venues. There was an ensuing “riot” filled with “violence”, followed up by many arrests and court cases, though the summit itself wasn’t effectively halted.
It’s this context that the G20 in Brisbane should be considered. The Convention Centre was similar to the venues where Our Team had success – in the heart of a major city, close to high traffic streets with a daily flow of high foot traffic. Fifteen years on from a couple of high profile failures, Their Team learned from their mistakes, our mistakes and their successes, and developed strategies from years of networking and information sharing, both at home and abroad. They also had a budget inflated by the buzzword ‘terrorism’, which allows a great deal more spending than ‘protesters’ does.
The security for the G20 in Brisbane already had a well researched and laid out plan to keep us from blockading or disrupting long before the venue was even announced to the public, and some components were set in stone before the host city was even chosen.
Had we spent two years planning our strategy, managed to achieve consensus on our aims and goals, dedicated hours of work into plotting, testing, observing and, most importantly, secretly communicating our plan, we still would have faced a financial and materiel asymmetry of tens of millions of dollars. That’s a hard set of problems to overcome for guerillas with military training, years of experience and the backing of a well funded resistance movement, let alone a bunch of rag-tag students, well-groomed baristas and fringe unionists funded from their own pockets.
So what did we do? We walked around with chants and slogans, hung out and chatted. And it’ll be that way for the foreseeable future, because unless someone with a penchant for military history, a dedicated group of surveillance and security experts, encrypted communications, a fleet of observation drones and/or a Kickstarter campaign working its way into seven figures kicks off the planning for the next one, we’re not winning the next Summit Protest.
What is winning in this context, anyway?
On top of that, when I say win, it’s in fairly selective terms. As previously stated, the successes we did have were minor. S11 shaved half a day from the WEF meeting and it didn’t change the WEF one bit. No nation nor company stopped attending the WEF because of our win, Australia keeps hosting these things, and no attendee’s policy changed, even though we had a bit of a win in Melbourne seventeen years ago. It was a minor win.
Woomera camp was shut down a year after the detainees were freed, but Australia’s detainment policy didn’t change, it didn’t alter public opinion about the cause, it didn’t shake the government into rethinking how they dealt with refugees, with public policy or dealing with direct actions, and, perhaps the worst of it, the conditions on Manus are probably worse than conditions were in Woomera. It was a very minor win.
The G20 continues unabated, and even returned to Australia after the last one. The WTO continues to do what it does, despite our efforts. These failures haven’t really lead to anything different than our successes. Masking up, being “violent”, naming our enemies, calling them for what they are – we did all that, but it didn’t really make any difference. We interfered with the progress for one hot minute. We didn’t stop anything.
So with a massive strategic disadvantage and limited and steadily decreasing success, our approach to Summit Protest needed to take a different tack, and it did. G20 was a lot of talking, marching and hanging out.
Alternate Spaces for Other Approaches.
We do have spaces for conversation, self-education, methods for informing and engaging, social events for conversation with like-minded people. The problem is that pretty close to nobody comes. These concepts being discussed as if they’re non-existent underscores that point. Even someone who proposes these things might be needed doesn’t know they’re there already there.
In Brisbane during the Noughties, Bastard hosted Anarchy In The Afternoon, in which like-minded people could come to discuss varying topics as presented by the curious or the expert in a public park. We emailed, posted, put out flyers, accosted people in the pub. I think the best attended afternoon hosted thirty people, most afternoons we had between seven and twelve. It ran for a few years, essentially until the topics that engaged people had been exhausted and the driving forces behind it doubly so.
Bastard also ran a book stall at the West End market for many years, and co-ran a bookshop for almost a year in West End at two different locations. We sold books and pamphlets at prices that sent us broke and cost us many hours of uncompensated labour (though in no doubt a healthier way than another project of uncompensated labour, Brews Not Bombs), and we even gave a selection of stock away for free, which made the majority of customers genuinely uncomfortable.
Very few customers ever returned, I don’t know that any paying customers ever returned at all, mostly the returnees were our friends who came by for chess or coffee. We hosted film nights at the bookstore and the local vegan cafe that were mostly attended in the same number and by the same people as Anarchy In The Afternoon. We held book clubs and reading groups. We hosted benefit gigs and public discussions. Not a whole lot of people came.
These experiences and events aren’t unique but rather are typical, and are just things I either worked in personally or saw first hand. Australia-wide, the list goes on and on into the current moment – it is the experience of Turnstyle, MAC, Jura, Black Swan, Barricade, Loophole, HOP, DIO, Black Rose, Reclaim The Streets and Food Not Bombs, too. Each group has waxes and wanes, both in terms of staff and audience, but attendance is uniformly low. This is endemic to Our Team, anarchist, leftist or whatever you want to call us.
It wasn’t always the case – when the IWW met in Sydney during the so-called The Great War attendance sometimes approached ten thousand people. But now, in the age of instant mobile communication, we’re lucky to get ten people anywhere at any time, no matter how well advertised or how much advance notice. (It’s a phenomenon not just limited to Our Team, either. Getting an Australian out of the house for any reason other than shopping or football is now almost impossible, and both are now declining in favour of online alternatives.)
So, in this context, the G20 meeting in Brisbane was actually a pretty good time. I made new friends from all over Australia, and a few new ones from around the world, because thousands of people turned up to the event and hung out and talked.
It did fill a need, as weird as that is.
What actually happened in Montreal? Looking Good vs Looking Better.
In the latter part of ‘Looking Good’ I think there’s a fairly direct implication that in Montreal, (though it could be many places), things are more successful because over there Our Team doesn’t worry about Looking Good but instead Does What It Takes, which equates to this: “they name their enemy and they face them, and they make marks… [and] don’t worry about what the media has to say about them.”
This depiction doesn’t actually describe the example given in the essay, however. The law against masks in Quebec was overturned not because people protested them, but because a handful of people took their cases to the Quebec Superior Court, where the laws were proven to be unconstitutional. Further, if the article linked in the essay is correct, the case was brought by a man who dressed as a giant panda who’d had the head of his costume confiscated by police, and who explicitly states that he wears the panda costume to pacify tensions with police.
Lobbying in the streets, en masse, and doing so ‘violently’ or masked up is often mistaken for Direct Action, and it seems that this is happening in ‘Looking Good’, along with confusing cause and effect of the overturning of anti-mask laws
The 2012 student protests were part of a broader campaign that included legal challenge, and it wasn’t that the protests shook the government’s confidence so much they backed down, it was that they lost a legal judgement using legal processes.
If we apply this “Montreal method” to refugee and asylum seeker cases in Australia (just as an at-hand example clearly of concern to Running Wild and many on Our Team), we require protest to raise awareness and a High Court challenge that also finds the specific issue unconstitutional. And possibly a koala mascot to pacify police tension.
There have been high profile protests where enemies are named and marks were made for twenty years, and actually Direct Action was taken against refugee policy in Woomera and at other detention centres during that period. A High Court challenge happened in 2014 and the government changed policy, a little, and in 2016 the government won a similar challenge.
But the refugee policy after the successful challenge and the protests combined doesn’t suit anyone on Our Team. We’re just as unhappy with it as its predecessors – we didn’t really win. The Montreal Method doesn’t give us a win unless the legal code backs us up.
So those folks in Montreal aren’t Doing What It Takes. The Montreal-style protest is redemptive protest, and a more powerful and potent redemption than making placards and chanting peaceful slogans, but it’s still just about Looking Good. Instead we can just call it Looking Better, because the black mask and a broken windscreen improves any aesthetic.
Refugee Action: Greece Vs Australia
As for the situation in Greece, the terrain being dealt with there has fundamental differences to our own. We don’t have the opportunity to house illegals in abandoned hotels – unlike Greece’s comparatively porous border, successive federal governments have effectively eliminated the occurrence of illegal refugees arriving by any method.
By the time refugees make it into the Australian community they’ve been checked, processed, vetted and stamped with the official seal of approval, in controlled numbers that is the boon an island state can provide.
These migrants come into a healthy (if increasingly precarious) economy based on empty buildings going up by the thousands – and essentially in as unspoken admission of a coming massive increase in immigration to fill Australia’s yawning employment gap – and not into a country with a quarter of its population out of work and unable to pay national or household debt, with economic growth left somewhere in the 1990s or before. And, as shocking as it may seem, migrants to Australia come into one of the world’s best welfare systems, that the refugees have access to if not in whole, then in part.
I can’t commend those Greek anarchists enough for what they’ve done for Syrian refugees, nor for the people who drag them from the Aegean every night, nor smuggle them from Syria to the west coast of Turkey – but there’s a reason anarchists are doing this work illegally, risking their own necks to help others. It’s because nobody else can, but not so much in a moral sense, but in a financial and legal one.
These anarchists are supplying a vital social need the Greek government can’t provide because it’s broke, and like any nation-state, it prioritises those with power and influence first, and refugees have the least power and influence wherever they go. The local municipality are probably pretty happy there aren’t hundreds more refugees sleeping on the streets along with the huge numbers of Greek citizens rendered homeless thanks to one financial disaster after another. Challenging the anarchist hotel mentioned in ‘Looking Good’ is probably not a priority for local Greek governments, nor its cash-strapped and stretched police force.
Local municipalities and State governments here, however, do find it a priority. And plenty of Australian police don’t really have much more to do than run about busting squatters and homeless people. By international standards, and certainly compared to Greece, the Australian police force are cashed-up, overequipped, overdeployed, and understimulated, as the Bendigo St squats and the high visibility homeless in Melbourne have learned in the last twelve months, when the Victorian police has been pursuing and prosecuting squatters and homeless for driving down property values and diminishing the tourist experience.
Perhaps the Greek model could be studied more closely and employed against Australia’s usually enforced and unusually strict anti-squatting laws to house the homeless that are increasing at an alarming rate. But given that anti-squatting laws are usually enforced, this strategy would have to head off a trespass charge that would only complicate the life of a homeless person or refugee who are already in a legally precarious position.
Being Helpful is About Context.
Or, to put that heading a better way, solidarity is about geography.
What seems to be helpful in Montreal in 2012 doesn’t work in Australia. What seems to be helpful in Greece doesn’t either. What Looks Better in Montreal in 2012 is helpful only to those of us who take part in it, which is why it’s called redemptive protest.
To really be in solidarity one really has to be in the same geographical space to do so, though I use that term in a more metaphorical landscape sense than the literal cartographic one – political geography, economic geography, social geography, emotional geography. It’s about recognising where we are, in many different senses.
Anarchists generally rehash a lot of the same old stories to one another, as many political movements do, but many of those tales are from other times or other places with vastly different social contexts, political histories and economic realities to our own.
Attempts to emulate the Zapatista movement’s success outside Chiapas have mostly failed because their culture, politics, economics and local history are unique. Routinely reinventing the ‘social centre’ model that has success in Europe has largely failed in Australia’s much more atomised and individualist society, no matter how many times it’s tried. Even the time-honoured anarchist bookshop struggles in Australia despite its success in a similarly liberalised America, thanks to Australia’s physical distance from the English language publishing markets.
Successfully exporting these, or any other, models depends on correctly identifying and analysing the causes of our own situations and applying the applicable parallels and inventing or adapting to fit the skew.
In truth, nothing works like a good strategy well executed. In fact, nothing works except a good strategy well executed. If you want to do good you need to work out how to do it and then do it well. Otherwise all this stuff all winds up salad days reminiscence, a weekend hobby, or someone’s thesis.