Watching s11 on TV

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

September the eleventh in the year 2000. This was s11. As part of a global uprising against neo-liberalism, Melbourne was the setting for one of the most remarkable radical actions in Australian history. To all those who took part, in a spirit of rebellion, desire, defiance and liberation, thank you.

Sadly I didn’t make it to s11. As I was preparing to go, my landlord (bastard!) decided that he wanted to kick my family out of our home and put the rent up. So, while I was considering whether I could go to blockade the World Economic Forum, where the rich and powerful would discuss and decide how to continue to destroy our lives, the harsh world of capitalist social relations threw my life into more chaos. During the months leading up to s11, I was involved in the Wollongong s11 collective, which helped to organise in preparation for the actions in Melbourne. Many local people took part in the collective’s activities, which included many meetings, forums, film nights, shows, education, blockade training and the wide distribution of information about s11 and the fight against ‘corporate tyranny’.

Around 100 people traveled from Wollongong to Melbourne for the s11 days of action. On Thursday (s7) I got up at 6am and headed down to the trade union centre to help see off the first group of local s11ers. Twenty people, many of them my friends, packed their bags, food and camping gear onto the bus and after having a cuppa or a bit of breakfast, headed off to Melbourne. On Saturday (s9) I was again seeing people off, in the second Wollongong s11 bus. One of my friends had his mobile phone with him and I implored him to ring me every hour on s11. “No, in fact, why don’t you just ring at the beginning of the blockade and just leave the phone on until the end,” I said. For days I had found it difficult to sleep, tossing and turning, as I drifted in and out of nightmares of police attacks and injured blockaders. As the last bus left and disappeared around the corner, I was expecting to feel some relief after the months of intense and anxious preparation. But that was not to be. I spent the next two days and nights fretting over every possible worse case scenario.

On Monday s11 I got up early and immediately put on the radio. It wasn’t until 9am that a report came through from Melbourne. “Thousands of people have blockaded every entrance into Crown Casino, severely disrupting the meeting of the World Economic Forum. Several protesters have been injured. The protest began turning ugly when mounted police and other officers moved in.” My initial reaction was a mixture of excitement, anxiety and anger. The news that the blockade was successful, that more than ten thousand people had joined in and bravely faced off the cops was a total rush. The fact that the cops had attacked, that people were hurt and that my friends were there, made me feel sick.

I received no day long mobile phone calls and I was unable to contact anyone I knew at the blockade, all day. That night I stood and watched the TV news showing some of the police attacks. I watched WinTV, channel 9, 7, SBS and the ABC. “Violent protest/protesters, unAustralian” they all shrieked as the pictures showed cops batoning people and riding into them with horses. The next day, the morning broadcasts announced that many blockaders had been taken to hospital after the police broke through using batons, motorcycles and horses. That night my daughter and I watched the TV screen fill with images of police violence. Riot police waded into the blockades, swinging batons, beating people and the cameras panned around to show the resulting injured and bleeding blockaders. My horror was broken by a series of quick questions from my daughter. “Who is there daddy? Is Dave there? Was that Alexander?” Her thoughts were a mirror of my own, as I scanned the crowd hoping not to see anyone I knew. “No, sweetie,” I assured her, “there are lots of people there. I’m sure our friends are alright.” I lied, as much to reassure myself as her. But it made no difference. Those people being beaten were my friends, my comrades, whether I knew them or not.

I watched every TV news broadcast I could during the three days of the blockade, often jumping from one channel to the next, trying to catch as much footage as possible, in a state of excitement and dread. I tried to stand in front of the TV to shield my youngest daughter from the images of police violence. But there was no hiding my anxiety or that of the rest of the family. Watching the news of s11 reminded me of the day we saw the attacks on the Patrick’s dockers’ flash across the screen. As the images of security thugs dragging workers from their jobs were beamed into our lounge room, I stood stunned, cursing and loudly exclaiming amazement as the darkened wharves swarmed with hired goons, dogs and fear. The impact of this short news piece really hit me when my daughter asked me; “What’s happening daddy?” I started raving emotionally about how this was a fascist attack by the Government and the bosses, but the look on her face made me stop. I was in despair and she knew it. What could I say to reassure her and myself? We had friends who worked on the docks and we had been preparing for this attack for over a year. She had heard our endless discussions about the army and police preparations to break the wharfies’ and how we were going to try and stop them. “We are going to fight those bastards darling,” was all I had.

The following night the pickets were set up and I was at Port Botany nervously waiting for the police to come and try to break through. It was a long cold night that first one outside the darkened dock on a lonely road by Botany Bay. As the wind blew in from the sea, chilling us to the bone, we stamped our freezing feet and tried to warm our hands by the fire. The picket that night was mainly made up of young wharfies’ and communists. We were expecting an attack to come at any time. People didn’t talk much, but nervous anticipation was on everyone’s face. We knew why we were there and the tension made it clear we were expecting and prepared to fight. Various obstacles had been created, things to assist a struggle had been gathered and occasionally a few of the young wharfies’ would throw something over the fence at the company goons. In the early hours of the morning word came that ‘they’ were coming to try and break the picket. Would it be cops, thugs, the army? We waited and waited. The night wore on and on until eventually day broke. That night ‘they’ didn’t come.

My eldest daughter doesn’t like cops. When she was very little we were on a demo in Wollongong when a cop grabbed me and I had to struggle free. Ever since she has had a fear and hatred of police. But, I don’t want my kids to grow up in fear. Why should they have the threat of violence hanging over their heads whenever the powerful decide to teach them a lesson about who is boss. I’m sick of school principals and teachers complaining about my daughter’s defiance, when she questions their authority. They don’t like the fact that she has a sense of power and self confidence, which we have tried to help her build, to protect her from abuse. They try to break her spirit, because she has an independent mind and a strong will and she will talk back when she feels the situation deserves it. They don’t like it. But I am proud that she fails to obey instructions when she feels they are wrong. One day, I was called in to see the principal of her school. It was the same old question; “Why is your child so defiant?” After listening to what had happened, I pointed out that it was her teacher who had done the wrong thing and that my daughter was standing up for herself because no-one else at the school was. “Look,” I said, “last week she came with me up to the pickets at Port Botany. When the cops said move, we said no. She saw that when people in authority tell you to do something you have a choice, you can do what they tell you, or you can defy them.”

As we watched s11 on TV that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to jump into the screen and join the blockade. I wanted to defy the police and help the injured and those under attack. Standing powerless in front of the TV reminded me of an article I once read which described watching television as a form of death worship. As the images of fascistic looking riot police smashing people’s heads in, blurred into ads for McDonalds and pain killers, I again felt my nausea rising. For many people s11 was a near death experience. But, I wish I had been there. Because s11 was also a transforming joy and a taste of the possible, a glimpse of a world where people stand together, support each other; struggle to make life better, share and care. s11 re-awakened many people’s imaginations and gave them some power and freedom to challenge the corporate reality that the police attacks sought to reimpose.

During those days of action in Melbourne, five hundred blockaders had to be treated by medical officers. Many of them were so badly injured by the police that they had to be hospitalised. People were repeatedly beaten with batons, cracking their heads open, smashing their teeth out and resulting in blood pouring from their ears. These attacks to people’s faces and heads were potentially lethal. The police also deliberately trampled people with horses and ran into and over them with unmarked police cars. The fact that they didn’t kill anyone, during these vicious attacks, was pure luck. This ultra-violent police operation had been planned for nearly two years and involved a sophisticated barrage of media lies and distortions. Yet, the frenzied TV, radio, press, political and police campaigns to prepare for and create violent attacks, failed to deter thousands of people. They bravely defied the largest police operation in Victorian history.

Of the local people who traveled down to s11, three were arrested, two charged with criminal damage (for gluing a padlock), some had severe bruising from being hit and kicked by cops or horses and one had a dislocated shoulder. Many, when they returned to Wollongong, were suffering various degrees of post traumatic stress. The local s11 collective provided information and support to those that needed it and I spent a number of days debriefing with people who had been attacked by police, seen other people severely injured or had stood for hours waiting for the police to attack. On the Saturday morning after everyone got back it was a beautiful spring day. I sat in the botanic gardens with one of the people who had helped provide medical aid to those hurt by the police. This young man had seen much of the results of the police attacks. As we sat on the grass under a shady tree with birds flying overhead and children playing nearby, he described helping people with blood pouring from head wounds and other experiences that sounded like they were from a war zone. As I listened I wanted to reassure him and offer my support. Yet, as I did, I knew that nothing I could say would make him feel completely safe from the state organised violence that continually darkens our lives.

I went home to my family and spent the rest of the weekend trying to have fun, rest and relax. My daughters and I were happy to know that all of our friends were relatively OK and we played together in the sunshine. But, my mind was still full of s11, the images, feelings and thoughts of that week in September. I will never forget the experience of watching s11 on television and those days of nervous excitement and worry. The feelings of powerlessness and power, of anxiety and exhilaration, of fear and anger, of sadness and joy. A few days after sitting in the botanic gardens, everyone in the family went out and I was left alone. I sat in the peace and quiet and cried.

Nick Southall

  1. […] September 11 2000 was the date of the s11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne (see post below) and September 11 1973 was a pivotal day for millions of people in Chile and for those supporting […]

  2. Reblogged this on The Word From Struggle Street and commented:
    “Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.”

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