Doubtless the parents of children trampled by baton-wielding police will disagree, but the S11 protests were a clear victory for the campaign against the global free-market agenda. The World Economic Forum came to Crown Casino as a PR exercise in the integration of the Asia/Pacific economy; the three days of blockade, protest and carnival made the entire event a contested site and filled the newspapers and conversations of the city with discussions of globalisation, labour rights, Nike, the state and civil disobedience, trade unions and social movements. The conference met behind wire fences and two thousand police, its participants ferried in by helicopter, while sit-ins and sound systems, puppetry and protest mingled outside. Presumably the organisers had not wanted to evoke the fall of Saigon – yet the three days looked like nothing less than the final siege of an occupying power by a roused and united population.
S11 was the latest in a series of global protests that have become branded – J18, N30 – in such a way as to suggest that the series will be indefinite – S26 in Prague, O3 and so on. Part of a global movement whose ultimate potential cannot yet be accurately assessed, S11 marked the full entry of Australia to the round of global protest against neoliberalism. It was a strategic and tactical advance in the conduct of protest.
S11 was the first protest in this ‘series’ in which the decentralised affinity group structure meshed effectively with a tightly co-ordinated ‘marshalling’ structure throughout the protest. The J18 protests in London had been pseudo-affinity structured – a tight core group of long-term revolutionaries steering a European style ‘love parade’ into a violent protest. The Seattle N30 protest had a genuine affinity group hub-and-spokes organisation model, but this had limited its tactical effectiveness with the result that forces were split between blocking intersections and blockading the conference centre where the WTO was meeting.
Melbourne’s S11 was significant in that it was the first global action in which the protest worked effectively together without the need for either a single overarching organisation – such as People for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s – or without suffering a split between the command-structure organisations – such as the socialist groups – and the decentralised and participatory groups. That is not to say there was no friction. Many participants believed that the marshals were overstepping their defined role of keeping the crowd informed as to the balance of forces around the various entrances and exits, and were actively commanding. Several quit on Tuesday and those who remained on duty were largely from the socialist group ‘Red Bloc’.
Yet for all the dissatisfaction there was no collapse of protest self-discipline, or of the protest itself. The system of balancing forces around key gates, and of abandoning gates that could not be blockaded when numbers fell, was maintained. Confusion was minimised. Violent outbreaks by angered protestors was almost non-existent. Despite the usual mistrust between command-structure groups and decentralised groups, the marshalling system was largely adhered to.
This clear tactical advance on Seattle is partly due to the lesser degree of hyper-individualism of Australians (the affinity group model developed as a way of accommodating the fragmented nature of American identity politics). More importantly however, it is an indication that the global movement is dynamic – its strategy and tactics are developing, it is learning from itself.
The predictable response of the state has been one of violence – in this case, one that went beyond that legally sanctioned to the police force. The ‘backwardness’ of the Australian state in these matters clashed with the forwardness of the global protest movement – the result being baton charges against non-violent resistance. Meanwhile in the Czech republic, the government is preparing for S26 by establishing low-budget tent cities so that protestors arriving from all over the world have somewhere to stay. Yet Prague S26 may well be one of the last such events where protest is met with a measured and liberal state response. If the IMF meeting is seriously disrupted by protest the global elite will come down hard on Vaclav Havel’s hippie bullshit, and any state wanting to host these lucrative events will have to guarantee that it can make them run smoothly. S11 Melbourne was a harbinger of what can be expected in the near future, many times worse and with bullets not batons.
What will happen to the movement then is anyone’s guess. It will probably replay the sixties/seventies historical course and split into community organisation and armed struggle factions. It may be strengthened rather than weakened by the more naked display of state power that is on the way. But it is vital that protestors understand what we have lived through in the last two years – an Indian summer of permitted dissent, with winter moving in fast – and begin to think strategically about how they will respond to this.