ES, I lied. This morning I got up and suddenly felt like going to the protest after all. The whole idea of being intimidated by the potential behaviour of other protesters as it was being exaggerated by the media and police and government was too much. I wanted some way of staying further away so I could have some space to assess, but once I got to Central, where I was meeting up with friends (we had been planning on going to the Greenpeace/NGO Media Centre), it seemed it wasn’t just me who had had a change of heart. So we just jumped on a train for one stop.
It started on the train. We jumped into a carriage with two police men, and three yoof activisty types who had two painted barrels with not much in them. Apparently the police felt that it was necessary to not just go through the barrels, but have one of the guys open out the banner that they had. Yes, kids, this is where bombs are hidden. The terrifying potency of words. (Or tomato sauce…)
It was extremely strange. We arrived, along with a fair number of other people, and headed up the stairs from Town Hall station, the ones that come out on the corner. Coming out, I was struck by, first, the row of police buses lined up on Park St to block off George St, the QVB and half of York St. Two helicopters overhead. There were a few people gathered near the statue of the Queen, apparently watching. The actual crowd of protesters were mostly out the front of the town hall, and around in the Square next to it. Bizarrely, along the edge of the pavement on Park St, a row of police officers stood, an arm’s length from each other. We were looking around, trying to decide where to head, when one of them suddenly said, “In or out. That’s it. In or out. Once you’re in, you can’t get out.” Belligerence embodied. Lovely.
So we headed into the crowd, bantering about the state of exclusion that was being produced by their line. Also, bizarrely, it struck me that the protesters were being marked as entirely distinct from the ‘spectators’ who were standing happily on the other side of Druitt/Park St. ‘Pick. Take on an identity we’ve already framed for you (as violent).’ It was the usual protest crowd, really, except for this barricade of police keeping everyone off Druitt/Park St. (This was particularly weird because the new and revised and police-OK’d route was along Park St.) We had lost one of our group, so we called, and he came up to the line of police officers, about to join us, when two of them slammed up their arms to stop him. We just stared at them, and they said, “You have to go down that way.” So he made his way four cops down the line, and then abruptly one of them said, “Alright, in you go,” and stepped out of his way. Completely random.
We decided that staying away from the unpredictable cops, especially given that they didn’t seem to be able to communicate like other people using voices, was probably a good plan—as one of our bunch said, “I’d rather be caught between protesters and protesters than protesters and police.” After a bit of hanging around the Queer Bloc, we all turned around and started making our way along what was now, of course, probably the shortest protest route known to humankind. We were nearish the front, and there was a whole lot of cheerful yelling of slogans, clapping and cheering. I have to say, though, that compared to some protests I’ve been at, it was a pretty subdued kind of affair. We made our way up Park St, battling various forms of media people, many carrying cameras which apparently license one to become the rock the river flows around. I’m pretty sure it was every cross street that was blocked off by the same huge police buses. At the corner of Park and Castlereagh, we sat down on the dampish ground for a while, still chanting various carefully broad slogans, giving everyone a chance to catch up. There was an Aboriginal man who sang and spoke to the crowd a bit about Jabiluka and about Howard’s plan to take his land. We jumped up again, and headed off. Then we reached Hyde Park pretty quickly, where the organisation was a little less fabulous than it could have been: the planned stage and PA system hadn’t arrived (I don’t think they’d been allowed to bring it into the Park earlier, or something). We hung around for quite a while, doing some petition-signing, hiding under umbrellas, dancing, chatting away, while more people poured into the park. Eventually, we decided to head up to the PA which had been set up near the fountain, but there still wasn’t a whole lot going on, and there was some keenness for food, so we decided to leave. This was when we became properly aware of the police presence.
We headed down towards Market St, since that was closest. We reached the roadside at Elizabeth St, and became aware that there were police—I’m not entirely sure how thorough the body armour has to be before it’s considered riot gear, but they were wearing protective gloves, leg and ankle protectors and carrying batons—and when I say there were police, I mean that they were lining the entire street. From somewhere up where St. James Road meets up with Elizabeth St, all the way down to where Park St meets Elizabeth, there was a police officer standing every meter. It looked like this (which I think is a photo taken from the other side of the road, but I can’t be positive), or, better, like this, or, alternatively, like this. There were more lining the other side of the street, more in clumps outside particular buildings. Performing, as we observed, security. However much the evident treatment of a bunch of peaceful protesters as a security threat might have been pretty annoying, everyone refused to be drawn. The overkill was amazing. I heard a figure of 2000 protesters. Terrifying, I’m sure. (ETA: Organisers are claiming 10,000. I have no idea.)
“What’s going on?” we asked someone on the side of the road.
“There’s something coming through. They’ll let us through in fifteen minutes.”
“Something? What something?”
Huh. A motorcade. At the time it seemed like just another excuse, but Flickr comments seem to suggest it was for the protection of Helen Clark, the NZ PM. Yeah. We all threatened to move to New Zealand when John Howard was re-elected because she’s the worst ever. C’mon, I know she’s not the most fabulous, but do we even use the phrase ‘anti-NZ sentiment’?! One of the police told us that we could get out where the protest had come in, along Park St. So we wandered along the bizarre line of police. As we watched, two women in conservative dress and dragging rolling suitcases were permitted across the road. Apparently a suitcase is an indication of trust-worthiness! One of the cops was vaguely cheerful and friendly (even if in a kind of stupid way, joking that they were off to play hockey after they were done there) when we took a picture. He even seemed to be mildly amused at the ridiculousness of the situation, commenting on our hesitation at coming (too?) close to the line of police. Since the ludicrousness of the whole thing was what struck me, I wasn’t too irritable at this (though others, I don’t doubt, would have been). It did certainly demonstrate that the belligerence of every police officer we saw before and after was entirely unnecessary—obvious, yes. When we reached the corner of Park and Elizabeth, we found that actually, the rear of the march must have been rounded up by the police as they came into Hyde Park, because Park St was completely inaccessible. The line of police was even denser here, and half of them looked a bit anxious, not least because we weren’t the only ones saying things like, “So we can’t get through here?” The crowd that had gathered in the expectation of being able to leave was substantial.
“No, you have to go down there.”
“We just came from there, and they told us to come up here.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, I’m just standing here.”
I picked out the dude with the radio hanging off his chest and said, “So, can you find out for us where we can get out, then?”
“I told you, you need to go back that way-”
“We just came from there, and they said to come down here.”
“Go that way then,” he said.
Someone else said, “We just came from there, they told us to come here.”
“Well, that’s the way out.”
Patience. Deep breath. “Can you call someone else and find out where we can get out? We just came from there, and they sent us this way.”
Eventually another copper turned up, and said, “No, you have to go over that way,” pointing diagonally across the Park. After a bit we gave up trying to get anything more out of them, and made our way across the Park, down onto College St and then into the south, open section of Hyde Park. Big, totally unnecessary loop. The police presence keeping the protesters in was astonishing, even more marked when we were wandering through the Park looking back at the northern section, lined as it was by police. It was, as a friend remarked, an extremely effective way of being provocative, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if after we had left, people had gotten so frustrated about not being able to get out of the Park, they’d had an actual go at the police. It’s pretty annoying, especially if you need to use the loo!
Once your identity as a protester had been established, you were forced to permanently throw your lot in with the rest of the rally, with no option to leave. It’s an extremely effective technique, because it means that those who have absolutely no interest in participating in something violent would have had no way at all of disengaging had that been the direction in which it had turned. Worse, if such a situation had arisen, and you tried to leave, you would have had to take on the police lines in order to not take part, caught between the police and whatever violent moment had taken place. Movement is precisely what’s at stake.
Interestingly, of course, I saw absolutely no sign of violence at all. None. I wish I could contact the mainstream media just to say that, but sadly, it’s not really that newsworthy! More intriguing still was the leaflet I’d been handed while at Town Hall:
“Reclaim your city! If you want to join us to reclaim our city meet at the pink flag at Hyde Park after the rally. We will decide together if we have enough people to enter the excluded zone.”
It would seem that the organisers had found a perfect management technique, one as problematic as useful. I’m sure there’s more to be said about this…
The one (? maybe I’m being pessimistic) really actually hopeful moment in a day kinda marked by an atmosphere of resignation, happened near the beginning. We were coming up the stairs from under Town Hall. A drumming group were going at it near the top, and as we surfaced, we saw one cop’s legs. He was standing as part of the barricade line, and whilst the top half of his body betrayed no movement at all, his knees bent one at a time in time with the beat, hips swaying just slightly. It made me grin, and grin, and grin…