Protesters Occupy TPPA conference
Writer and Occupy Melbourne activist Wil Wallace took part in a March 1 protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a new free trade agreement currently under negotiation between nine nations, including Australia and the United States. Wallace’s account of the protest is below.
* * *
It was a cold and wet morning, the sky grey and the sun hardly even up as activists started to flow to the entrance of the Melbourne Convention Centre on March 1. Though many were wearing bleary faces there was an air of nervous excitement as numbers grew and they became eager for the day’s action to begin.
We were there to protest the 11th round of secret negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), conducted by delegates from at least nine countries.
The secrecy surrounding the agreement is one of the more worrying aspects of such a pervasive and invasive agreement. All of what has come to light about the discussions so far has been facilitated by leaks.
More worryingly, the nine governments involved in the discussions have already agreed that the background documents will not be released for four years after the deal is reached or fails, giving them a chance to avoid scrutiny if they lose power in the meantime.
To call the TPPA a free-trade agreement would be to gloss over some of the more nuanced elements of the agreement. New Zealand-based TPP Watch labels the TPPA a “Bill of Rights for Foreign Investors” as it is more aimed at preserving the financial and business interests of multinational corporations.
The United States has prompted a lot of concern in its efforts to become a signatory partner to the TPPA as many of the conditions it is seeking to have met are seen as denigrating state sovereignty to the benefit of corporations.
One of the conditions they are trying to impose would allow pharmaceutical companies to secretly sue governments that produce generic medicines, as it would undercut their profit making ability. If this is passed it would spell an end to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in Australia and similar schemes elsewhere.
The US is also seeking to end the quarantining of genetically modified plants, to expand
censorship and monitoring of the internet against piracy and to create criminal punishments for copyright infringement.
Preparation for the action had been kept tightly under wraps to prevent any pre-emptive action being taken against us. I think a lot of us who were waiting outside the Convention Centre that morning were a little unsure of what was going to happen.
The crowd was made up of the “Mock and Awe squad” holding cardboard shields painted with slogans and pictures, Occupiers and trade unionists. The protest also included a “freegan” kitchen team and a media team who were busy live streaming the action to the internet and calling local news outlets to tell them what was going on.
One of the media team, Nick Carson, said that when he called Melbourne ABC radio host Jon Faine’s producer to speak on air he had to convince them that the fact not many listeners knew about the TPPA was precisely a reason to speak about it, not to ignore it!
As I scanned the crowd, I noticed that a few faces that I had been expecting to see weren’t there; it was only a little while later that I realised that a few of the suits on the other side of the glass wall were fellow Occupiers who had cunningly snuck past security and the masses of police by wearing business attire.
Three Occupiers had locked on to each other with thumb-cuffs around a concrete pillar and had anti-TPPA signs attached to their backs while four others provided legal, medical and emotional support. The dozens of police officers and security staff finally realised what was going on.
As the police started to try to negotiate with the locked-on Occupiers, the crowd outside was addressed by comrades who reminded us of what the TPPA was trying to achieve and of our common link as victims of the TPPA with the Victoria Police officers (many of whom expressed their support throughout the day).
Using a phone and the People’s Mic we were even able to hear from Sam, one of the Occupiers locked-on inside.
I was later told by one of the Occupiers inside that the glass wall made it almost impossible to hear what was going on outside, but those on the inside did hear us chanting and were happy to see Barack Obama arrive in zombie form outside the window.
Eventually the police concluded that Sam, Sean and Kev were not going to comply and so called in the Police Search and Rescue team (SRT) to remove them from the building. When they arrived the SRT quickly pulled out angle grinders, blankets, face-shields and earmuffs and explained that they were going to cut through the thumb-cuffs to break the lock-on.
We were very critical of the decision to use angle-grinders as they posed a serious risk to those wearing the cuffs — it would have been far more appropriate to use a hacksaw and take longer to remove the cuffs. Footage released by Sean shows that the Occupiers were in pain during the removal of the cuffs and that one of the Occupiers suffered a mild asthma attack during the process.
When the option was given, Kev chose to leave the lock-on so that he could get medical attention. The other two protesters decided to stay on. They were arrested for trespass and later removed to the basement. Eventually they emerged and were reunited with us on the outside. Their only punishment was a ban from approaching the Convention Centre.
All three suffered burns to their hands from the heat of the cuffs during removal and Kev required additional attention to an injury to his hand. That having been said, when they were all released they were in good spirits and said that overall they had been treated well.
While the protest didn’t manage to disrupt the conference entirely, we did make it clear to delegates that the people were speaking out against them.
One of the delegates from New Zealand was confronted by several New Zealanders who had crossed the Tasman to protest the TPPA. I also noticed that one of the Malaysian delegates would not leave the Hilton lobby while we were protesting.
The TPPA conference will continue until March 9. Stay tuned for more information.
[For more articles from Wil Wallace visit redSTACHE].