S11: 'We made it work by all sticking together'

September 20, 2000
September 2000 World Economic Forum protest in Melbourne. Photo: Cameron Parker/Green Left.

MELBOURNE — The S11 protests against the World Economic Forum were a triumph for the Australian left. But it was a tough job to put them together and took enormous efforts of many different people from many different backgrounds.

The group which organised the blockade, the S11 Alliance, was symbolic of this difficult but ultimately productive diversity.

The group was a coalition of the major political forces to the left of the ALP, particularly the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, the progressive, activist environmental movement, especially Friends of the Earth, and a cross-section of independent left, green and progressive activists.

They were joined by a host of smaller left groups: the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), Socialist Alternative (SA), Workers' Power and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). Anarchist groups also came and went within the alliance.

Twenty-four hours after it was all over, Green Left Weekly held a round-table discussion with five of the S11 Alliance's blockade organisers about how they did it: JORGE JORQUERA, the Melbourne secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party and one of the chief spokespeople for the S11 Alliance; JACKIE LYNCH and ROB MILLER, two of the S11 Alliance's marshalling coordinators; and MARGARITA WINDISCH and JUSTINE KAMPRAD, who were blockade marshals. All five are DSP members.

Miller: The task of blockading was a complex one. We had 15 points around the casino to cover, over an area equivalent to two major city blocks, and the cops tried to break all of them at one point or another over the three days. The reason the conference organisers were forced to bring people in by river was because we were able to blockade those 15 entrances on the first day.

I was in the marshalling "communication base". It was a massive task. We had to have spotters at every point where there was a blockade.

Because there were also people running around crazy saying "this is happening here, this is happening there", the spotters at each point allowed us to confirm what was actually happening at any time.

There was cop movement all the time and all over the place. We prioritised where they were trying to bring buses in, and that's why we turned most of the [WEF delegates'] buses away. If we'd done otherwise, people would have been flying around all over the place and it wouldn't have been as effective.

Lynch: We put forward a position that we meet at the stage at 7am on the first day, and the alliance agreed that when we had enough people, a critical mass, the marshals would start to move people around to block the entrances. I was really surprised how well it worked.

Windisch: The idea of a central rallying point, where people could meet and from where we could lead people off, really worked because people were expecting the S11 Alliance to provide leadership and guidance about where they should go.

The stage and communications were absolutely crucial. Having Rob and Sarah [Roberts, another of the marshal coordinators] there at base meant that when the spotters were coming in with their information, we then had the stage to be able to announce that we needed a contingent to go to a certain area.

It also meant that there was a marshal right there to lead those volunteers off. Through the marshalling, we were able to keep the politics up and chant along the way and to boost people's morale.

Lynch: We had decided within the S11 Alliance to have a coordinating team of marshals, of which Rob and I were a part, along with three others. The majority of that committee were committed to building up mass blockades.

If we hadn't had walkie-talkies, and if we hadn't had a plan and maps so that for three days in a row we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, then we would have lost people.

The other big issue is that if we hadn't had marshalling, we would not have been able to coordinate first aid and legal resources, and we worked with those two important teams throughout the three days.

Jorquera: There were heaps of arguments within the alliance about how to make the thing work, but that's not really so surprising. The S11 Alliance was always a temporary, pragmatic agreement amongst the organised left. The debates really only came out in a substantive way during the action. They were played out in a street forum, rather than a committee forum.

There were only three main groups which worked to provide any leadership and coordination in this blockade: ourselves, Friends of the Earth, who were pivotal, and also the Socialist Party.

Many of the other groups, particularly the ultra-left anarchist and socialist groups, sought to promote spontaneity. By Monday midday, they were pitting themselves against the leaders who were emerging through the course of the day. All of these leaders in the end were opposing the actions of the ultra-left.

Miller: The fundamental dividing line was over the affinity group model. The people who supported that model believed that that was what made the Seattle protests successful — the model was basically spontaneous, unorganised; it stressed groups' "autonomy", with little coherent plan. The alternative, which members of the DSP and Resistance supported, was an overall organisation with a political focus and an agreed method of organising the blockade.

The sheer size and complexity of the task meant the autonomous affinity group approach was never going to work.

Many of those who subscribed to the affinity group model also had an idea that it meant not just a different way of blockading but also just doing something different to what everyone else was doing.

The blockade at Clarendon, for example, was at one stage viciously attacked, and a whole lot of people got injured. Half an hour later, rather than strengthening blockades which were still very weak, one of the affinity groups started going out onto Clarendon Street, blocking trams and trying to provoke fights with the cops.

I had to go out and say to these people, "Do you want to try to close down trams or do you want to stand with these people who are facing cops?". And they sheepishly went back into the blockade.

Lynch: What made those three days so successful was that we were so organised. I even heard an anecdote of one journalist who said, "I was in Seattle, you guys have it all over them, I could get in and out at will there". One of the Cuban international guests said a similar thing.

Jorquera: The other side of all this debate about tactics was all the negotiations that took place with Trades Hall to make sure their labour rights rally came to Crown Towers. Initially it was just going to stay on the north side of the river. Trades Hall was under huge pressure from [Labor Premier] Steve Bracks to distance itself from S11.

We'd stressed all along that an agreement with Trades Hall was important to the S11 Alliance. The fact the alliance was as organised as it was, that it had the stage, that it had some degree of direction over the blockade, helped immeasurably in our negotiations with [Trades Hall secretary] Leigh Hubbard, as did [Australian Manufacturing Workers Union Victorian secretary] Craig Johnston's explicit support for the blockade.

Trades Hall's public position in the end was, "We support the protests but not the blockade" — which should have been stronger and did get them in trouble with more militant unionists. But the labour rights rally did have a big impact on the way the second day panned out: it helped enormously and lifted morale after some pretty brutal treatment from police that morning. If they hadn't come over the river, that whole Tuesday could have been a bloodbath.

Kamprad: With 15 different points around the casino, all isolated from each other, the role of the marshals in facilitating a democratic decision-making process was really essential.

When the pickets were run in a democratic manner, even those who had formed affinity groups respected the decisions that were made. What set us apart was the seriousness with which we took the organisation of the blockades.

Lynch: The Kings Way bridge had been attacked all morning, and I went over to relieve the marshal who had been there. When I got there, Angela [Luvera], a Resistance organiser from Brisbane, was leading a picket, a gigantic picket across six lanes of traffic, and she had them chanting and cheering and singing songs.

It was probably one of my most scary experiences because we were waiting for the cops to attack at any moment. Angela and I had our backs to two lines of police, and everyone else was facing us and the police while chanting and singing. This was a typical line — we made it work by all sticking together and having solidarity with each other.

People were there for hours and hours. People would say to me, "I've been here since 7am. I'm going to sit down now." So we'd have a rest in a coordinated way — we'd get the first line to sit down, then 20 minutes later they'd stand up and the second line would sit down.

Kamprad: Marshals were conducting blockade training and encouraging people to stay together and not go off by themselves. My picket was brutally attacked on the Tuesday morning; several protesters were badly injured. Keeping everyone together really stopped people from panicking.

Miller: When we could start to see towards the end of the day that blockades were thinning out, and there were no reinforcements, the marshal coordinators would send around a couple of marshals to each site to motivate people to discuss whether they wanted to finish up or continue blockading, and let them make a decision whether to stay or go. And we'd leave them to have a discussion about what they wanted to do.

Jorquera: You could tell that the people who took our lead and appreciated it were those who had had some experience of working-class solidarity, it was so clear. When you went around and saw people who had been there the whole day, they weren't all the classic worker types, but they had some experience of working-class solidarity.

Certainly the Green Bloc [of Friends of the Earth activists and other environmentalists] fitted into this category — they just stood their ground, they knew that they were critical to a particular point, they didn't just run off and look for some action.

Windisch: When we put the proposals to the blockades to have a victory march on the final day, my experience was that people were waiting for somebody to come up with that proposal. People were saying, "Yes! This is exactly what we want to do."

I think it was partly because we had always motivated this action as a blockade, but also as a protest. We hadn't shut the forum down, but the main thing was to show our opposition to corporate tyranny, and to make it as hard as possible for the summit to go ahead. Most of the people were so happy when the "victory march" proposal came through.

Lynch: The success of the blockade depended a lot on the political alliances we had built up between ourselves, FOE and the Green Bloc, along with key independent activists, over many months. It did rely upon the level of authority which the marshals had won over the course of the blockade.

Miller: The march reflected the strength of the blockade. People all the way up Bourke Street were hoarse, chanting, "This is what democracy looks like".

Lynch: People told me that the "victory march" was the most political, revolutionary march they had ever been on.

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.