Obscuring the violence inherent in the system

Friday, November 24, 2006

More than three thousand people had a somewhat surreal experience on November 18. They attended a rally, called by the Melbourne Stop the War Coalition and Stop G20, to oppose the genocide by poverty being promoted by the finance ministers' meeting, and the warfare that makes the corporate plunder of the Third World possible.

They listened to speakers from the Koori and Muslim communities and the trade union and anti-war movements, all of whom passionately and militantly opposed what the G20 stood for, and demanded change not charity. They then took their message to the streets in a loud and vibrant march that ended at the barricades erected by police near the Grand Hyatt Hotel where a street carnival was held.

What made the experience surreal was turning on the evening news, or opening the next day's papers, to see what coverage the protest had received. They were confronted by scenes quite different from anything they'd witnessed at the rally, involving people in strange white outfits and masks battling it out with police.

These people, who carried flags identifying themselves as the "Arterial Block", had made a cameo appearance at the rally, and had reappeared at the street carnival calling on protesters to join them in trying to get closer to the Grand Hyatt.

Reaching another barricade they launched a rather ineffectual assault on the assembled riot police, arming themselves with empty plastic milk crates and garbage. A couple of hundred protesters had followed them: some cheered them on, others complained that they were detracting from the protest, while most just bemusedly watched the spectacle.

Failing to break the police line, the Arterial Block charged off in the other direction, presumably to try and reach the back of the hotel. They failed to do this, but did succeed in smashing the windows of a police truck.

These events, which were somewhat peripheral to the protest, dominated the media coverage.

That a large, peaceful protest had happened received just one sentence in the Sunday Age, and no mention in the Sunday Herald-Sun, which instead devoted five pages to hysteria about protester violence. The media thus not only avoided mentioning any of the issues raised, they used the opportunity to launch a witch-hunt about the threat posed by protesters. Scenes of the police truck windows being smashed were repeated endlessly. One TV station played a short clip of Stop the War speaker and Socialist Alliance candidate in the Victorian elections Margarita Windisch urging protesters to take their message to the streets, then cut to scenes of the Arterial Block clashing with police. Media pundits demanded that police be given more powers, with the Herald-Sun's resident reactionary Andrew Bolt complaining that the cops had become "girly"!

More sinister was the campaign launched by the Herald-Sun and the commercial TV channels demanding that the protesters be identified. The Herald-Sun did this with a photomontage of Arterial Block people clashing with cops, and other protesters just chanting or standing around. Given those who weren't involved in the clashes were not wearing masks, they are in more danger of being dobbed in.

For those who have witnessed police horse and baton charges for such "riotous" behaviour as sitting in the road or standing with linked arms, the initial response, or lack of it, from the police was surprising.

However, once the media disappeared this changed and police violence continued throughout the weekend. A concert was attacked on the evening of November 18 and an attempted occupation of the Melbourne Museum, which G20 delegates were visiting, was baton charged the next day. Un-uniformed and unidentified police grabbed people at random in the vicinity of counter-G20 meetings at RMIT. Monash University student Akin Sari, who police accuse of smashing the cop truck windows, was remanded in custody until his trial next February.

On the scale of violent behaviour, throwing milk crates and garbage and smashing a couple of windows is minimal, particularly compared to the violence being promoted at the G20 summit. To take just one example: 9 million children die each year through lack of access to clean water and medical services as a direct result of debt relief programs that demand privatisation of utilities and slashing of health budgets. Representing the IMF at G20 was Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the war on Iraq in which more than 650,000 Iraqis have been killed so far.

However, this does not alter the fact that the behaviour of the Arterial Block was extremely problematic. While the corporate media will always downplay the message of political protests, the Arterial Block's apolitical rampage played right into their hands. Their actions were elitist in that they showed total contempt towards thousands of protesters, simply using the protest, which they played no role in building, as a platform from which to "fuck things up".

In the lead-up to next year's APEC summit when George Bush will be in Sydney, the question of the right to protest and police violence at political actions needs to be taken seriously. Pelting cops with garbage when they were not attacking anyone obscures the violence of the police. Furthermore, it plays directly into the hands of those wishing to increase police powers and stifle dissent. Already there have been proposals to arm Victorian police with Taser stun-guns and Glock semiautomatics.

The Arterial Block members might identify with those who fought back against police in Redfern, Palm Island, Macquarie Fields or Paris. However, all of those were spontaneous mass uprisings resulting from people dying at the hands of police. A small hard-core group, dressed in a way to suggest that they are looking for trouble, and substituting themselves for the masses, is quite different.

From police violence against working class and minority youth, to the ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples, from the brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the silent genocide-by-poverty of neo-liberal globalisation, the capitalist system is based on violence. The media's role is to cover this up.

There are "anti-poverty campaigners" who knowingly assist in this, such as multi-millionaire rock star Bono, with his praise of rich country governments alternating with groveling pleas for them to be a little more charitable.

Those in the Arterial Block, however, say they wish to challenge the system. Unfortunately their apolitical and narcissistic fetshisation of being "hard core", and the consequent disdain for other protesters, means they end up assisting the media and politicians in obscuring the real causes of violence.

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