Multinational Monitor magazine, October 2000
MELBOURNE - The tens of thousands of protesters who converged
on the World Economic Forum's Asia-Pacific Economic Summit here
to denounce corporate globalization failed to prevent the meeting
from taking place, but they did succeed in preventing about half
of the delegates from attending the Summit's opening day session.
More importantly, they achieved a political victory in mobilizing
upwards of 50,000 Australians and in unmasking the World Economic
The World Economic Forum bills itself as "the foremost
global partnership of business, political, intellectual and other
leaders of society. " It has 968 member organizations, including
the largest and most powerful multinational corporations in the
world. Its member organizations include the dominant players in
virtually all leading industries: petroleum (Exxon, Chevron, Shell),
automobiles (Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi), computers (Microsoft,
IBM, Yahoo), media (Time Warner, Viacom), pharmaceuticals (Pfizer,
Dupont), banking (Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Deutsche Bank), mining
(BHP, Rio Tinto), agriculture (Novartis, Cargill, Monsanto), food
products (Coca Cola, Nestle), clothing (Nike), tobacco (BAT, Philip
The WEF's primary activity is to organize conferences and
forums at which senior politicians and corporate heavyweights
can rub shoulders, engage in dialogue and mould consensus. By
far its largest event, and the one for which it is best known,
is its annual meeting, held each January in the Swiss ski resort
town of Davos. It also holds summits each year in each of its
regional areas, which are generally smaller than Davos and focus
on regional issues.
The street actions against the Melbourne WEF summit-known
by the moniker S11, for September 11, the day the summit and protests
began- spurred a furious response from the Australian establishment.
Politicians, both Labor and Liberal, accused them of being "fascists"
who opposed free speech. Business analysts said they were working
against the world's poor, by denying them the bounties of free
trade. Newspaper editors condemned them as a "violent mob,"
even when their own pictures proved the opposite.
When words failed to stop the protesters, hundreds of riot
police baton-charged them with a viciousness with few parallels
in modern Australian history. More than 5 0 protesters were hospitalized.
But the protesters would not be intimidated. Each time the
protesters were baton-charged, they came back, not with violence
of their own but with a new affirmation of the slogan: the people
united will never be defeated.
After some initial chaos and an early morning downpour on
September 11, organizers were able to pull the action together.
By 8 a.m., the blockades were established and solid. The Green
Bloc of Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups had
sealed off the parking lot entrances on Whiteman Street, and S11
Alliance marshals were getting people to link arms and settle
in at more than a dozen blockade points.
The early birds were reinforced by a constant stream of reinforcements
and, at noon, by a march of 500 high school students who walked
out of class.
The numbers, which had swelled to 15,000 to 20,000 by lunchtime,
surprised police. Stunned by the turnout, they stayed within their
concrete and wire barricades.
The only major police operations on the first day were a brief
push through a blockade of hundreds on Clarendon Street, from
which the police were soon forced to withdraw, and a mission to
rescue Western Australia Premier Richard Court, who had driven
his car straight into a blockade line on Clarendon Street and
was stuck inside for an hour.
By midday, Community Radio 3CR was able to report that no
member of staff had been able to get into the complex since 7:45
a.m. and that at least a third of WEF delegates had also been
prevented from entering.
Victorian Liberal leader Denis Napthine admitted to delegates
that the "protesters have unfortunately won the first round."
DAYS TWO AND THREE
Vlctorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard revealed
at a media conference on September 14 that, during the evening
of September 11, WEF conference organizers threatened to "pack
up and go home" if police could not get more delegates in
the next day.
Humiliated by the protesters, bolstered by orders from Labor
Premier Steve Bracks and incited by media hysteria about protester
"violence" which never occurred, hundreds of riot police
attacked the blockade lines the following morning, in an attempt
to regain the initiative.
With batons drawn, police set upon a seated blockade line
on Queensbridge and Power streets, trampling, beating and kicking
the protesters before police on horses were unleashed on the crowd.
The blockade lines were cleared, allowing delegates' buses into
the complex. Twelve protesters were hospitalized.
Police kept the initiative for only a few hours before protesters
wrested it back. Weeks of tortuous negotiations between the S11
Alliance and the Trades Hall labor federation had led to a final
agreement that, while Trades Hall would not back the blockade
itself, the mass union rally for labor rights, scheduled for Tuesday,
would at least march to the blockade site at Crown Towers.
Up to 20,000 unionists filled the city streets with sound,
color and people chanting "Stop global sweatshops" and
"The workers united will never be defeated."
Hubbard held to the position that the Labor Council would
support only the protests and not the blockade. But many more
militant unionists ignored Trades Hall's injunction, and several
thousand marched around the casino where the WEF meeting was held
before joining the blockaders at different entrances. Many were
members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, whose militant
Victorian leaders had backed the blockade all along.
The most brutal incident of police violence occurred that
night, when delegates' buses sought to leave. Five hundred riot
police set upon a blockade line of 200, viciously clubbing not
only protesters but even establishment journalists. This time,
30 protesters were hospitalized and treated for head and neck
A spokesperson for the legal observers' team at the protests,
Damien Lawson, said police created a "potentially lethal
situation," while prominent lawyers and civil libertarians
have not only called for a full ombudsman's inquiry but are also
planning civil action.
Meanwhile, inside the WEF meeting, WEF president Klaus Schwas
denounced the protesters as uncivilized and misguided in their
targeting of the WEF.
"It is a great pity," he said, "that those
who feel so passionately about issues like globalization and its
impact have chosen to protest against an institution that has
done so much to bring clarity and purpose to economic and social
development around the world -an institution which actually coined
the expression of 'responsible globality' and which was already
years ago urging decision-makers to pay attention to the backlashes
of globalization by integrating the social, environmental, human
and cultural dimensions into the process of globalization."
The third day of blockading followed a pattern similar to
previous days. Hundreds of riot police attacked an understaffed
blockade line in the early morning to get delegates' buses in,
hospitalizing at least one demonstrator, then were forced to retreat
back inside their barricades by the force of protesters' numbers.
The blockaders' piece de resistance came at noon: a joyful
"victory march" through the city streets. An estimated
10,000 marchers made their way through the city, stopping at Nike's
superstore and then at the Australian Stock Exchange before looping
back to the blockade site.
We can say, without any doubts, that this action, these three
days of protest, have been an unqualified success," says
S11 Alliance spokesperson Anne O'Casey.
One achievement was to maintain unity among the alliance of
forces which kept S11 together-environmentalists like those in
Friends of the Earth, socialists like those in the Democratic
Socialist Party, militant unionists like those in the AMWU and
many other committed activists of different political complexions,
whether anarchist or feminist or independent.
Unified, the protesters won the political battle at Melbourne.
The World Economic Forum had pumped out the message that its
mission was to improve the state of the world, by "bringing
the fruits of globalization to the people." The protesters
displaced that message with a focus on the violence of corporate
Holed up inside the casino complex or stuck in buses for hours
trying to get in, not able to get out except by boat, helicopter
or baton charge, the assembled CEOs seemed glum, confused and
somewhat fearful whenever caught on camera.
"We're extremely proud of what we've been able to achieve
here," says S11 Alliance spokesperson Jorge Jorquera. "We
have had an impact on the agenda of the World Economic Forum and
we have added our city's name to the growing list of those which
have stood up against capitalism: Seattle, Washington, Buenos
Sean Healy is globalization correspondent for Green Left Weekly
(Australia), and was that paper's S11 reporter.