BY SARAH PEART & SEAN WALSH
MELBOURNE — In scenes reminiscent of the police violence at the S11 protests last September, 250 police officers, including 10 on horseback, assaulted and dispersed a crowd of several hundred protesters peacefully blockading the city store of clothing giant Nike.
The June 1 protest marked the 10th consecutive Friday night on which protesters had gathered in Swanston Street in the middle of Melbourne to protest the company's use of sweatshop labour — and this time police, who heavily outnumbered protesters, were determined to prevent it going ahead.
Police ordered demonstrators to cease their blockade or face assault but then proceeded to charge into the crowd when it stopped blockading the store entrance and instead gathered on Swanston and Bourke Streets.
One large group of protesters were trapped between a parked police van and a line of officers. Those believed to be protest organisers, or who had been the most vocal at previous blockades, were individually picked out and arrested, while megaphones were confiscated in an effort to break down protesters' lines of communication.
When it became clear that the police were massing for a second assault, demonstrators decided to continue the protest on the footpath. When police officers then told them that, if they didn't disperse altogether, they would be forcibly removed, the protesters decided to withdraw, marching to nearby RMIT for a debrief.
Five people in total were taken into custody and charged with obstructing police officers and disturbing the peace. They were released but are unable to enter the Melbourne central business district. One activist was told that they could not attend any demonstration in Victoria.
Anti-Nike protester and Melbourne Resistance organiser Fred Fuentes commented "The action of the police was absolutely outrageous. The whole thing resembled a military operation, with protesters lying on the ground being crushed as police forced people back."
While shaken, the protesters have vowed not to be intimidated and have decided that they will protest again on June 8. They have called for solidarity protests in other cities around Australia.
The assault is the most serious in an escalating campaign by police to stop the weekly blockades. On May 11, one protester was dragged inside the store and beaten. Repeatedly asked if he was planning to come back the following Friday, he was hit in the face each time he said "yes".
On May 4, Melbourne City Council officers, acting in consultation with police, issued a $500 fine to one activist for handing out an anti-Nike flyer in breach of council by-laws. Others were threatened with fines if they too didn't stop handing out the leaflets.
So far unable to daunt protesters with violence and threats, representatives of Nike have written to protest organisers requesting a meeting to discuss "any reasonable means whereby Nike would respect your right to peacefully protest and you would respect Nike's right to trade".
Protesters have rebuffed the advance, stating simply that their blockade will cease once the clothing and footwear behemoth signs the Homeworkers Code of Practice, designed to protect the rights of textile industry outworkers, and becomes an accredited No Sweat label producer.
The protest group is also demanding the company recognise trade union rights in its Third World factories and provide a livable income for its workers, and that it call for the Melbourne City Council to repeal by-laws used against protesters.
One of the most high profile companies in the world, the clothing empire has become a prominent target of anti-corporate protest groups worldwide, who point out that workers in factories in Vietnam, Indonesia and other poor countries are paid as little as US$2.26 a day for items that can retail for as much as US$100.
Nike has made major efforts to convince its critics that it is changing its work practices, but a report issued by US-based watchdog group Global Exchange in May found that the company had lived up to virtually none of its promises on wages, work conditions, child labour, union rights or company transparency.