Lessons from the APEC protest victory


In defiance of the biggest "security" campaign ever seen in Australia, aimed at intimidating and deterring people from protesting at APEC, up to 15,000 people joined the "Stop Bush — Make Howard History" protest in Sydney on September 8. The rally was a huge victory — a mass demonstration of our collective strength on the streets that Howard and Bush can only pretend to ignore.

The spirit of the rally reflected a determined demand to stop the war, for real action on climate change, and to defend workers' rights, regardless of who wins the federal elections. Howard will remember APEC as the summit that was meant to bolster his domestic support but failed. And the NSW Labor government will regret that "violence" has only been used to describe police behaviour at the rally, not protesters.

As well as the September 8 rally, the national student Walkout Against George on September 5 was a significant victory. Hundreds of mostly high school students around the country left school to attend protests. This took place despite a concerted campaign of intimidation targeting students, by the police, education departments, schools and the media. The walkout, initiated by Resistance, shows the anger young people have, and their determination to stop Bush and Howard's policies, as well as the role students can play in helping to give others the confidence to take action.

So how did we win these victories, and what are some of the lessons we learnt through building the protest?

Resistance saw the task of organising a protest against Bush's visit for the APEC summit as a key priority for the left in Australia. We assessed that the presence of Bush, the world's leading war criminal, would provide a focal point to turn anti-war sentiment into action. We argued that a mass protest, which we were confident was possible, could help broaden and rebuild the anti-war movement and that it would require significant activist resources, time and energy to organise.

Resistance took the position that a focus on Bush was important and that the protest should also place clear demands on the Australian government: to withdraw troops from Iraq, to implement real solutions to climate change and to reverse the attacks on workers' rights. These demands have the support of the majority of people in Australia: they have mobilised hundred of thousands in the last few years and the September 8 rally shows that they were the main issues around which people were motivated to protest. A protest focused simply on APEC as a neoliberal institution would not have produced such a broad and strong rally.

The tactic Resistance supported for the campaign was a mass, peaceful protest. We argued in the Sydney Stop Bush Coalition that publicity material should make clear our intention to hold a peaceful protest. This, we argued, helped make the case that the real threat of violence was from federal and state governments. It was aimed at removing the barriers to building the broadest possible protest that the media and government tried to create.

Resistance is not a pacifist organisation. We reject the idea that non-violence is the only tactic that can be used in the battle against oppression. For example, we support the right of Iraqis to resist the US-led occupation by any means necessary. For Resistance the question was what tactics would mobilise the greatest number of people, assert our democratic right to protest, and help inspire the greatest number of people to be involved in sustained political campaigns beyond APEC?

An important part of the campaign was a defense of the right to protest. At every point the Stop Bush Coalition made clear its opposition to the special police powers that were being enforced during APEC as an attack on civil liberties and an attempt to undermine people's confidence to protest. The mood of the rally demonstrated a defiance of the intimidation and a rejection of the police attempts to deny the right to protest.

Resistance argued that the organising coalition should indicate that we were not planning a confrontation with the police, to ensure the greatest number of people would feel confident to join the rally. We publicly defended the initial proposed march route that entered the declared zone, which was an important challenge to the police strategy. When the Supreme Court ruled against this route we argued for a tactical compromise to accept an alternative route (the route taken by the rally on the day). We argued that this would help make clear that the rally was going to march a route on which it was unlikely there would be a confrontation with police.

Resistance supported a "sit-down" at the protest as a symbol of our opposition the police lock down of the streets and restrictions on our right to march. Resistance members, Socialist Alliance members and other activists from the Stop Bush Coalition helped to lead sit-downs that were most successful at the front but extended throughout the march. While the mass nature of the rally made it difficult for the sit-down to be carried out en masse as the organisers had hoped, the whole demonstration was one of defiance of the police-state measures enforced during APEC. This defiance that the rally itself represented will make it difficult for the state to carry out such a campaign in the future.

As a result of the September 8 victory, the anti-war movement is now in a stronger position for the future. The tactics employed along the way aimed at building the biggest and broadest possible rally were central to its success. This perspective of mass action — involving as many people as possible in opposing and organising against the war — is the only way that anti-war consciousness can spread so far and so deep within society that the government, regardless of who is leading it, will have to act. Resistance will continue to argue for actions that seek to mobilise as many of the anti-war majority in this country as possible and that will build on the successes of the September 8 rally.