Swarms of anarchists, punks, hippies and anti-globalisation protesters shut down several Melbourne city blocks for hours and taunted Victoria’s police during the recent G-20 summit, reports Mark Lopez, who was present at the protest.
The momentum of well over a 1,000 marching anti-globalisation protesters in Melbourne was blocked by a police barricade across Russell Street near the intersection of Collins Street.
This was the forward defence for the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the city’s centre, the location for the Group of Twenty (G-20) summit of the finance ministers and central bank governors of 20 nations, including the U.S., who were guests of Commonwealth Treasurer Peter Costello.
Meanwhile, while these economic decision-makers deliberated in the hotel, outside the blue police line stood solidly, almost motionless and expressionless, their batons clenched tightly and ready by their sides, as the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder, surged towards them.
|G-20 Summit Protests|
(Photos by Mark Lopez)
Trapped at the barricade, clusters of protesters either banged drums, or shouted, or chanted while jumping up and down, making as much noise as possible in order to taunt the police. The atmosphere became tense, as if there was a deadlock that beckoned to be broken.
Easing my way through the densely packed crowd, I strategically positioned myself to video the action, getting as close to the police line as possible on the far right-hand side of the impasse. If a violent clash were to occur, I thought, it would be here. I was wrong.
The anarchists, wearing white coveralls and bandannas over their faces to conceal their identities, broke away from the crowd. In an outflanking movement, they headed up Little Collins Street and down Alfred Place towards the intersection of Collins and Exhibition Streets.
A swarm of anarchist punks and a few other curious people followed them. Clashes with the police occurred, notably the vandalisation of the police van inopportunely parked at the corner of Flinders Lane. Graphic footage of this provided the principal pictures that featured in subsequent news bulletins and newspaper reports. Meanwhile, I was still hemmed in Russell Street, later hearing about this violent incident from one of the curious onlookers who had followed the anarchists.
Back at Russell Street, the tense stalemate continued to simmer unpredictably. It showed every chance of boiling over when a mischievous young man, who had climbed onto the awning overhanging the street, gained access to a fire hose and turned it on the police, giving the steady line of officers a drenching.
How humiliating for them, I thought. My heart went out to them. The crowd cheered, with many taking a derisive pleasure in this incident. Some danced in approval.
The mischievous young man opened fire again. The police received another humiliating drenching. This time, I got wet. Suddenly, a detail of half a dozen officers broke though the barricade and dashed up the stairwell behind me, intending, I presumed, to arrest the offender. The drenchings stopped.
What was most impressive was that the police officers, obviously angry over their mistreatment, maintained their cool. Showing impeccable professionalism in difficult circumstances, they discriminated between the troublemakers and the others who were merely nearby, like myself.
The chanting and taunting of the police by the crowd intensified. In the midst of this mayhem, a man who appeared to be mentally disabled screamed incessantly and indecipherably.
Meanwhile, a sound system on a nearby truck pelted out the Clash’s angry punk rock anthem “White Riot”. The situation was surreal, crazy – bedlam.
Clusters of radicals continued to dance and chant loudly near the police barricades. I watched in anticipation of something dramatic happening. It did not. The tension eased. The crowd thinned. The action was obviously elsewhere.
I took the short cut down Albert Place to Collins Street. Armoured riot police were positioned behind barricades across Collins Street. Another sturdy line of police officers blocked Exhibition Street behind the ANZ Bank on the corner, which had been sprayed with graffiti by vandals.
What followed on this front, for several hours, was groups of demonstrators taunting the police. This mischievous game, more than anything else, characterised this day of protest – more so than the few short-lived incidents of violence and vandalism.
By contrast, this taunting process was continual. Rather than attack the police, many demonstrators sought to provoke the police to do something rash. One could observe that the protesters involved relished this bizarre game. They were fired up with excitement.
Many demonstrators had gone to a great effort to prepare for the taunting game. One group, appearing to consist mostly of teenage girls, had made mock police uniforms, this precocious image made complete by the stencilled moustaches on their cheeky faces. Dressed as police, they paraded themselves within inches of the silent police ranks, teasing them with mock police dialogue that was sometimes funny and sometimes insulting.
Another group, dressed as clowns, cavorted and pranced in a manner intended to provoke a reaction. They failed. Both groups failed. The police line stood firm.
Besides this theatrical taunting of the police, there was more bizarre behaviour. One tall lean young man was dressed solely in what appeared to be a psychedelic nappy. What would Sigmund Freud have made of that! He was dancing, making an exhibition of himself in, of all places, the middle of Exhibition Street.
Funky dance music
In addition, several demonstrators threateningly drove an army truck, ironically bedecked with a giant pink love heart, towards the police ranks in Collins Street, where it stopped within metres of the barricades to blast the police officers with funky rhythmic dance music. Following this, colourfully dressed young women, some with dreadlocks, danced suggestively in front of the motionless line of police.
This dimension of the protest was less about political issues and more about a clash of cultures. It was about promoting a live-for-the-moment existentialism rather than socialism. The undulating dance movements of these girls said nothing of global inequality or Third World debt reduction. What they appeared to be saying to the police was that their lifestyle is free and more fun than your routine suburban existence. However, whatever any individual officers may have been thinking at that moment, their line stood firm.
There was even more bizarre behaviour. By 4:00pm, the police front line in Exhibition Street had fallen back to a more compact and better fortified position across Flinders Lane.
Here, the riot police stoically stood guard behind a concrete and steel fence as a mob, which included many young anarchists dressed in black, aggressively rattled the barrier, shouted taunts, or jeered, while others loudly banged drums. Some threw rubbish at the police.
Meanwhile, a young man dressed in a bird suit – like some sort of counter-cultural phoenix (or dodo) – used a rubbish bin to help a girl climb onto a narrow awning that stretched across to reach behind the police line. Once aloft, she pranced provocatively, taunting the police by daringly crossing into their territory.
Flashed their bottoms
She was soon joined by one of the young anarchists, who wore a black leather jacket and a bandanna over her face. Together, they pranced and danced defiantly in front of the police, and then, to the cheers of the demonstrators, they dropped their pants to flash their shiny white bottoms at the police officers.
Was this a political statement? Perhaps it was a protest against the preoccupation of economic rationalists with the bottom line. On the other hand, it could have just been two girls being very naughty.
To their credit, several concerned police officers appeared to be preparing to intervene to try to extricate the girls, probably for the girls’ own safety, since their vantage point was worryingly precarious. However, with their point having been made (well, sort of), the girls quickly retreated, clumsily climbing down to the relative safety of the anarchists’ side of the barrier.
The behaviour of the police on this front, and everywhere else, was commendable. Victorians should be very proud of them. Because of the taunting and abuse that they stoically endured for hour after hour, they emerged as the heroes of the G-20 summit.
By 4:30pm, most of the demonstrators had gone. The stragglers were sitting around in the middle of the blockaded streets. The situation seemed quiet. I decided to leave. I was exhausted.
What stuck me, as I left a scene characterised by blockades and riot police, was that just one short block away from where these dramatic events had raged all afternoon, the city was thriving as if nothing unusual had been happening. Carefree Melbournians were enjoying the warm spring sunshine, lounging with friends in street cafés or leisurely shopping.
Capitalism continued. In fact, it had not missed a beat.
– Dr Mark Lopez is an educational consultant and the author of The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics (Melbourne University Press, 2000). He also participated in the Commonwealth Government’s History Summit in August 2006.