Melbourne, about 9.20am on Monday, 11 September 2000. A man climbs on to the roof of a car and raises both fists in the air in angry defiance.
Around him, five hundred people roar with approval. Inside the car, marooned, is Richard Court, the Liberal Premier of Western Australia. He’s going nowhere fast.
Welcome to S11.
A wave of anti-capitalist protest that emerged the previous year in Seattle had reached Australia. Funnelled between the banks of the Yarra, it turned into a 20,000-person-strong tsunami that swamped the precinct around Crown Casino over three days, severely disrupting the World Economic Forum and, horror of horrors, shutting down the pokies.
The man on the car was Ivan Wyatt-Ring, an Aboriginal man from Geraldton, WA. He was literally stamping his authority on Court in protest at the Premier’s introduction of mandatory detention laws that increased Indigenous incarceration rates. This was his chance to turn the tables.
S11 was a chance to turn the tables for many. Worried about the environment? Blockade the WEF. Concerned about ‘free trade’ deals that tip the scales against workers and peasants? Blockade the WEF. Opposed to the neoliberalism (then known as ‘economic rationalism’) of the Howard government? Blockade the WEF.
The WEF’s Asia Pacific Economic Summit aimed to ‘provide a unique platform for business leaders’ from some of the 1000 top corporations. Among the speakers were Bill Gates, John Howard and leaders from the US, Japan, India and more. It was meant to be an orgy of corporate backslapping and deal-making, padded out with corporate social responsibility verbiage, and finishing just in time for a jaunt to Sydney for the opening of the Olympics.
But we crashed their party. Well before Wyatt-Ring had climbed on to the car, thousands had ringed the casino complex, preventing busloads of WEF participants from entering. The forum opened with rows and rows of empty seats, participants socially distancing from the virus of protest.
David Armstrong, editor-in-chief of The Australian, told how he and others trying to break the blockade spent six hours on a bus driving though Melbourne. The odyssey finished at Port Melbourne where passengers boarded a barge. ‘But the tide was high and could not get under the bridge at Spencer Street.’
Over the course of the three days, business as usual became quite unusual. Bill Gates had to abandon an address to four thousand school students in Jeff’s Shed, the exhibition centre opposite the casino. John Howard had to scuttle in by boat.
On the second day, five thousand union members marched to Crown, some lingering to join the blockade. On the third day, thousands more paraded from Crown through central Melbourne in a victory march.
There was no doubt, the protesters had won. They had braved countless hardships, including media smear campaigns and vicious policing, and turned the tables on the capitalist conference. For once, we set the agenda and they cowered.
This remarkable mobilisation took the establishment by surprise. But it didn’t spring from nowhere.
Two years earlier, thousands had mobilised around Australia to defend the maritime union, the MUA. The biggest and most militant picket was at West Swanson dock, a twelve-minute drive from Crown.
In 1999, some twenty thousand people joined a working day rally in the Bourke Street Mall in solidarity with Timor Leste, this time a brisk walk from the casino.
So when organising began in earnest for S11 there was already a national cadre of thousands with recent experience of taking direct action. The WEF became a focus for everyone’s frustrations.
The metalworkers’ union, the AMWU, booked out a train carriage to bring protesters from Adelaide. One passenger recalled: ‘A very happy diverse S11 mob. Anarchists, DSP, Teachers Union, Small Business, Laborites, CFMEU, Individuals and AMWU members.’
Such diversity was a hallmark of S11. Once the main campaign group, the S11 Alliance, had determined the answer to two key questions (WEF? Bad. What is to be done? Blockade.) people were encouraged to bring their skills, their agendas and their passions to the party.
Some made puppets. Some offered first aid or legal observation. Some ran independent media and many simply blocked gates. The weather was nippy in the early spring of 2000 but there was no shortage of flowers blooming.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, especially when it came to Labor and the union movement. Rank-and-file Labor members attended the blockade but the Victorian Labor government proved hostile before the protests, incandescent with outrage during and after. Premier Steve Bracks called the protesters ‘fascists’. His ALP branch was Williamstown – it responded to Bracks with a unanimous vote of condemnation.
The response among unionists was more complex. ACTU President Sharan Burrow defied the blockade to speak to the WEF. The Victorian Trades Hall Council, while never agreeing to blockade, marched its rally to the protest and later passed a resolution condemning Bracks’ comments. Yet Trades Hall industrial officer, Brian Boyd, took perverse delight in escorting casino workers into work past the protest.
By contrast, the CFMEU called a 72-hour strike at Perth’s Bell Tower, then the city’s flagship project, in outrage at the way riot police had bludgeoned their way to Richard Court’s rescue.
About 5pm on September 11, WEF organisers, Bracks and senior police had a meeting. Humiliated by the blockade, the WEF demanded that the police go in harder. Only the people in the room know whether Bracks ordered a crackdown or simply nodded along, but the next morning all hell broke loose.
The police log recorded: ‘Breakfast tomorrow delegates to leave hotels by 0700 to be at Crown by 0715 by whatever force necessary.’
The force was overwhelming and pitiless. Hundreds of police beat their way through protesters on the morning and evening of S12. On the first day, ambulance workers had taken four protesters to hospital. On S12, the number was sixteen.
Much has changed over the past twenty years, rarely for the better. The climate crisis has gone from a distant threat to a daily reality. Inequality has boomed. The United Nations reports that ‘the richest one per cent of the population are the big winners in the changing global economy, increasing their share of income between 1990 and 2015.’
But S11 was not a flash in the pan: the radical mood saw unionists in 2001 walk off the job to celebrate May Day in Melbourne – the first such strike since 1945 – in what came to be known as M1.
Exactly a year after the WEF blockade, S11 found itself overshadowed by 9/11. Activists who had gathered at Trades Hall to commemorate the anniversary of the blockade went home, switched on their TVs and saw the Twin Towers fall.
Many of the same people who had surrounded Crown responded to the West’s military reflex by building massive rallies on the eve of the Iraq War. The one million protesters across Australia over February 14-15, 2003, was the largest anti-war turnout per head of population internationally. The spirit of resistance had not been crushed by the War on Terror.
S11 was a moment when tens of thousands stood up to corporate power. It showed that collective action can push the ruling class on to the back foot. As the triple crises of COVID-19, the economy and climate deepen, we need that inspiration, daring and defiance more than ever.
Image by Karen Eliot