Friday, 14 September 2007

APEC: Why the Stop Bush protest was such a victory

The wombats have been asked to post this contribution to a discussion taking place in the aftermath of the successful 10,000-15,000 strong anti-APEC "Stop Bush" protests held in Sydney last week, from Socialist Alliance members Pip Hinman and Alex Bainbridge, both of whom were involved in the Stop Bush Coalition which planned the protest. The detail of the debate is in the piece below, and so needs no repeating, but other groups' reports of the rally can be found here, and here.

Why the Stop Bush/ Make Howard History protest was a success

By Pip Hinman and Alex Bainbridge

Socialist Alliance

Why the Stop Bush/Make Howard History protest was a success
By Pip Hinman and Alex Bainbridge
Socialist Alliance

The success of the Stop Bush protest on September 8 during APEC was not only a victory for the progressive movements, it revealed that the mass action tactics being advanced by the DSP/Resistance and the Socialist Alliance and others throughout the debates among the Stop Bush Coalition over how to organise this particular protest proved correct.

From the outset, since the Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference in 2005, we argued that the visit of George Bush to Sydney for APEC would be the key mobilising draw card given the US-led role in Iraq and Afghanistan. We argued that despite how hated John Howard is, he would not pull the same attention.

Given that it was apparent for about a year that APEC would be close to an election, most people (rightly or wrongly) would be more interested in just voting him out.

We also argued that focusing on APEC as a summit protest would not work not only because APEC is not a significant trade organisation, even for the capitalists, but also because the post-Seattle anti-globalisation movement had, in all significant respects, become the anti-war movement in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and beyond.

Focus on Bush

The focus on Bush was disputed among the left: Solidarity and the International Socialist Organisation (caucusing with each other) were unconvinced, as was Socialist Alternative at the outset.

A Solidarity position paper sent to the Stop the War Coalition organising list on May 4 stated: "The biggest possible protest will be achieved by politically building our actions as an opportunity to mobilise against the Howard government's agenda (including its neo-liberal agenda for the region) to help kick them from office and build stronger movements in the process."

However, most were convinced that having a focus on APEC would not be a strong drawcard.

Solidarity, along with the ISO, until the last minute, argued that Howard had to be the protest's main focus.

Their reasoning was that: as Australia was hosting APEC; as Australian imperialism is increasing its militarisation of the Asia Pacific region; and as it cements an even closer alliance with US, having a focus on Howard would help build a movement to throw the Coalition out of office. While we agreed with the political critique of Australia's imperialist role in the region, we disagreed that the sentiment against Australia's role in the region, and the more abstract question of its alliance with the US, was enough to bring people out into the streets during APEC.

While the organised section of the anti-war movement has dwindled in Australia since 2004, with the invasion anniversary events shrinking to some 800 people in Sydney this year, we judged that the anti-war sentiment could be mobilised onto the streets when Bush was in Sydney. This was confirmed when US vice-president Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Sydney in February. We had just two weeks to organise a response, and more than 500 people turned up to one protest, defying the police crack down, and about 150 to another the next day.

The following paragraphs are Solidarity's position (largely supported by the ISO throughout the debates) from their May position paper, a position its members were arguing right up until the protest on September 8.

"Within Stop Bush 07 committee, there has been a perspective that focussing on Bush, 'world's number one terrorist', and doing promotional work for this demonstration will bring large numbers of people and re-invigorate the anti war movement. This is demonstrative of a tendency [they mean Socialist Alliance] that has held back Stop the War Coalition since the February 2003 rallies - the idea that there is a big antiwar 'sentiment' in society that can be brought into action simply by promoting some particular rally."

But this is exactly what happened on September 8, and Solidarity is not honest enough to admit that they were wrong.

Solidarity continued:

"By itself Bush being here won't build big demonstrations. It will of course be a particularly significant focus and give poignancy to any demonstration such as we saw when Cheney was in town."

"But for the movement to be built and bigger numbers won to the importance of street demonstrations, Stop the War cannot fold into logistics for "stopping Bush", but must redouble its efforts to creating domestic political issues out of the international situation - linking the war to prominent local concerns of the day such as Workchoices ..."

Civil rights attacks

The 10,000-15,000 peaceful protest in Sydney proved Solidarity's perspective wrong. But rather than let facts get in the way, they are now arguing that it was their focus on the excluded persons' list that brought the massive crowd onto the streets. That despicable fear campaign by the state would have helped make people angry about the security overkill, but it did not bring people into the streets.

If anything, the lightening rod that made people decide to come out was the extreme lengths to which the state was prepared to go to keep people away, and to stop people from entering certain parts of the city - the security overkill - which the Chasers' stunt so well sent up. When the barricades went up, the water cannons, the snipers, the mobile police units, and the excluded people list came out, people were rightly enraged.

But being angry doesn't necessarily mean that will take action. The Stop Bush Coalition's emphasis on the need for these protests to be peaceful to draw in the largest numbers of people, and to show up the violence of Bush and Howard and the police state - put largely by DSP member Alex Bainbridge, media spokesperson for the Coalition - had a huge impact on people deciding to come out on the day. We know that because so many people, not members, have told us.

Relating to the unions

Solidarity agreed, rightly, that it was important to involve more groups - in particular climate change groups and the unions. But they were only prepared to work with those who shared their overall political perspective.

They paid lip service, at best, to wanting to work with the unions: the fact that the couple of unions which did decide to support the Stop Bush protests, the Maritime Union of Australia and the Fire Brigades Employees Union, stressed that they would only do so if the rally was peaceful was lost on Solidarity. And it was largely us, and ISO member Jim Casey from the Fire Brigades Employees Union, who did most of the work to get union support.

UnionsNSW had, early on this year, met and decided not to allow its union affiliates to support the Stop Bush Coalition protest, on the pretext that it did not want union flags to be mixed up with "protestor violence" as that would jeopardise Labor's chances of being reelected. This was how the left union, the CFMEU, explained it to one of the protest organisers. When it looked like the protest was growing, AFTINET decided to organise a stationary "protest" in Hyde Park, on the Friday, an opportunity for unions to be seen to be doing something about APEC.

While it was always clear that the Labor state government was preparing for a huge security operation for APEC, just how big that was to be was revealed with the new police powers laws being leaked to the media, and then all the equipment and numbers of police being assigned.

The militarisation of Sydney for APEC was clearly going to scare a lot of people away from joining the protest. But Solidarity, along with the ISO and some anarchists, were opposed to the Stop Bush Coalition declaring that the protest would be peaceful from the start. For them, this had pacifist connotations, and would send the wrong signal that the protestors were not defiant, or militant, enough!

While they continued with this ultra-left posturing right up until the very last minute, it did not receive majority support from non-aligned activists in the Stop Bush Coalition meetings.

Ultra left posturing

Solidarity and their anarchist friends scored a pyrrhic victory at the 500-strong convergence meeting the night before the protest when Ian Rintoul (a leader of Solidarity) put a counter motion to the first part of a motion being moved by the majority of the tactical committee about the march route.

This first part of the tactical committee's motion (moved in the name of Alex Bainbridge (Socialist Alliance), Anna Samson (Stop the War Coalition), Damien Lawson (Greens), Diane Fields (Socialist Alternative), Paddy Gibson (Solidarity) and Paul Garrett (MUA) was:

"That we confirm the planned march route for tomorrow's rally will be from Town Hall, down Park Street to Hyde Park North".

Solidarity's counter motion was: "That we reject the prohibition of demonstrations in the declared zone and declare that we will march to the police lines to assert our right to protest and our opposition to APEC, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to their nuclear agenda and to Workchoices and the attack on workers rights."

Solidarity's motion won 273 to 221, largely with the help of the Socialist Party, Workers Power, ISO, Alliance for Civil Disobedience Coordination, Latin America Solidarity Network - from Melbourne. From Sydney, Mutiny, Flare in the Void, and some others also supported it.

Ian Rintoul, at the time, admitted his motion would not actually change the march route. He knew that the Stop Bush Coalition had been informed by the NSW police that they would be lining the march route and that given the huge mobilisation of police, there would no chance of breaking through police lines. But he, and others, insisted that it was the "attitude" of the motion that was different.

Solidarity's motion was a posture, designed to make out that they were the "militants". This is despite their consistent refusal to take any serious responsibility for the overall organisation of the protest, a product of their lack of political confidence in the overall shape of the protest as supported by a majority at every Stop Bush Coalition meeting.

(Solidarity's lack of confidence in the rally and its political focus was confirmed again on the Saturday afternoon when two of their members admitted that they'd only expected 3000 people to show up. The Stop Bush Coalition had been publicly saying it had expected 5000 or more.)

The rest of the tactical committee's motion, which was unanimously adopted, was:

"That we plan a sit-down (or die-in) in the middle of the march

"That we endorse the list of planned speakers (overleaf)

"That we all on all groups and individuals to respect the unity and diversity of the Stop Bush/Make Howard History protest."

The tactical committee's motion had been discussed and moved by a majority of the tactical committee, although a member of Solidarity had implied on the Stop Bush organising list that the sit-down motion was his idea.

Having lost the overall political debate about tactics, Solidarity, and others, are now trying to scandalise the DSP, in particular, for not respecting a "democratic decision" of the convergence meeting to sit-down at the police lines.

This is untrue. As already mentioned, a lot of people did sit down, some many times, and a lot didn't (some because the ground was wet).

The biggest sin, apparently, was that Alex didn't announce that there would be sit-in from the platform!

After the first bracket of speakers, Alex went to the corner of George and Park Streets to organise to get a mobile sound system there for the sit-down and the middle bracket of speakers. But getting any sound to that point was difficult given the police obstruction and size of the march. In any case, the unions led the march off, and everyone starting moving, although a section at the back of the march remained at that corner.

The MUA and others organised a longish sit-down at the front of the march. Others organised their own - to make a statement that the city belonged to us, not the cops. The inadequate sound system meant that a lot of people with megaphones, including Alex, and Paul and Warren from the MUA, and the union secretary from Geelong (also a Socialist Alliance member), urged people to sit down.

The criticism that the motion's "politics of defiance" and our rejection of the exclusion zone was not put from the platform is also absurd. The Stop Bush Coalition, from the beginning, has stressed that it did not accept the special police powers and the exclusion zone (organising public meetings around this very theme, and constantly putting this line through its media work). This political line was not only put at the rally by the co-chairs, it was also put by most, if not all, of the speakers.

The criticism that the motion was to march to the police lines and this didn't happen is bizarre. The rally was already at police lines before the march had even started to move!

Paul (MUA), Paddy (Solidarity) and Alex were at the corner of Park and George Streets and agreed that a sit-down would happen when the front of the march reached the second set of lights. Paddy agreed with this course of action. Alex announced it over the megaphone as the rally marched off down Park Street.

We were at the police lines - we couldn't have gone any closer without trying to bust through them. But is this what Solidarity wanted to do?

The questions that Solidarity (and the ISO) should be asked include:

Why did they want a clash with the police?

How would that have advanced the confidence of the movement?

If they had decided to have a clash, it would have only have fed into the police operation, and it certainly would have helped John Howard in his much hoped-for post-APEC electoral boost.

The fact that the majority who came to the protest denied Howard his much-needed APEC electoral boost with our determination to carry out a peaceful protest in the face of huge provocation.

This shows that the mass action approach which the DSP, Resistance and Socialist Alliance had argued for in the Stop Bush Coalition for almost a year, was correct. It allowed the Coalition to win a section of the union movement, the Greens and other non-aligned movement activists to play a big role in making this protest a success. This is also in a context in which the Sydney anti-war movement coalition, Walk Against War, had been split by the ALP after the Iraq invasion.

Mass action approach

The feeling on the streets on September 8 was electric and defiant - but apparently not enough for Solidarity and a section of the anarchists whose long faces stood out from the crowd.

They argued that their motion was different because it conveyed "the politics of defiance"! They seemed to completely miss the fact that people who came to the rally were very consciously being defiant.

Solidarity's argument is the argument of those who wish to separate themselves out - the so-called "militant minority" - from other working people.

They believe, wrongly, that they have to show everyone else how to think and behave politically, and that this is "leadership". In fact, the real leadership was shown by those who took up the challenges of organising a protest in difficult circumstances, who did the work instead of only turning up to meetings to criticise and point score, and who were prepared to discuss with people who did not always share their opinions the often tricky tactical decisions. Real leadership was shown by those who knew the movement would gain confidence from having pulled off a huge rally.

Trying to scandalise the DSP, now, for the success of the protests back fires badly on Solidarity (and the ISO).

The success of the Stop Bush protest was that it managed, under very difficult circumstances, to bring out a slice of that pre-war rally in February 2003.

The strategy followed by the DSP/Resistance and Socialist Alliance was one of mass action: that is, to build a broad united front around concrete demands. It is a general strategy, there is no rule book to follow, and certain political realities dictate certain choices.

This is a vastly more effective strategy than trying to separate out a "militant" minority from the rest of us.

The mass action approach derives from our understanding of how change comes about, through the self consciousness and self-organisation of the working class. Our tactics should be geared to drawing in the mass of workers into active struggle and not tactics that drive those workers out of struggle and help the ruling class strengthen its ideological influence in the working class.


1 comment:

Red Wombat said...

Below is a different point of view put out on the issue by Solidarity members (and allies), posted as part of the discussion at


The anti-APEC mobilisation provided the anti-war movement with some important breakthroughs. Aside from the rallies against the bombing of Lebanon, which were largely organised by the Lebanese community in Sydney, it was the biggest anti-war rally since 2003. Friday’s 500-strong convergence meeting was the biggest such meeting since S11 Melbourne 2000. The contingents from the FBEU and MUA were particularly important given our isolation from the labour movement since the split in the “walk against the war” coalition in 2003.

Understanding the dynamics that led to the success of the rally and critical reflection on the work of our coalition through the rally are both important if we are to make the most of these opportunities. The issue of how we dealt with the “declared zones” and the attack on the right to protest dominated discussion at Friday’s convergence, and has been the main point of debate since Saturday.

There has been an ongoing discussion within the anti-war movement about how to translate the wide anti-war sentiment into action that can put pressure on the government. We have consistently argued that what is needed is the growth (both numerical and political) of an activist and responsive Stop the War coalition. Recent examples of this approach include having Stop the War blocs at trade union rallies, mobilising against the Talisman Sabre military exercises, trying to translate the outrage about Haneef into mobilisation against the ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, and touring Matt Howard to reach and attract more activists into the campaign.

Undoubtedly, the large numbers on Saturday came not just from general agreement with the slogans of the demonstration, but from a feeling that the over-policing and scaremongering had gone too far. When Stop Bush made it clear we would not accept police shutting us out of “declared zones” this brought a real sense of urgency to the mobilisation. Thousands of people came out because there was a sense of defiance.

It was this sentiment of direct challenge that was overwhelmingly

affirmed by the Friday night meeting. It is not divisive to discuss why the decision of the convergence was not carried through. We need to ensure that we learn collectively from this and that we can go forward with a sense of mutual trust and strength.

The decision of the convergence was unambiguous. There would be a public statement of rejection of the exclusion zones and a stated refusal to accept the route dictated by police. There would be a march to police lines. The motion for a sit down (part of the printed resolution circulated on the night) was explicitly passed in this context and discussed as part of the action. There would be speakers at the police line to express the politics of a defiant anti-war movement.

During the discussion, opponents of the resolution had even suggested putting the resolution itself to the rally, a proposal that was greeted with acclaim.

Kirsten, a chair on Saturday has posted, “a decision was made by the tactical group that we would have spontaneous sit downs… and we could not announce this from Town Hall because the police would have corralled people into St Andrews Square”. We are pleased that Kirsten has provided an explanation of what happened from her vantage point.

It is clear from this that some subsection of the tactical group took it on themselves to over-ride the convergence decision. (In fact George Street had already been cleared by the union-led march to Town Hall.)

Besides being a tactical and political failing, it is anti-democratic and needs to be acknowledged as such if we are going to have confidence in collective decisions we take in the future.

Firstly, the “tactical group” had no authority to take such a decision. It was established at the time of the Supreme Court hearing over the march route to make decisions about snap actions in response to the court proceedings and dealings with the police.

Secondly, Paddy is part of the “tactical team” and was never consulted about the decision not to announce either the resolution or the sit-down. Paddy and Ian both asked numerous times behind the stage about the how the statement would be read and were reassured it would be. If the ‘tactical team’ or the rally chairs did not feel they could carry out the decision of the mass meeting they should have stepped aside in favour of people who could. Representatives of the majority of the Friday night convergence did not demand to have a chair at the rally – perhaps they should have.

Trying to explain away the failure to act on the convergence decision on the tactical grounds, of either the rally size or the limits of the sound system, don’t wash. In fact they are both reasons why the proposal needed to be put from the front, so the maximum number if people knew about the political decision of the convergence and the proposal to sit down in protest. The failure to make the statement detracted from the political content of the rally and added to the confusion on the day.

People “spontaneously” organizing the sit-down were left vulnerable to police action because it was made to seem that the sit-down was at odds with the rally organizers.

What compounds the political and tactical mistakes of some section of the tactical group was that their minority decision must have been conveyed to the MUA at the front of the march and at least to some marshals who actively worked to prevent any sit down, but not to those they knew to be supporters of the convergence decision. Nobody could possibly believe that that Paddy was un-contactable.

In the end many activists did their best to try and carry through the decision, staging disconnected sit-downs throughout the rally. A PA was organised to address the sit down at the back of the rally and speeches made at the police line by excluded people, to a small section of the crowd, despite members of the tactical group and marshals encouraging the rally to walk past those staging the sit down.

Hiding behind the technicalities of the resolution won’t wash either. Ian was asked at the convergence to explain how the motion to “march to the police lines” was a going to be put into practice with decision to sit down. There was discussion about which speakers to have when we staged the sit down protect.

Perhaps there are things we could have done to ensure the politics of the convergence was expressed more coherently. The hundreds of people who voted up the sit in idea needed to be more organised to co-ordinate the rally and make sure it was followed through. We needed a larger, clearer Stop the War contingent both to lead action and build a profile that will encourage ongoing involvement. We certainly need to build on the momentum from the rally and actively draw the large numbers of contacts into the Stop the War coalition.

A good rally this Saturday can put an activist, antiwar voice into the public debate about the “surge report” and help consolidate people enthused by the APEC rally. A strong anti-war election campaign could see strong actions hounding Howard out of office on an anti-war basis and relate to some of the millions of people mobilising around the polls to change the government.

The national anti-war meeting which took place on Sunday called for a rally on December 9 (the Sunday before human rights day, 10 December) to greet the incoming Rudd government and demand immediate action on the war. For the first time in years we have the opportunity to seriously involve some trade unions in dialogue about the crucial role they could play in this movement. We should try and organise a Stop the War trade union caucus to discuss potential initiatives.

APEC gave us all an exciting glimpse of the impact a growing, politically sharp, militant anti-war movement could have on politics in this country. Lets take this opportunity to turn this into a clearer vision we can unite around and take forward with strength.

Jean Parker

Paddy Gibson

Irene Doutney

Liz Thompson

Liz Turner