SPENT a few hours in the middle of Sydney today. My response to the politely worded signs on public transport—they say something like “To reduce inconvenience, try to reduce trips to the city during this time—was a combination of sincere political disapproval of the fact that between these signs and the ‘protesters are going to be violent! violent! violent!’ that’s been coming out of the prime minister’s mouth and repeated in the media ad infinitum, public space was being swiftly made a space of (more) tenuous safety and fear, and a completely juvenile ‘Fuck you, buddy!’ I went in partly to satisfy my juvenile urges, partly to see exactly what the city was like, and mostly to meet up with a friend who works at one of the truly hideous insurance-style companies or something down near-ish Circular Quay for lunch. I caught the train in, and was surprised at the number of people on it. But in the city was strange – the QVB (which for those who don’t know it is a large, old, fancy-shmance kind of shopping centre right in the middle of the city, with designerwear available on the higher floors, leadlight in the windows, patterned tiled floor and a bizarre clock thing) was much quieter than usual, and the combined absence of store lights shining out of windows into the main thoroughfare made it much duskier than usual inside (and amusingly though unsurprisingly a bit more pleasant for it!). I bought a coffee (Bacio’s coffee, for my money, is the only decent coffee to be had in the inner city—that I’ve found, anyway—which is why I’m regularly tempted to move to Melbourne and spend so much time in the Inner West) and decided to walk down to where I was meeting Sam, since I had the time.
Of course, it promptly started raining. But it was strange, as I made my way through the Myer Centre and bought an umbrella on Pitt St… the combination of shops being closed and the far fewer people than usual made even this shopping bit of the city feel much much darker, and really dead. It only got weirder as I wandered further into the business section toward Circular Quay. I’ve never seen so little traffic in there, and there were even a couple of self-important siren moments from police on motorbikes (I couldn’t help thinking that seriously, wherever they were going, there wasn’t really anyone who needed to be warned! The streets were practically empty!) There were entire streets with no cars, because they’ve been prohibited in the ‘restricted area’ (which is apparently where I was), the vast majority of the occasional shops were closed, and there were only a few people wandering the streets. But in front of almost every building stood a security guard or two, looking incredibly bored in most cases. One of them said to me, “Hey, you’re not working today, are you?” “Oh, no,” I said, “Just meeting a friend for lunch.” “Not much open today,” he said with a big grin. “No, I know, but hopefully we’ll find something.” The exchange felt odd—the inner city really isn’t the space where these kinds of friendly nothings usually happen. And especially not with people who are explicitly there to help guard against the expected property damage those ‘crazy protesters’ will, naturally, of course, cause…
It got more bizarre as I got closer to Circular Quay. I hadn’t really thought much about the logistics of the infamous Wall, but as it turns out, the main thoroughfare into the… I don’t actually know what it’s called… the ultra-restrictive area, down by Circular Quay, seems to be Philip Street. This means that for a few blocks before the actual area we’re not allowed into, there’s fences running along the edge of the pavement, preventing anyone unwanted from getting in with the traffic. Each of these sections can be closed off into individual little chicken runs, and they are thoroughly guarded by police (one baby-faced police officer looking rather stressed about directing traffic.) There’s even a very exciting LED sign which tells everyone that the right lane is the ‘vehicle search’ lane, and Channel 9 and Laurie Oakes (so Sam told me, I don’t really watch commercial news) taking full advantage of the police cars+famous fence+helpful LED sign+entrance to ultra-restricty area to sensationalise.
And yes, Sam and I had enormous difficulty finding lunch, and wound up in the trough below Myer (which was much less trough-like today thanks to the much reduced crowds). Leaving the city proved more difficult: the bus stops along the main street, George St, were all closed and the signs a bit useless for where I was headed (“Where the fuck does the 412 go from?” Careful reading of sign. “It’s not on here. Awesome. That’s right. Doesn’t exist. Stupid APEC. Stupid sign.” Apparently the political is not just personal, but petulant! It took me 40 minutes to get to Newtown, damn the ridiculous reduction of services which has nothing to do with anything but discouraging people from going into the city, I swear!) I heard a couple of older women reading one of the ‘This is a Restricted Area’ signs, and saying to each other, “Well, we just have to get to our bus, so we need to cross the road…” They were so clearly ever so slightly annoyed and somewhat anxious that they were doing something wrong in just crossing George Street. Ugh.
It would seem that most of Sydney, then, took the approved option, and opted out. Lots of me thinks this is a good plan—if you don’t have to work, then why would you?—but I was a little horrified at how few people were in the inner city especially on a public holiday when people usually make the most of the day off to hang out with friends and family and go and eat and shop in the city or have picnics at the Botanic Gardens (closed, of course!). It would seem that either people were willing to stay out of the city because they were requested, or they were vaguely scared. I saw a few people who were part of the APEC contingent (with special tags on their backpacks and accents), and it felt very odd that this quiet, quiet city was the sense they were getting of Sydney. I wonder how many of them have seen the campaigns to keep people away, from the public holiday, the TV and other media ads, the police statements to the media to John Howard’s ‘best foot forward’ and ‘scary scary protesters’ lines… It demonstrated incredibly clearly how much control fear can grant.
Or that’s how I saw it. We’ll see how tomorrow is…. For those sweethearts out there who’re worried about my physical health, don’t stress, I’m not planning on protesting in quite the usual way (still being a bit careful with myself after my clumsiness earlier this year led to the expense of a broken tooth). There’s another event organised by Greenpeace I’m attending—more focussed on discussion of what kinds of decisions are being made at APEC, and a fair way away from where the action’s going to be. I might poke my head out just to see how big the protest itself is, but that’ll be about it—I’m just intrigued to see whether the majority of people have been scared off by the fear-mongers, or whether my irritation has affected others so deeply they’re willing to risk getting a bit broken to articulate their right to dissent… How much will they tolerate?