They were all there. Inside, the captains of industry, the white collars of corporate elitism, and the holders of high office from around the globe; outside, the malcontents, the marginalised, and ‘the great unwashed’. It was political theatre at its best. But now the show has left town and it’s on the road to Prague.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting at Crown Casino momentarily brought Australia into a global loop of protest. Like a travelling carnival, activists have converged to stage large-scale protests in some of the world’s major cities such as London, Rio, Seattle, Manila and Washington. With the protests that started on 11 September, Melbourne can now be added to the list. Yet for all the press that S11 attracted, debate within the corporate and state-owned media was bound by parameters that served to challenge the validity of the protests. This article seeks to illustrate how the media portrayed both violence and the modes of organisation of activists in such a way as to undermine the legitimacy of the protests against the WEF.
In the months leading up to S11, there was little in-depth media exposé of the activists’ myriad accusations against the WEF’s 1007 member corporations. For instance, the media missed the irony that the WEF, of European origin, was here to discuss the economic agendas of the Asia-Pacific – a region still recovering, spasmodically, from the rigours of globalisation, IMF and World Bank style. Instead, the overwhelming focus of the media was the issue of violence, with the most alarmist articles prior to S11 drawing on moral indignation to talk up the prospect of conflict. Bloody confrontations do sell papers. Within this general emphasis, it was the prospects of the use of violence by protesters, rather than by police, that dominated the press. Activists were interviewed time and again by the media and were continuously asked about the prospects for violence at the conference, no matter their declarations of peaceful intent. Even before the protests began, the validity of the protests were undermined as the so-called ‘S11 organisation’ was painted as unlawful, reckless, and set to engage in an activity that was framed as morally indefensible.
Clear opportunities for a discussion in the media of state violence existed prior to 11 September. This was particularly the case with the enactment of the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Bill 2000. As the WEF summit and the Olympics approached, the Bill ostensibly served to guard against acts of terrorism. This legislation stated, however, that troops could be deployed in case of a threat to domestic stability, the meaning of which was left highly ambiguous. It also stated that with only the authorisation of the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Attorney General, the military could have been drawn on to intervene in protests such as S11. Yet instead of questioning the legitimacy of possible state-sanctioned violence by the military against protesters, the media’s treatment of the Bill was framed largely in terms of Commonwealth encroachment on states’ powers. These parameters laid the foundation for the media’s approach to the actual days of protest.
Throughout the protests against the WEF in Melbourne, scant attention was paid to the multiple reasons behind activists’ decisions to blockade Crown Casino, let alone the choice of many activists to resist violence absolutely. Various points around the casino were blockaded by activists who believed that it was futile to respond passively to the violence perpetrated and sanctioned by the state. This is not merely a tit-for-tat argument: a violent state begets shoulder-to-shoulder activism. Passive non-violence can be seen as complicity acknowledging the state’s power and activists’ impotence. Most activists advocated active non-violent protest, believing that meaningful change can only be achieved by reacting non-violently even in the face of violence. Hence the constant chant of ‘no violence’ by activists standing against lines of Victorian police. This plurality of ideas received limited air time. Instead, the press coverage appeared to mirror that of the treatment of the Seattle protests by North America’s corporate media. The ‘Battle of Seattle’ was simply transposed onto the banks of the Yarra. Complex moments of violence and resistance simply became ‘protest violence’ and inevitably the headline read ‘Battle of Melbourne’.
A continued emphasis on the issue of violence by protesters served to challenge the legitimacy of the protests against the WEF. This emphasis also served to conceal the multiplicity of active dissent. At the core of many acts of S11-style dissent is a deliberate attempt by activists to create a sense of theatre. Activists frequently create a sense of playful irony in order to undermine the legitimacy of their targets. Light-hearted props and costumes, such as puppets and clowns, are at times accompanied by shoulder-to-shoulder resistance to create dramatic spectacles. In a famous quote, Abbie Hoffman remarked that the Vietcong attack on the US embassy in Saigon was a ‘work of art’. At that time, the images of violence in the embassy compound served to fracture a consensus in American society.
At other venues, the sight of protesters smashing a Nike window served as a spectacular and symbolic display of fury at one corporation’s exploitation. Rarely do perpetrators of such violence believe that a single act of property destruction will change corporations’ policies or practices. To measure it as such would be futile. Instead, the breaking of store-front windows, the public face of a company, is an expression of angst that can send powerful ripples through society. In this sense, the media has failed to realise the way in which symbolic violence or active resistance against police violence has been used by protestors to auger a sense of crisis instead as a mode of action designed to win over the middle ground. Discussions of this kind, where the media reflects back onto its own role as a key disseminator of ideas, have been consistently ignored in the press coverage of S11.
The issue of violence was the most obvious and dramatic challenge to the legitimacy of the S11 protests. A second stream of articles, however, has served to challenge the validity of protests through an analysis of the organisational modes of protest. Such articles, still mimicking the post-Seattle press, have mapped the emergence of a new kind of technologically motivated and decentralised activism that is networked rather than hierarchically organised. However, even those articles that sought to seriously discuss the fact that S11 was not one event, run by one organisation, with a single manifesto and a coherent agenda, still served to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Articles of the ‘What is S11?’ genre sought to understand the protest as a collage of activists and organisations. The end effect, no matter the level of sympathy, seemed to turn S11 into a pageant of ideologically divergent professional protesters. The spectre of plurality and difference became a pseudonym for inchoateness and ineffectiveness. Ironically, therefore, whilst most of the media totalised violence as the mode of action, the media remained willing to recognise diversity as a key characteristic of the modes of organisation.
Articles framed by a discussion of S11 did not successfully hone in on some of the more compelling threads linking activists together. For instance, many voices in S11 were stressing the old axiom ‘society is not an economy’. The protests against multinational organisations are often an attempt to redress the absolute priority given to neo-liberal economics within society, of which the WEF is but one manifestation. So it matters not that some demonstrators during S11 stressed the injustices facing Indigenous Australians, that others argued for the removal of Third World debt, and yet others against the use of child labour to make sports shoes. Such seemingly disparate agendas are frequently linked by a common rejection of the exploitation by capital of public space, resources, and the condition of the human body.
At separate post-blockade press conferences, away from the concrete and wire surrounding the casino, representatives from both S11 and the Victorian police claimed success; S11 activists because of a shift in focus in the media away from the economics of the WEF, and police for their exhibition of authority. These messages of success were carried by a media that, paradoxically, had constantly de-legitimised the three days of protest through simplistic representations of violence and of modes of activist organisation. There seemed room for little else during the ‘Siege of Melbourne’.
Damian Grenfell and Anita Lacey are doctoral students at Monash University