Protesters' defiance of the APEC security crackdown was clear from early on the morning of September 8 when the NSW police drove their shiny new $600,000 black water cannon, with sirens blazing, past us at Sydney Town Hall. We whistled, gave it the finger, and continued preparing for the biggest anti-war protest in Sydney in more than a year.
Braving thousands of police, Tactical Response Group officers, snipers, undercover cops, mobile prison cells and a massive NSW police and government propaganda campaign to demonise us as potential "terrorists", some 10,000-15,000 people defied the hype and took part in an historic protest against US President George Bush and PM John Howard and the policies they represent.
The atmosphere was electric: we had taken over a chunk of the CBD. As contingents from the Maritime Union of Australia and the Fire Brigade Employees Union, as well as other unionists, marched up from Goulburn Street, young radicals — led by resistance, which had organised a student walk-out three days ealier — arrived from Belmore Park and queer and anti-nuclear blocs assembled. The crowd streamed in from Town Hall station and we had suddenly taken over George Street.
The scene was slightly surreal, our numbers swelling next to rows and rows of blue jump-suited riot police (many not wearing their obligatory identification badges). The city had been shut down for APEC and we, the people, had taken over the streets.
Given the massive security hype from Howard and the NSW Labor government, why did so many people defy the crackdown? Answering this gives a clue about the strategies required for the movement to take advantage of the renewed confidence generated by the protest's success and to broaden the anti-war movement.
Firstly, we didn't want to miss the chance to protest Bush's war on Iraq, and the US's failure to do anything about runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, we couldn't miss the opportunity to take it up to a hated Australian PM — and the globally despised US president — especially on the eve of a federal election.
But there was also the growing scepticism, which quickly turned to anger, over Sydney's APEC "security" lock-down. When the five-kilometre long, 2.8-metre high security fence was built, cordoning off the northern part of the CBD, the Opera House and the Domain, people were outraged.
For many, the lock-down of Sydney became a metaphor for the trampling of our rights and our freedom of movement and expression during Howard's 11 years in power. This is what turned an expected 5000-strong protest into something up to three times that size. The Chaser's brilliant stunt two days before the protest revealed that the police-state operation was aimed more at shielding Bush and Co. from peaceful protesters than protecting them from "terrorist attacks".
The NSW and federal police operation, along with the US security shoot-to-kill policy, had completely over-reached. But this has been entirely lost on NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione, NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Howard, as they continue to praise the police, including the goons who violently arrested a father on his way to eat yum cha with his son, threw a freelance photographer onto the ground, and snatched a number of activists from a cafe after the rally had ended.
People were so incensed that their rights were being trampled on that even normally non-protest-goers, such as the managing director of the Tourism and Transport Forum, came along to accompany his mum who was determined to attend. Christopher Brown told ABC Radio that he felt "totally disenfranchised" by the security blitzkreig, and that the police response was "disproportionate". "I certainly don't blame the security forces for putting the request in for everything", he said, adding, "What I find hard to believe is that somebody said yes to everything they asked for".
Howard was banking on an APEC electoral bounce, but he didn't get it. Pro-Howard corporate mouthpieces, such as the Daily Telegraph, were gearing up for screaming headlines and dramatic front-page pictures of "violent ferals" being kept in line by the trusty NSW police the day after the protest, but they didn't get them. The ruling elites needed violence to justify the millions they had spent on security. But they didn't get it, and Howard and Iemma look a lot weaker as a result.
The peaceful, good-humoured and chaotic nature of the Stop Bush protest also killed off the terrorist security scare as a potential federal election winner. That scare campaign began to unravel with the scandalous detention and deportation of Mohammad Haneef, and it totally came apart during APEC.
People's confidence and morale that we can beat Howard has been lifted, and it's having a knock-on effect to other movements. That's a massive political victory for our side, and it shows that even after 11 years of Howard's crusade against our rights, many have not lost sight of the need to organise and fight together.
[Pip Hinman was part of the Stop Bush Coalition, which organised the September 8 protest and is standing for the Socialist Alliance in the federal election in the NSW seat of Grayndler.]