Melbourne: WEF Meets Real World

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

B. Skanthakumar

OVER 15 000 PEOPLE from all corners of Australia and farther afield blockaded the Asia-Pacific summit of the World Economic Forum (W.E.F.) in Melbourne between September 11 and 13 in the latest expression of the mood of anti-capitalist action around the world.

The annual meeting between Fortune 500 company CEOs and senior executives and politicians along with their academic and journalist hangers-on was held in the Crown Casino, a thrusting skyscraper beside the Yarra river, and a fitting venue for the faceless few who daily gamble with the futures and lives of billions of people.

Opposing them was a coalition of interests and individuals led by the S-11 Alliance comprising socialists and feminists, anarchists and ecologists, students and trade unionists as well as socially-engaged Christians.

Thanks to their dedicated efforts, the W.E.F’s usually opaque deliberations pushing the agenda of free trade and capitalist globalization became the subject of contention in newspapers, television and radio studios, in universities and schools, and in homes across the country.

In the run-up to Forum there was a counter-offensive by the State (Labor) government and the police, supported by Rupert Murdoch’s Herald-Sun newspaper, aiming to keep people away with dire warnings that protests would turn violent. Valuable time and energy had to be diverted into a debate over whether violence was justified, when the Alliance itself had made clear that it only supported non-violent direct action as the best means of mobilizing the greatest number of people.

Predictably, when violence did erupt it came from the police. September 11 dawned and we gathered in the pouring rain and wintry cold outside the Crown Casino where we were directed to the fifteen points around the massive site which were to be blockaded, preventing people from entering and leaving.

Private security guards and the police had erected barricades including high fencing to prevent protesters from storming the conference. This only contributed to the siege-like feeling inside.


Outside, among the thousands milling around there was a carnival atmosphere. All around were faces wreathed in smiles, delighting in the company of fellow dissenters. Some danced to beating drums and radical rappers, others were entertained by clowns and mimics, anti-nuclear campaigners mingled with hooded anarchists, critics of genetically modified foods linked hands with Burmese exiles angered by trans-national investment in their military-ruled country.

Young people, for many of whom this event marked their political initiation, were clearly enjoying themselves, soaking in the atmosphere, collecting the leaflets thrust into their hands, drifting to, away from, and then back again to the platform where interspersed with live music acts speakers railed against the institutions and impacts of global capitalism.

A few hundred school students participated in a high school walk-out risking disciplinary action including suspension. When asked by a cynical journalist why she was at the blockade, one replied, “I want to stop greed, exploitation and the destruction of the environment.”

Meanwhile a procession of gaily-decorated floats and street theater performers circled the city-center trailed by graffiti artists chalking messages against corporate greed and ecological destruction on side-walks and walls. The Nike store on the corner of Swanston and Bourke (adorned with a giant poster of Aboriginal Olympic champion athlete Cathy Freeman) was closed for the three days of the protest.

Western Australian Premier Richard Court was arrogant enough to assume his car would make it through the blockade. He is reviled for his opposition to Aboriginal land rights and advocacy of mandatory sentencing policies. His car was surrounded, trapping him in it until rescued almost an hour later by club-wielding police.

The Federal Prime Minister John Howard, due to address the Forum that day, had to be transported by boat across the Yarra River, while other dignitaries used helicopters. In all some one-third of the 850 registered participants were prevented from attending that first day. The Casino itself was forced to close for business for two days and its management admitted lost revenues of A$10 million.

Brutal Police Revenge

Embarrassed by the success of the human blockade and under pressure from the Victorian Premier, whose “Business Olympics” as he had dubbed the summit was threatened with failure, the police were brutal in their treatment of protesters on the 12th and 13th.

In the early morning of the 12th and once again that evening, riot police charged into human chains at certain points clearing a passage for buses transporting Forum participants. When they were not bashing the heads of defenseless people with their truncheons, mounted police used their horses to mow them down.

Some fifty people were hospitalized with serious injuries over those three days while four hundred received first aid on site.

The following day, after the Forum had officially closed and as protesters were beginning to disperse, an unmarked vehicle with plainclothes officers ran over one person whose legs were broken. Civil liberties groups denounced the conduct of the Victoria Police, while public revulsion forced the state Premier to cancel a reception honoring police personnel.

Morale among protesters was restored on the 12th when a labor rights rally organized by the Victorian Trades Hall Council swelled numbers outside the Crown Casino. However, the barrage of negative publicity and pressure from the state Labor Party meant that the Council leadership did not support the blockade.

The rally was also addressed by the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, who the day before had crossed the picket line to share her excitement with business leaders at the World Economic Forum in the “knowledge based new economy.”

Only the militant Victoria leadership of the Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union wholeheartedly backed the S-11 Alliance, urging their members to participate in the blockade as did the South Australian affiliate of the Education Union (AEU).

While we didn’t succeed in “shutting down” the World Economic Forum meeting — the stated goal of the Alliance — the real achievement was the impressive mobilization of those opposed to neoliberalism and the consciousness raising of others through their self-activity, collective organization and debate.

Above all, S-11 as with the anti-capitalist protests before and after symbolizes the long-overdue arrival of a new political generation with its own dilemmas, theorists and texts, forms of organization and methods of struggle, and distinctive vernacular of rebellion.

ATC 89, November-December 2000