Anti-'terror' hype and the criminalisation of dissent

July 19, 2008

In November 2006, the G20 — the finance ministers from the 20 biggest economies — plus representatives from the World Bank, met in Melbourne. They were met with protests.

On November 17, a couple of smallish groups occupied the offices of Defence Force recruiting, Tenix, a military contractor, and branches of ANZ Bank, which is profiteering from the war in Iraq. For these occupations — which lasted less than 15 minutes and involved nothing more than red glitter and water pistols — people have been charged with "aggravated burglary". This is a new and very serious charge for what is a fairly common action.

The following day, as is standard for any meeting of the powerful these days, the city was blocked off. Barricades and police prevented anyone from going anywhere near the G20 meeting. Indeed, the police handed out little cards suggesting everyone go and protest in a park.

Thousands defied this to protest in the streets of central Melbourne. A few hundred people diverged from the main rally, dismantled some barricades, and smashed the windows of a police van.

Speaking personally, I can say that I was happy the police van was damaged. What we know of the so called "anti-terror" laws and how they've been applied, helps explain just one reason why people are justifiably angry at law enforcement institutions. That's not to say that the protest was a perfect model, but I'm broadly in sympathy with the politics of confronting the barricades.

That said, there were also people who have been outspoken in their solidarity from the start because they recognise that the police response has been out of all proportion. They, like me, see it as an attack on progressive movements and on all of our abilities to protest, whatever tactics we chose.

Opposing real violence

People came to the G20 protest for a variety of reasons including opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, neoliberalism and neocolonialism. People oppose the policies of the G20 states because they create war and poverty and perpetuate violence, which puts a couple of broken windows into perspective.

Arrests began the day after these G20 protests, and continued for more than a year, the most recent being last December.

The charges are unprecedented and include "riot", "affray", "aggravated burglary" and "conduct endangering life". The severity of these charges is part of the attack.

Currently, Akin Sari is in Barwon prison serving a 28-month sentence, which he's appealing against. Among the general media hype about the G20 protests, Akin was singled out for special condemnation and racist vilification. The Children's Court cases are finished. Of those going through adult court, 10 people agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges, which leaves 13 people who will go to trial to fight the charges in mid 2009.

The establishment media is not generally friendly to the left, but their campaign on this took things to another level. The police released photos of "persons of interest" (with no word on why they were interesting), which were published across the media in an attempt to isolate and demonise individuals.

The arrests in Sydney are an interesting example of how the attack on protests around the G20 and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings came together under the over-arching "war on terror".

Taskforce Salver

Taskforce Salver, set up to catch people after the G20 protest, released some of its notes during the committal hearing. We now know that, when organising these arrests, the police called Christopher Nicholson in the APEC taskforce who suggested that the Sydney arrests be coordinated through either the Serious Crimes Unit or the Counter Terrorism Squad.

Detective Hill from Taskforce Salver called the NSW counter-terrorism squad, but the cop he talked to said that he didn't think that those arrests fell under its brief.

Yet when the cops knocked on — or kicked in — our friends' doors at 6am in March 2007, officers from Taskforce Salver, the APEC taskforce and the counter terrorism squad were present. Someone, perhaps the APEC taskforce, was able to convince the counter terrorism unit that this was an appropriate way to spend its time.

The other connection with the APEC security operation is the fact that all of the G20 arrestees, along with one lone Sydney anti-war activist, were the first to be put on the APEC "excluded persons" list. As all, except the five living in Sydney, were at the time prohibited by bail conditions from leaving Victoria (they were already banned from coming within hundreds of kilometres of the Sydney CBD "restricted zone") this didn't make any sense except to provide a media scapegoat.

It's clear that these cases are political trials. This criminalisation of dissent isn't that new, but there has been an intensification and militarisation of policing: from the APEC security zone and the "anti-terror" arrests to cops and troops being sent into Aboriginal communities or our Pacific neighbours to deal with alleged social problems.

The G20 cases are designed to feed a climate of fear, and as a crackdown on anything perceived of as dissent. The outcome of the G20 cases will affect our abilities to resist and to take action for what we believe in — whether that be through direct action, civil disobedience, or by marching in the streets.

The campaign against the G20 protesters is about intimidating people out of speaking, being active and dissenting. Unless we are prepared to speak up in defence of protesters, we leave individuals isolated and alone. We have started to see some support from activists, organisations and unions. We need to continue building the political campaign against the charges: one thing we're asking is for unions and organisations to pass motions of support.

Alongside political solidarity, the G20 protesters need practical and financial support for their legal campaign. Those fighting the charges in court are, in many ways, fighting for the rest of us as well.

[Abridged from a speech delivered to a June 23 Sydney Stop the War Coalition forum on the "anti-terror" laws. While I had input from others, the opinions expressed aren't necessarily those of arrestees or others in the solidarity campaign. Visit or email . Donations can be made to: "G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network", Melbourne University Credit Union Limited, cuscau2sxxx (only if transferring from overseas), BSB 803-143 A/C number 13291 (all transfers).]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.