What tactics for the Stop Bush protest at APEC?

May 11, 2007

As PM John Howard prepares to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) in Sydney in September — to which US President George Bush and around 21 world leaders have been invited — a debate has opened over tactics for protests against the summit.

The Sydney Stop Bush Coalition, which has been meeting since late last year, had already decided to call for a mass rally and protest for September 8, the day Bush will address the summit. The rally's focus is to say no to the "war on terror", climate change and attacks on workers' rights.

At the April 30 Stop Bush Coalition meeting, members of the anarchist group Mutiny, the student-based Solidarity group and the International Socialist Organisation argued for, and won, a motion to remove the line "Join the peaceful protest against these warmongers" from a poster advertising the rally. The same meeting also reaffirmed that the Stop Bush Coalition was organising a peaceful mass rally.

In an open letter Mutiny circulated the same day, it argued that a call for peaceful protest represents "obedience" to the police and sides with the "repression of dissent". It said: "Our fear is that an assertion made now that the protests will be explicitly 'peaceful' will shut down the discussions that need to be had; that people will argue only that the protests should be 'peaceful' instead of accepting that people will organise in diverse ways."

Resistance, along with the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, opposed removing the reference to peaceful protest from the poster. A previous, much larger meeting of the Stop Bush Coalition had specifically decided to publicise the peaceful nature of the protest because of the recent police attacks on the right to protest and the government's "security" focus. We believe this is the best way of encouraging the range of people who oppose the war to come to a protest despite the govenment's security hype.

Resistance member and Stop Bush Coalition activist Raffaele Fantasia told Green Left Weekly that by asserting our right to organise a peaceful protest we are standing our ground in the face of police intimidation and media hysteria. "It helps make the point that it is the police and security services, and not the protesters, who are planning a confrontation in September", he said.

"The corporate media's lies about violent protestors and the need for massive security during APEC is aimed at undermining people's confidence to join protests against the war makers. While the left knows that violence by the state is the real threat, and that non-violence is not always an applicable tactic, this is not a widely-held view today. Therefore, precisely in response to the state's attempt to intimidate us from protesting when Bush comes to town, we need to try to boost the confidence of those who are thinking about joining the protest. To do that, asserting that we want to have a peaceful protest is a necessary tactic against the state's intimidation."

The debate about what to put in the publicity indicates that there are differences about tactics. While Mutiny and Solidarity have put different arguments, their view that it is not correct to signal the peaceful nature of the protest perhaps indicates a lack of confidence in being able to pull off a huge mobilisation against Bush and Howard.

In a May 4 statement on the Bush protests, Solidarity writes: "Already there has been some debate about protest tactics for APEC — despite being in no position to have an analysis of the balance of forces, composition of the crowd, nature of police mobilisation etc which would inform any decision about how to relate to police."

"This avoids discussing reality", Fantasia continued. "We know from the numerous media reports, and our own experience with police violence during US Vice-President Dick Cheney's visit to Sydney, that the NSW police are preparing to pull out all stops to try to isolate us during APEC.

"Why else is there a special public holiday and the premier calling on people to leave town for the long weekend? While Morris Iemma wants to avoid complaints about the security disruption, he is also keen to isolate anti-war sentiment from action. This makes it all the more important for anti-war activists to link up with unionists, green activists, students, churches and others to build a massive demonstration that will exert some political pressure on the APEC leaders.

"The only way to ensure the broadest participation of those who oppose Bush and Howard's war policies, who want immediate action on climate change, and who are struggling for workers' rights, is to take into account both the politics and the form of the rally.

"When Cheney visited Sydney we did not remain 'obedient'. In fact, we confidently asserted our democratic right to hold, not one, but two peaceful street marches despite the state's attempts to stop us", Fantasia concluded.

[Simon Cunich is the Sydney Resistance organiser.]

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