Why we must reclaim our right to protest at APEC

June 15, 2007

It has become clear in recent weeks the extent to which the NSW and federal governments want to block protests at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in September.

While NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma and PM John Howard insist that the extraordinary security arrangements (more than 3000 security officers) are needed to counter the so-called terrorist threat, NSW police minister David Campbell gave the game away when he told the Sydney Morning Herald on June 4 that police wanted to protect the international leaders from "violent protesters".

US President George Bush's appearance at APEC will certainly draw anti-war protesters, as well as those angry about inaction on global warming and the stifling of workers' rights. It remains to be seen to what extent the draconian new NSW police powers (see accompanying article) and the bipartisan discouragement of unions and others who have traditionally supported anti-war protests, impact on the size of the protests.

The Iemma government is keen to push through new police powers. It also wants residents to leave Sydney and stay out of the city centre, not just to avoid the flack from expected traffic congestion, but also to deter masses of ordinary people from joining the anti-APEC protests.

As well as the attendance at the summit of an array of war criminals, it seems the event will also be used by Howard to try to grandstand on climate change. Some APEC leaders will agree with the PM's claim that nuclear power is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the presence of Rio Tinto executives, among other corporate bosses, will make this summit a focus for climate and anti-nuclear activists, as well as anti-war campaigners.

The push to intimidate masses of people from joining protests is not new: Howard made a point of disparaging the massive Australia-wide pre-Iraq invasion protests in 2003, saying that 1 million people taking to the streets did not sway him in the slightest from deciding to go to war. Many interpreted these comments as meaning that protests, even massive ones, have no effect on his government and are therefore a waste of time.

While this conclusion is wrong, as the historical record shows, many are not yet convinced that Howard can be forced back — except at the ballot box. Unfortunately, this view is being encouraged by the ALP and, to some extent, the Greens.

The "don't protest, it doesn't work" line is now being used by our rulers to try to separate sentiments from action. The message is: "It's OK to disagree with the wars in the Middle East, so long as you don't try to do something about it — except at the ballot box."

Labor leader Kevin Rudd railed against the protesters who mobilised against US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Sydney earlier this year, describing them as "violent ferals". The police, who attacked the protesters and injured some, including a veteran activist who had to be taken to hospital, were praised for "doing their job".

Unsurprisingly, the pressure not to protest is finding expression in a section of the Stop Bush Coalition, the protest group in Sydney. The debates over tactics have revolved around whether it is indeed possible to organise a mass protest and, if so, how.

Resistance and Socialist Alliance activists in the coalition have argued that unless the protest organisers make clear our aim of a mass non-violent protest, we will have little chance of winning back some of the political ground from the bipartisan anti-protest position.

This has nothing to do with subservience to the state, as others have claimed. Rather, it is about subverting their feeble rationale and pointing squarely at the violence of the state, including the police force, and the government's intolerance of dissenting views.

There has been a lot of discussion about how, over 11 years, Howard has managed to so effectively silence dissent. One of the main reasons relates to the silence or complicity of the ALP. But where there has been a mass protest campaign, such as in the defence of workers' rights, it's been a completely different story.

We think that, despite the increasingly authoritarian political climate, we have a chance to win broad support among those concerned about restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to dissent.

Given the bipartisan support for the so-called anti-terror laws and the new APEC police laws, the protest organisers face very concrete challenges. Can we harness the widespread concern about the trampling of our democratic right to protest when the war criminals and climate vandals hit town?

This is, after all, what it means to stand in solidarity with the Iraqis, the Afghans, the prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay hell hole and many millions of others whose lives are being wrecked by the fake "war on terror".

The APEC protests will be part of the ongoing global resistance to the Australian rulers' support for Bush's global war on terror. We were told it would be "a war without end", so we have to be prepared for the long haul.

We need to reclaim our right to protest and make our views known about the real perpetrators of violence in the world today.

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