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G20 — The Legal Aftermath

Victoria Stead sees an attempt to depoliticise protest behind the extraordinary charges brought against the G20 arrestees.

It has been a year and four months now since 2000 people took to the streets in protest against the meeting of the G20 economic summit in Melbourne. Over three days, people engaged in occupations; street theatre and a Carnival Against Capitalism; a convergence and workshops held in a squatted empty warehouse; art shows and performances; and a host of other direct actions aimed at disturbing the status quo and giving expression to our anger, our passion and our hope for something better. It was the events of a total period of a few hours, however, which dominated the media coverage of the protests, and the response of the state to those few hours, that has since dominated the lives of twenty-eight individuals, their supporters, friends and families.

On the afternoon of Saturday 18 November, a group of around 100 protestors attempted to break through the barricades that police had erected around the site of the G20 summit at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Clashes with police ensued, with protestors attacking the water-filled barricades and, a short while later, an empty police brawler van, which was also being used as a barricade to block access to the Hyatt. The next day Victoria Police launched a massive operation — Operation Salver — which began making arrests within twenty-four hours. In the days and months that followed, a total of twenty-eight people were arrested and charged. Most of the charges relate to the events of the Saturday afternoon, but there are also some related to a series of occupations on the Friday before — of the Defence Recruiting Office and the office of Tenix Solutions, a defence contractor company which has been making big profits from the war in Iraq — and a scuffle with police outside Parliament House on the Saturday evening.

The list of charges laid against the twenty-eight women and men is long and frightening. It includes multiple counts of riot, affray, conduct endangering serious injury, criminal damage, assault and aggravated burglary. In March this year the first of the arrestees was sentenced. Akin Sari pleaded guilty to nine charges after having being detained on remand for several months. He was sentenced to a staggering twenty-eight months jail, with a minimum non-parole period of fourteen. His sentencing came mid-way through the committal hearing for the other twenty-three arrestees going through the adult court system (four more will go before the Children’s Court on 28 April this year). During the hearing ten people agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges, leaving thirteen who have now been committed to stand trial in the County Court. It is unlikely that this will happen before the end of 2009. Meanwhile, those who pleaded guilty will face court again this month, and the prosecution has stated that it will be seeking custodial sentences in a number of cases.

The arrests, prosecution and threat of prison sentences have, not surprisingly, shaken the group of arrestees and the people around them. Indeed, it is difficult to convey a sense of just how agonising it can be to be caught up in the middle of the criminal justice system — the constant court dates; the endless impersonal bureaucracy, forms and bail variation applications; the feelings of being harassed, belittled, of drowning in bewildering and incomprehensible legal jargon. Most of those arrested are now receiving legal aid, but many faced significant legal costs in the period immediately following their arrest, and a few are facing legal fees approaching the tens of thousands of dollars. Then there are travel expenses for those from inter-state, the cost of child care and lost wages when people are required to be in court. At least one arrestee has lost their job as a result of their arrest. The solidarity network established soon after the first arrests has raised over $10,000, but this has barely scratched the surface of what is needed.

The emotional and material stress on those who were arrested has been intensified, in many instances, by the conduct of the police. From the beginning Operation Salver aggressively pursued those it could identify and employed tactics intended to frighten and intimidate. Undercover ‘snatch squads’ were used in a number of arrests, with heavy-handed raids used in other cases. Five men in Sydney were arrested in a series of dawn raids that saw doors kicked in and people woken by armed police officers standing over their beds. Some younger members of the group have reported being pressured about their right to silence, while one man was secretly recorded in the back of the police car as he was being taken to the police station after his arrest. Draconian bail conditions initially barred arrestees from communicating with one another, prevented those living in Victoria from travelling outside the state despite posing minimal flight risk, and required them to report to police as often as three times a week. Supporters of the arrestees have argued that the bail conditions were used as a form of punishment of people who had not been convicted of any crime, and it is only after lengthy court appearances and strenuous arguments by defence counsels that these conditions have now been eased.

Given the events of the G20 weekend, the fact that there were arrests is hardly surprising. The aggressive determination of the police and prosecution to secure convictions and gaol time, however, and the severity of the charges that have been laid, are frighteningly unfamiliar in the recent history of the policing of public protest. Beneath the dramatic hyperbole of the prosecution, police, the state, and the mainstream media, the charges that the G20 arrestees are now facing simply overwhelm the reality of the events that took place. One young man facing charges of riot and affray in the Children’s Court — charges that carry sentences of up to ten years — is accused of nothing more than throwing a plastic bottle at an empty van. He was fourteen at the time of his arrest.

While the Police Association has railed against Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon for leaving its members defenceless in the face of marauding violent hordes, the evidence so far tendered before the court has detailed nothing more serious than minor shoulder injuries suffered by one policewoman, a wrist which may or may not have been broken, and a case of tennis elbow which medical witnesses have testified could well have been the result of a pre-existing injury. Injuries, yes, but hardly the catalogue of wounds one would expect from the kind of out-of-control rioting and carnage that police say occurred. As one supporter commented, you would see worse violence at a Frankston pub on a Friday night.

The aggravated burglary charges against three people are particularly significant in the prosecution of the group as a whole. The ‘agg. burg.’ charges, as they are known in the court lingo with which the arrestees are rapidly becoming familiar, are particularly severe charges, carrying maximum sentences of twenty-five years imprisonment. It is because of these charges that all of the arrestees who have not yet pleaded are facing a drawn-out jury trial in the County Court rather than being processed through the much swifter Magistrates Court. The three agg. burg. charges relate to the Friday morning office occupations. Here again, the reality of what occurred on the day diverges sharply from the gravity of the charges. The entirety of the damage claimed by the prosecution is a few ripped-down posters and a bit of writing on the office walls. Yet pushing through charges of aggravated burglary against three of the defendants has allowed the prosecution to make sure that all of the arrestees had the choice of either pleading guilty, or facing a County Court trial.

The charges facing the twenty-eight arrestees are not those that demonstrators have traditionally faced. Typically, individuals arrested as a result of their involvement in political demonstrations have faced a familiar range of charges, including unlawful assembly, trespass and breach of the peace. Charges such as riot, aggravated burglary and assault represent a sharp departure from previous experience, and are indicative of the nature of the state’s response to the G20 protests. Operation Salver has, by all appearances, been run as a stock-standard criminal investigation, and the prosecution has thus far been overwhelmingly concerned with the criminality of the offences of which the arrestees have been accused. The arguments being raised against the arrestees have not been politically charged, but have rather sought to paint them as violent thugs intent on random acts of destruction. In the face of such depoliticisation of the case, it is worth taking a moment to revisit the reasons why people were at the G20 in the first place.

The meeting of finance ministers from twenty of the most ‘systemically important’ countries in the world economy drew the ire of protestors for a host of reasons. Among them were the institution’s commitment to a free trade and neo-liberal agenda; its pursuit of economic and social policies which result in the material impoverishment of billions of people; the presence of the former World Bank chief and architect of the ‘war on terror’, Paul Wolfewitz as an invited guest; and, among significant sections of the crowd, opposition to capitalism and the structures of power and privilege that dominate social life.

People took to the streets, as well, with a sense of outrage at their exclusion from the centres of power and decision making. The clashes that erupted with police were not random acts of violence, but targeted attempts to dismantle the barriers which, both physically and symbolically, marked the lines of division between the powerful global elite represented inside and the rest of us left standing outside. People went to the G20 not looking for opportunities for senseless violence, but to create an opportunity for direct political expression and communication where none was being offered. No one predicted the events that took place that afternoon. The attempts to dismantle the barricades and the attack on the police brawler van were genuinely spontaneous outbreaks of anger directed at the symbols of what people perceived to be the exercise of illegitimate, unaccountable authority.

What is happening, then, when the police and prosecution disengage the events in question from the political context in which they took place? This depoliticisation is, in its own way, a political act: it is a strategy for criminalising protest and making invisible the very issues that protestors are seeking to illuminate. But, in the case of the G20 at least, there is a lot more going on than the simple criminalisation of protest. There is a whole range of factors that have been playing out over the last sixteen months, and the nature of the police and prosecution strategies has been shaped by their confluence.

In one sense, it certainly seems that the aggressive prosecution of the G20 arrestees has been intended to have a deterrent effect against engaging in protest activity by dramatically raising the costs of such engagement. The G20 policing operation in Melbourne was the warm-up for the APEC summit in Sydney the following year, and there was extensive cooperation between the task forces involved in the policing of both events. All of the G20 arrestees were amongst the first to be placed on the ‘Excluded Persons List’ created at APEC, which banned particular individuals from being within the areas around the summit. And in Sydney, even more so than in Melbourne, the state took extraordinary steps to shut down public space in the heart of the city. Barricades, concrete roadblocks, barbed wire fencing and militarised exclusion zones were used to keep the power brokers safely quarantined from the people whose lives their decisions affect. And, as at the G20, the APEC demonstrations saw the introduction of unprecedented penalties threatened against anyone who sought to defy exclusion. Specific pieces of legislation handed police new powers in dealing with protestors. The assumption of bail, for instance, was reversed for anyone arrested for an offence within the exclusion zone.

In addition, there were attempts to identify and charge known activists in the days and months after the G20. In Sydney, local police long involved in monitoring student protests played a key role in the G20 arrests, and university administrations were asked to help identify any student activists who might have been involved. There was also heavy surveillance of the Goongerah forest area in Victoria’s Gippsland region after the G20 protests, with police looking for prominent environmental activists. Two women amongst the arrestees were identified, for example, after an Authorised Officer from the Department of Environment and Sustainability identified them from prior forest activism.

However, while police did arrest and charge a number of prominent activists, many of the arrestees were unknown to police. Many were not connected at all, or only very loosely, to the groups that played key organising roles in the three days of protests. Moreover, the bulk of evidence used by the police and prosecution has been video footage collected during the protest and after the fact, not material gathered through surveillance of those groups prior to the protest. It does not seem that the police went into the G20 policing operation with the aim of looking for opportunities to arrest and prosecute pre-identified individuals. Rather, it seems that they have been using every method at their disposal post-event to identify and arrest as many people as possible.

One possible reason for this lies in the long-running dispute between the Police Association and Police Command. The G20 summit took place smack bang in the middle of the Police Association’s enterprise bargaining negotiations, and just prior to the Victorian state elections. Police Association Secretary Paul Mullet slammed Nixon after the protest for employing ‘soft’ community policing tactics rather than the more authoritarian tactics that have traditionally been used to combat demonstrations (that is, brute force). Mullet has insisted that rank-and-file officers were left under-resourced and unsupported during the protests. One hypothesis that seems to fit with events is that the massive resources given to Operation Salver, and the tough prosecution of those people arrested, have been part of a strategy of appeasement of the powerful Police Association and the rank-and-file officers whose loyalty it commands. Certainly Mullet has been calling for the heads of the G20 protestors, and all protestors for that matter, recently issuing a call for a blanket ban on the right to protest. In this sense, perhaps, Operation Salver has simply been a case of police getting back at the protestors, and doing it in the most aggressive way possible.

At any rate, regardless of what factors have shaped the form of the policing and prosecution of the G20 arrestees — and clearly there were several — the fact remains that twenty-eight women and men continue to endure the effects in a very real, very frightening way. One is already imprisoned, and will not be eligible for parole for at least another seven months; ten are preparing for sentencing; four will have their cases heard in the Children’s Court at the end on April; and another thirteen are facing a wait of more than a year before they go to trial. The events of the last sixteen months have raised important questions around strategy and tactics, questions that continue to be debated and examined. But the pressing concern now is to act in solidarity with the arrestees.

Victoria Stead is a Melbourne activist. She took part in the G20 protests in 2006, and is involved in the solidarity campaign for the arrestees (see www.afterg20.org). She also works for the Globalism Research Centre at RMIT University.