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Footage from the recent police raid on the Occupy Melbourne camp in the city square has been circulating globally: ugly Youtube clips of protesters dragged by the hair, cracked over the head, menaced by dogs and so on.
Why did the conservative lord mayor, Robert Doyle, send in his constabulary to disperse a relatively small and entirely peaceful assembly that could quite easily have been accommodated for the foreseeable future?
In an article for the tabloid Herald Sun, the mayor explained his reasoning.
‘The protest,’ he said, ‘[had] been infiltrated by professionals: what were those knives, hammers, bottles, bricks and fuel for?’
Some took that as merely a clueless affirmation of Doyle’s position on the Occupy percentage scale: he was so thoroughly part of the one percent that he didn’t recognize the implements normal people use when camping.
‘Peaceful? Hardly,’ Doyle continued. ‘And how do these protesters explain the knives, hammers, bricks, bottles and flammable liquids that we found in their illegal tent city? What were they for?’
By labelling demonstrators as ‘professionals’, by trumpeting the fearsome arsenal his men had uncovered, Doyle was deliberately invoking the specter of terrorism.
In Australia, the War on Terror has, for the most part, taken place exclusively on our television screens, with the official apologists for Iraq and Afghanistan stressing the necessity for fighting ‘Over There’ precisely so we don’t have to war ‘Over Here’.
But these events provide an illustration of how such conflicts inevitably seep home.
Before 2001, Australian authorities gave a certain institutional recognition of the legitimacy of protest. By rallying regularly, and in large numbers, the social movements of the 1970s established the street march as an accepted facet of the political process. For a while, there was even a tacit agreement (albeit regularly breached) about keeping police off campuses. If the students were marching, well, that was their right, with the universities accepted a degree of disruption in the name of a vibrant political culture.
Those days are well and truly over. The post-9/11 security laws give authorities tremendous powers to use against protesters: during the APEC meetings of 2007, for instance, the NSW government partitioned Sydney into zones and then released a list of people who weren’t permitted into certain areas on the basis not of anything they’d done but on the grounds of what they might do.
In Melbourne, the conservative Liberal Party and the equally conservative Labor Party have been engaged in a law and order bidding, the results of which have manifested in the government’s new ‘public order response team’: essentially, a dedicated anti-protest squad. Even before the assault upon the camp, the policing of Occupy Melbourne was more like the deployment for an international incident (horses, dogs, motorcycles, vans, etc) than a response to a protest of a few hundred people.
Since George Bush explained that you were either with him or with the terrorists, the line between dissent and criminality has been deliberately blurred. We’ve also seen a normalization – indeed, almost a cathectization — of extreme violence.
Occupy Melbourne’s attempts to regroup coincided with local newspapers showcasing images of Muammar Gaddafi’s battered corpse, lovingly reproduced in sufficiently high-resolution so that the bullet wounds to his head could be admired. Once – and not so very long ago either – it was taken for granted that even the vilest criminal deserved due process, that torture and summary executions were barbarous, and that only sociopaths gloated over the bodies of their enemies.
But that’s all so yesterday. These days, footage of a man being kicked and stabbed and dragged off to be shot embarrasses nobody. On the contrary, it’s almost universally accepted as an appropriate backdrop for world leaders to prate about freedom and democracy and humanitarianism.
In that context, it’s no wonder that Doyle feels that Victoria Police did, as he puts it, a ‘magnificent job’. If the protesters were terrorists – ‘professionals’, no less – well, we all know what that follows.
Indeed, the deployment of state violence against anti-corporate protesters provides a happy point of concurrence for neo-conservatives and neo-liberals.
It’s worth recalling that the Melbourne City Square only ever become a public space because the Builders Laborers Federation won a campaign to prevent the council demolishing historic buildings in the area and selling the space to developers.
Because of that victory, the square served, for many years, as a focal point for public assemblies of all kind – until, that is, the early nineties when a right-wing premier sold most of it in one of the privatization sprees that were all the rage back then.
That, then, was the other the justification for the assault on Occupy Melbourne. The camp was, supposedly, interfering with the local businesses — and in today’s world the rights of free enterprise always trump those of free assembly.
Neoliberals might not fetishize violence in the same creepy fashion as their neoconservative brethren but it’s central to their creed that no-one interfere with the sacred workings of the invisible hand. Hence the hostility of a surprising number of establishment ‘progressives’ to the ‘Occupy’ idea: there’s a liberal technocratic mindset for which anti-market protests simply do not compute.
What will happen now?
Organizationally, Doyle’s brutality seems to have given the campaign a shot in the arm, with numbers nearly doubled in the rally the next day. Politically, the Occupy movement in Australia now grapples with all kinds of question about the nature of the state and society.
Whether the camp will be re-established remains to be seen. But the implications of the last week will reverberate on the Australian Left for a long time to come.