Melbourne Mobilization

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 Forum (WEF).

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 Morris).

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."


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 injuries.

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 globalization.

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 Aires, Quito."



Sean Healy is globalization correspondent for Green Left Weekly (Australia), and was that paper's S11 reporter.

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