CHOGM protest defies intimidation, launches occupation

One thousand people marched through Perth’s CBD on October 28, the first day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), despite a massive security presence. The protest, organised by the CHOGM Action Network (CAN), united activists from numerous campaigns behind the slogan “Justice and Climate Action, Not Racism and War”.

As the rally assembled in Forrest Place, a vibrant contingent of Congolese and Rwandans marched in, protesting the presence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Perth’s Tamil community protested the visit of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Malaysians from the democracy movement Bersih 2.0 also joined the protest. Malaysian democracy campaigner Dr Wong Chin Huat addressed the rally.


Protest march against CHOGM, October 28.

A 100-strong contingent from Walk Away from Uranium Mining joined the rally on the final leg of their 1200-kilometre, 10-week protest walk from Wiluna to Perth. Kado Muir, from the WA Nuclear Free Alliance, spoke on behalf of the contingent, which assembled on stage.

Noongar elder Uncle Ben Taylor gave a welcome to country and Kimberley traditional owner Anne Poelina spoke out against the proposed gas hub at James Price Point. The rally was also addressed by Reclaim the Night spokesperson Virginia Brown, peace campaigner and former Senator Jo Vallentine, Deaths in Custody Watch Committee spokesperson Marianne Mackay and homeless rights campaigner Matt Curry.

Protesters carrying banners reading “Stop deaths in custody”, “Equal marriage rights”, “Renewable energy now”, “CHOGM welcomes war criminals” and “Don’t sit down with murderers, kick out Sri Lanka” marched through Perth’s Murray Street and Hay Street malls before being met by riot police at a blockade on the corner of Hay and William Streets. CAN had previously chosen this site for a sit-down protest in response to police exclusion of the march from “security areas” that surrounded the CHOGM venue, the Perth Convention Centre. The sit-down protest was addressed by CAN spokesperson Alex Bainbridge and Refugee Rights Action Network spokesperson Victoria Martin-Iverson before returning to Forrest Place.

Heavy-handed police tactics

On October 12, the Organised Crime Squad, a special branch of the WA police, raided the homes of three CAN activists and arrested them on suspicion of spray-painting the word “PROTEST” on public property. All three had their phones confiscated and were interrogated in police custody for several hours before being released without charge.

One of those arrested, Colleen Bolger, told the West Australian that it was obvious the police were there for more than spray cans.

“They kept asking about CHOGM and were very interested in leaflets we had around the house”, she said. “When they arrested me they kept saying ‘We know more than you think’, and suggesting that I had been under surveillance.”

“It’s absolutely harassment and an attempt to intimidate us into stopping lawful activities”, Bolger said.

Seamus Doherty, a human rights campaigner and CAN activist, was also arrested after his home was raided. Police confiscated his car after releasing him without charge. Doherty, who is mobility-impaired, told the West Australian that his car and his phone “were his lifelines to work and family” and without them he was suffering “stress and possible loss of a job”.

On October 14, WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan arrogantly defended the raids, telling the media, “We are investigating unlawful activity — we have the power to do it, we will continue to do it.”

Two other CAN activists, Lewis Todman and Alex Salmon, were arrested, held overnight and had their phones seized for allegedly postering in the lead-up to the CHOGM protest. Both will face the Perth Magistrates Court on charges of ‘criminal damage’ on November 22.

Draconian powers

Police powers were vastly expanded between October 19 and November 4 under the CHOGM Special Powers Act, passed earlier this year. Modelled on the draconian measures implemented by the New South Wales Labor government of Morris Iemma for the 2007 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney, the act allowed the WA Commissioner of Police to declare “core security areas” where police could stop and search any person without suspecting a past or future offence.

Under the act, protesters charged with disrupting or interfering with CHOGM events could face up to 12 months’ imprisonment. People as young as 16 could be hauled into closed-door examinations by the Corruption and Crime Commission. Police Minister Rob Johnson said the targeting of 16-year-olds was necessary because “some of the groups looking to engage in extreme acts are known to recruit juveniles and indoctrinate them to their cause”.

WA Labor opposition police spokesperson Margaret Quirk voiced Labor’s support for the draconian measures in January.

On October 24, four days before the beginning of the CHOGM summit, an unknown number of activists were issued with exclusion notices, preventing them entering parts of the CBD and surrounds of other CHOGM venues. Pearl Lim, a spokeswoman for community group Search For Your Rights, slammed the exclusion notices as “draconian” and “a new low”.

“The Special Regulations are more than enough without arbitrary targeting of community members”, Lim said. “These exclusion notices are not outlined in the CHOGM Special Powers Regulations. We have no idea how it is decided who is slapped with one of these notices.”

Two CAN activists — Seamus Doherty and Emma Norton — were issued exclusion notices when  their homes were raided earlier in October. Both were released without charge following the raids. Norton, a student at UWA, told Socialist Alternative, “This is first of all an infringement of my right to protest at CHOGM. But beyond that, the exclusion notice bans me from going to lots of parts of the city, including my university, UWA. I have been unable to study and have already had to miss one test, for Italian.”

Sean Gransch, a Perth rigger and environmental activist, spent the night of October 26 in a police cell, after entering an excluded area. He was granted bail the following day, in the face of opposition from the police prosecutor, who claimed Gransch posed a “serious threat” to CHOGM.

Gransch, who was issued with an exclusion notice on October 24, entered the secure area as part of his work dismantling a stage used for a CHOGM event. “Nothing about this is fair. I don’t think it’s designed to be fair … It’s designed to push and squash the people away from caring about things that actually are mattering to us”, Gransch told the media after his release.

Massive build -up

A massive “security” build-up enforced the raft of anti-democratic laws. Seven hundred police were flown to Perth from other states and New Zealand to assist 3000 WA police, who underwent training in riot control tactics in the lead-up to CHOGM. One thousand navy and army personnel were placed on standby near Perth, along with Special Air Service troops. Eight air force FA-18 Hornet fighter jets were also on standby, along with four Blackhawk helicopters.

Despite this intimidation, the march on CHOGM proceeded peacefully and was followed by a three-day occupation of Forrest Place, in solidarity with occupations that had taken place in more than 2000 cities globally since activists began to occupy Wall Street in September.

The occupation took place despite the state premier, Colin Barnett, having warned Occupy Perth that they would not be allowed to camp in Forrest Place. Around 80 people camped out overnight on October 28. The occupation gained support from passers-by, alarmed by the massive police and military presence and attacks on civil liberties that had taken place.

Failure to address human rights

On October 30, the CHOGM summit concluded with leaders failing to respond to demands for reform of the 52-nation Commonwealth. The Perth meeting was tasked with considering reforms put on the table by the Eminent Persons Group, representatives of 11 member countries assigned to seek ways to make the organisation more “relevant”.

The centrepiece of the proposed reforms was to be the appointment of a human rights watchdog against abuses in member countries. However, this proposal was fiercely opposed by leaders from several countries, led by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa’s government stands accused of war crimes, including air strikes on hospitals and schools in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard attempted to declare the summit a success, heralding a decision to draft a new charter of principles that would rework current agreements and pledges into one document to be finalised in 12 months. “It will bring together the Commonwealth’s values, principles and aspirations in one clear and powerful statement”, she said. However, the charter will not be legally binding.

Occupy Perth has now relocated to the Perth Cultural Centre, where an action is planned to coincide with an International Day of Action on December 10.