Bob Gould, 2006

Tactics at the Melbourne G20 protest

Source: Leftwrites, November 21, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment was a funny movie, but 100 Morgans running around is a political pain in the neck

Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment, starring a very young Vanessa Redgrave, is one of my all-time favourite movies. The penultimate scene, with the whole world chasing Morgan in his monkey suit all over London, is very funny indeed.

One Morgan is OK, but 100 or so southern-hemisphere Black Bloc wannabees trashing police vehicles at an otherwise peaceful but relatively small Melbourne demonstration, in the current reactionary Australian political climate, is something quite different to Morgan’s monkey suit. The essential question is the fact that these irresponsible political adventurers disguise their faces.

I agree strongly with Mick Armstrong’s post on this matter on Leftwrites, and I defer to his knowledge, based on his investigation as to who these people were.

The very act of people from outside a city invading a demonstration in another city with the clear intention of launching a semi-military attack on the cops, with their faces covered, irrespective of the consequences for the rest of the demonstrators, is a calculated political act directed against the bulk of the demonstrators.

People with covered faces who attack the cops, unless they are rather unlucky and their covering falls off, are very dangerous to everybody else at the demonstrations, and quite possibly include fascists and agents provocateur. (I don’t talk about agents provocateur lightly. Over many years of militant activity during the Vietnam agitation I was myself quite unjustifiably called an agent provocateur by assorted Stalinists because of my activities, and this demagogic accusation has just been revived by an apparent Stalinist on the Green Left List because of my view in support of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The people who run the Green Left discussion list have in practice acquiesced in this accusation, and I am still in dispute on this matter with characters who run the Green Left list. So I am pretty conscious of this kind of question. Nevertheless, real agents provocateur certainly do exist, and organised contingents with covered faces clearly facilitate the actitivities of real agents provocateur.)

The police under capitalism

There has been a rather heated exchange on Leftwrites about the cops. The first thing I would say is that in general socialists should always strenuously oppose increases in police powers for obvious political reasons. Nevertheless, the police under capitalism are often shot through with contradictions.

They are usually recruited from poorer blue collar people. Over the years, there have been a number of quite spectacular police strikes over wages and conditions, mainly in English-speaking countries. The major police strikes were in Britain around the end of World War I, when most of the strikers were sacked and some of their leaders joined the Communist Party; the Boston police strike in North America; and by no means least the Melbourne police strike in the early 1920s.

During the Melbourne strike there was a quite unusual incident when Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Mannix and Communist Party Seaman’s Union Leader Tom Walsh spoke on the same platform in support of the strikers. The police strikers were never re-employed and many of the activists in the strike later became activists in the workers movement in other industries.

As Robert Bollard points out, in some industrial disputes in Australia police loyalties have been divided. For instance in Sydney during the Maritime Union dispute the police were very reluctant to come down hard against the unionists and others picketing. There have been other, similar incidents, such as the policeman in a Queensland country town who avoided arresting a bloke who threw a missile at Billy Hughes, which enraged Billy Hughes.

During the Depression in NSW, while the police were pretty brutal at Rothbury, on the NSW Hunter Valley coalfields, where a striker was killed, nevertheless the police in East Sydney joined in with the Labour Army and the Workers Defence Army to crush the New Guard when they attempted to smash up workers’ meetings at Taylor Square.

Police often have roots in their communities, particularly in country towns. This can pull them in contradictory directions. There is and no doubt that country police are often racist against indigenous Australians and this should not be glossed over. Nevertheless, it’s important to look at all the contradictions.

In modern Australia, it’s pretty well known that social and personal relations tend to exist between police, firemen and women, ambulance staff and nurses, and these different groups of workers are all linked by the fact that they deal with each other on a day-to-day basis. They work unsociable hours. Their work is often hard and dangerous and it’s pretty well known that police and nurses often marry each other, being drawn together by the above factors.

In nearly 30 years of running a marginal late-night small business I have had to refine my practical attitude to the police. If shoplifters try to steal books I make a serious attempt to get the books back. I abuse the shoplifters and ban them from the shop. I don’t report minor property matters to the police. If, on the other hand,someone tries to hold up me or my staff with a syringe or a knife etc, which has happened a few times, I do report that to the police because of the element of physical threat.

If I am burgled anywhere I do report that for insurance purposes. If I witness a bag snatch, I do report that because of the physical assault involved. Friends of mine who had their bag snatched also report such incidents to police. I am always courteous and civil to the coppers on the beat in the areas where I trade.

I’d say that’s in practice the way most sensible socialists deal with the contradictory nature of the police under capitalism. I see absolutely no value in either over-emphasising the oppressive aspect of the police under capitalism or demonising the police in their day-to-day civil functions despite the fact that I am well aware of the chronic corruption that plagues the police under capitalism, etc.

There is also, obviously, a new set of factors. I attended some demonstrations in Sydney over the past couple of years, several of which had the rubric of closing down some capitalist institutions such as the stock exchange. Despite declaring to myself that, at 67, I wasn’t going to get too close to the physical action, of course I did, and was the one greybeard among many young people squeezed by police horses around the corner from the Market Street building, which was effectively closed for a few hours by the demonstration.

I had strategic misgivings about rhetoric on closing down the city with small forces, but those protests went off without too much difficulty. A striking feature of those protests was the appearance of a new breed, at least in Sydney, of obviously specially trained crowd control police wearing distinct blue or grey uniforms, physically as tough as nails, and drawn up in semi-military formation.

To people round about I described them as pitt-bull terriers, which raised a bit of a laugh. Incidentally, for no reason that I could fathom, they all seemed to be pretty short. I tried to chiak them a bit, but they weren’t having any, and remained grim-faced and hostile. These cops weren’t obvious at the protests against the recent Lebanon invasion, which seemed to be policed by more or less ordinary coppers.

At the first of those protests there was a very large police presence compared with the size of the protest. I gave a bit of cheek to one of the commanders in front of his underlings, about why they needed so many coppers for a small protest. He was stonyfaced, and refused to respond except in monosylables, but the ordinary coppers around him were cracking little grins.

I don’t doubt that some police are hostile to “people of Middle Eastern appearance”, indigenous Australians and others, partly out of prejudice and partly because of the day-to-day contradictions of policing in some areas. None of these realities seem to me a sound reason for ignoring the contradictions among the police, and instead treating them as a homogenous reactionary mass. Politically, what does that achieve?

Some lessons of past experiences

My experience as a leader of the Vietnam antiwar protests in the 1960s in Sydney provides a bit of insight into the events in Melbourne at the G20 protests. From May 1965 until 1971 I was an organiser of Vietnam antiwar protests in Sydney as secretary of first the Vietnam Action Committee and later the Vietnam Action Campaign.

I was arrested in those years about 12 times, and a bit later I was arrested another dozen times, often over censorship matters. We started as a very small group organising modest protests of 300-400, which grew into actions of about 10,000 under our own banner, and many thousands more in big united-front protests in which we participated with the more influential CPA-influenced peace organisation.

Our united front with the other organisations was sometimes stormy, but we worked hard to preserve the alliance, with some success. When we started out in 1965 the war was still fairly popular. Initially, it had overwhelming popular support. One of our early political advantages was that Labor leader Arthur Calwell, in his own way a very courageous man, dragged the Labor Party into vigorous opposition to the war despite the reluctance of many of his parliamentary and machine colleagues.

In Sydney, as leftists in the Labor Party, we stuck very close to Calwell for strategic reasons around the slogan of withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. The Liberals, who were belligerently pro-war, were in government in NSW and federally, and they imposed draconian rules against protests. For instance, it was illegal to to march in the carriageway of a street and to carry placards on poles because they might be used as a weapon.

The VAC concentrated on Friday evening protests in central Sydney and the more conservative peace movement concentrated on Sunday marches, in which we also participated. Although to some degree we followed the political lead of the US Socialist Workers Party with our emphasis on complete withdrawal of the troops from Vietnam, we weren’t in practice the fetishists that they were in their exclusion of all civil disobedience. A certain mythology has grown up, originating from John and Jim Percy, who in their polemical and historical material talk as if we were fetishists opposed to all civil disobedience.

The first Vietnam antiwar protest I participated in was a sitdown in Canberra in May 1965, at which a bunch of students, including John Percy, Dave Nadel and Albert Langer, were pinched along with a department store book buyer (myself). Our second VAC demonstration towards the end of 1965 was a planned sitdown in Pitt Street, which was described by Helen Palmer in an article for Outlook.

The practical struggle fairly quickly began to hinge on the right to march in the street. If the coppers had overwhelming force, they stopped us. If they miscalculated and there were only a few coppers and a large protest, we overwhelmed them and marched on the street. Quite a few of my arrests were over confrontations about the right to march in the street. A couple of times I was dragged out of high places, such as the guard house of the Garden Island naval base and a tree in the moat of the Polish consulate in Double Bay, during a protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

We were a conscientious, smallish bunch of rebels. We built up our own mail list, which eventually reached 30,000, and we mailed out to every name we had before major demonstrations. Raising the money to do that kept us poor because we didn’t have mass connections in the trade unions, etc, and access to funds, like the Stalinists did.

Taken as a whole, while we confronted authority and the police, we did so with very little violence, none of it initiated by us, and we used the sporadic civil disobedience and necessary confrontations with the coppers over the right to march as a tactical device to build the movement. The Stalinists, whose noses we often put out of joint, developed a myth that I was an agent provocateur, which they spread widely, and which has just been revived deliberately on the Green Left Weekly website.

This arose from the fact that in this kind of situation it was necessary for the serious leaders of the movement to lead from the front. I had a fairly substantial group of associates, but the media publicity often focused on me in the same way it focused on Brian Laver, Mike Jones and Albert Langer. That imposed a kind of responsibility.

We never, ever, deliberately set out to have physical conflicts with the cops, other than the necessary pushing and shoving associated with the right to march, or to release people who had been pinched at protests. I share with Mick Armstrong the honour that we’ve both been pinched at various times on allegations that we’ve tried to rescue people from police vans, and I was very pleased when Mick successfully beat that rap.

We weren’t afraid to collide with authority, but we were constantly monitoring the impact of our street activity in the labour movement, because our aim was to mobilise the labour movement and society in general against the war. We tended to look at the impact of our activities in that framework.

Of course there are differences between that time and now. One was that we had a clear, constantly evolving, focus for our agitation and anger. Vietnam was the first televised war. A second factor was mass conscription for the war, and a third was the rapid development of youth culture. Our musical emblems were Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Country Joe and the Fish.

We were constantly involved in agitation, and I personally helped organise probably three demonstrations a month for about six years in a constantly rising arc. When we started we were in a classic defensive situation, but by the end of it we had conquered a majority of society.

The culture of protests in Sydney and Melbourne was somewhat different. The Melbourne Maoists had a strategy of demystifying the capitalist state through confrontation with the cops, etc. We didn’t have much time for that approach. Occasionally people like Albert Langer would come to Sydney and try to “radicalise” our protests, which were a bit smaller and more militant than the united front protests, but they didn’t get far with that.

It’s kind of flattering personally that I still constantly meet people (who reactionaries call baby boomers) a little younger than myself, who remember me with affection for my agitational activities.

To summarise, we never picked fights with the cops for the sake of picking fights. In fact, in our protests we even in a jocular way adopted the quite non-politically-correct slogan of “overtime for police” (in those days the coppers didn’t get overtime), which often made them laugh.

I don’t think the question of left leadership can be solved abstractly. To get people to follow you at demonstrations, they have to know you, and to have known you for a reasonable time. Leadership isn’t achieved by proclamation. Leading from the front is an essential element. I would imagine that Mick Armstrong, with whom I have some political differences, has won in practice in Melbourne a certain amount of authority among the demonstrating public by leading from the front in the way I’ve described.

If he says something about the Arterial Bloc, it seems likely to me that a lot of people will listen to him. I’m for defending the dingbats who’ve done silly things at protests and got pinched, despite their mistakes, which is what we used to do in Sydney protests against the Vietnam War. The buck usually stopped with me, in fact, in getting people out on bail after protests, sometimes including people whose behaviour I considered wrong-headed and politically dangerous, but solidarity is a separate question.

No amount of romanticism about Arterial Bloc can get past the fact that covering your face in the current defensive political climate facing the workers movement, and then attacking the coppers, is a deliberate blow against all protesters. Whether these people came from Melbourne or elsewhere isn’t a parochial matter, because it’s obvious that people from other cities who put on stunts can escape back to where they came from, leaving the locals to clean up the mess.

Discussion from Leftwrites

Dave Nadel November 22, 2006 @ 9:58am After Jill commented on a previous string about old guys reminiscing (she didn’t use those words, but that was the implication) I am reluctant to get into a debate with Bob over his memories of the sixties, however in the interests of historical accuracy … Albert Langer was not arrested with us in Canberra in 1965. He was still at High School and did not start at Monash until 1966. The Monash Maoists (and non-Maoist fellow travellers like myself) would not have regarded attitudes towards confrontation with cops as the key difference between the Sydney radical antiwar Movement and ourselves. We would have seen the key difference over the question of support for the NLF. The Sydney comrades did support the NLF but seemed to be concerned that public demonstrations of that support might alienate supporters of total withdrawal, which they saw as the key question. Bob and his supporters may well have been right but I did not think so at the time. This is not an attempt to start a debate with Bob over the Anti-War Movement in the 1960s. I will try and make future posts more contemporary and less historical.

Shannon November 22, 2006 @ 11:08am I think that the point to be made in relation to this is that there wasn’t any attempt to lead going on from any other section of the demonstration. Bob’s right about leadership not being an abstract question — but what that means for an analysis of the G20 demonstrations is something completely different to what is implied in the this post. To say that the arterial bloc abdicated political responsibility by taking isolated actions without attempting to politically convince the rest of the rally is fine. It’s true. It’s a point that absolutely must be made in order for people to learn the real lessons of last Saturday and to develop their analysis of the police. But to glorify the role of others (like Socialist Alternative) is wrong. It’s counter-factual. When the red bloc left the demonstration there was no attempt to convince or communicate with the rest of the rally about this tactical decision. There was no leadership coming from anywhere else. And I fully and openly admit that I was in no position to be part of any kind of leadership of the demonstration. I am not trying to have a sectarian slinging match with SA, or anyone else for that matter. But surely, if we’re going to actually engage in a meaningful discussion of what happened on Saturday we have to deal with these facts. The fact remains that a lot of people followed the arterial bloc because they were hungry for some kind of ongoing confrontation. If there was no political intervention about the need to build an ongoing movement, what do we expect from people?

Bob Gould November 23, 2006 @10:28pm I have some disagreement with Shannon’s approach in saying it was a major political error that the Socialist Alternative’s Red Bloc marched in a different direction to the G20 protest at some point. I’m in no position to judge that, but the point must be made that the Red Bloc didn’t have their faces covered and they made their tactical moves fairly publicly. I have some disagreement over the Red Bloc tactic, but that’s a decision for them, and it’s their right to have a Red Bloc if they want to.

I disagreed in the 1960s with people who carried NLF flags and elevated support for the NLF as their major approach. Some of the supporters of that view were quite cynical, such as members of the Communist Party apparatus, who said that was good at VAC actions, but not at the bigger peace movement mobilisations. Some, such as Hall Greenland and some of his friends, conscientiously believed in support for the NLF as a strategy and we never made any attempt to stop people carrying NLF flag. But none of that is the point about the Arterial Bloc.

I’ve read all the statements from this group that have been placed on Leftwrites. It’s a collection of babble, psychoanalysis and other bits and pieces, which is meant to dazzle with science. None of it has very much relevance to what the Arterial Bloc did on the day, which was to try to pick a fight with the cops while hiding behind their masks.

Agonising about the lack of leadership of the left is beside the point. You say that in the absence of leadership, in frustration, some protesters followed the people in the white suits. Well, what force was going to persuade them not to do that? Who had sufficient authority to do so? My earlier point stands. That sort of authority is something you get in struggle, preferably when people can see your face. Should people trying to offer a lead have joined in with the masked people, and also attacked the police?

It’s my view that would have been extremely unwise, given the relationship of forces. The reality is that it was a relatively small protest, which shows that grab-all, rather general rhetoric about globalisation and other evils isn’t a particularly effective way to build a large protest in current Australian conditions. By way of contrast, the trade union movement, the Labor Party and the Greens will mobilise in a few days, on November 30, nationwide actions that will involve tens of thousands of workers and others.

The protests will be that size because the campaign against Howard’s attack on the unions has objectives that are concrete and comprehensible to many people. Mass movements can’t be summoned out of the ground by assertions about the need for the left to take leadership.

I’d draw your attention to this interesting phenomenon: Peter Boyle, the new general secretary of the DSP, and the leader of the faction that has taken it over, seems to have become rather friendly towards the Arterial Bloc. He has posted their babble on the Green Left site, with apparent approval. Certainly he dismisses the idea that their behaviour is likely to have provided much possibility for real agents provocateur.

This is the same character who is the political animator of the Green Left discussion site, on which an individual called Raven has made an allegation that Bob Gould is an agent provocateur, and the moderator of that site has now said there’s nothing she can do about that and it’s a comparatively unimportant matter anyway. So the grey-haired old agitator Gould can be libeled as an agent provocateur, apparently because of his views on the Hungarian revolution of 1956, but the cynics of the DSP leadership bend over backwards to try to accommodate the views of the Arterial Bloc.

This discussion has become very interesting because it sorts us all out as we go along.

Robert Bollard November 23, 2006 @ 10:40pm That is interesting indeed, Bob, if Boyle is following that line. The DSP have always been hostile even to the mildest forms of militancy. They wouldn’t even march in Queensland under Bjelke when even the NSW right was sending some of its leaders up to be ritually arrested. Opportunism makes strange bedfellows.

Tony Iltis November 24, 2006 @ 1:01am Perhaps I’m not getting into the spirit of things by letting facts get in the way of a good sectarian conspiracy theory but readers should check out the following before getting too carried away with speculation about the supposed DSP-Arterial Block axis. Also, Peter Boyle was quite correct to point out that the Arterial Block’s antics was more likely the result of middle class radicalism than police infiltration. There’ll be more in next week’s Green Left.

Karen Fredericks November 24, 2006 @ 8:56am “They (DSP) wouldn’t even march in Queensland under Bjelke when even the NSW right was sending some of its leaders up to be ritually arrested.” Well this rot simply can’t stand. We in the SWP (as the DSP was then called) did more than our fair share of marching (and plenty of other stuff) against Joh — and Beattie when he also tried to restrict political expression in the Queen Street Mall. Where do you get your history from Robert? You’ll have to come up with some evidence for such a ridiculous statement. Of course, we have also organised and participated in large numbers of militant actions in our 40+ years. We just prefer to pick our target and our time … so that there is some chance of victory (or at least gain) for the movement out of taking on the state. Adventurism, delusions of heroism, sacrificial lambism and the “baton over the head” theory of consciousness raising hold no attraction … the point is to get a win for the class — not a rout.

Robert Bollard November 24, 2006 @ 9:21am I got my “history” from first-hand accounts of the IS members who were in the Brisbane Branch in the 1970s. (I joined the IS in 1983 — so it was pretty fresh when I heard it). If they lied to me I would be very surprised. But there you go. As for the 40 years of leading militant struggles. Well, there are, as others have noted, many different ways of defining “militancy”. It’s just that in the 20-odd years of my experience in Melbourne, street militancy, pushing through cop lines, occupations, sit-ins etc, were never the SWP-DSP’s thing. That was more our gig. But maybe I missed something. So when Bob said that Peter Boyle was chummying up to the A Bloc then I thought it … well, a bit rum. I should have checked what he was basing this on. So, all in all, I apologise for slipping a bit into sectarian point-scoring. The devil (the bookshop owner with the pointy horns) tempted me. There are more important arguments to be had at the moment and I have no desire to open up a second front over something as trivial as whether or not the SWP-DSP did or did not ever push through a cop line. So I’ll concede for the moment that you’re all seasoned street fighters and we can all get on with other stuff.

Shannon November 25, 2006 @ 9:20am In response to Bob — I’ve got no disagreement about people’s right to have blocs at demonstrations. I think it can be a useful tactic. I’ve seen red blocs used quite effectively to lead demonstrations into militant action. I’m merely arguing that it’s a bit rich for people to try and claim that there was an alternative pole of leadership within the demonstration. There was not a lot of collective political discussion or decision making going on. In response to the statement from Melbourne Stop the War — I think that the argument that “The fact that the vast majority didn’t (attack the barricades) is an indication that most people felt that this form of direct action was not a useful tactic, in this particular instance, to get our message across” is a little spurious.

People need to be convinced of the political necessity of direct action. It is not about form over content (which is one of my main disagreements with what happened at the demonstration). It is the role of the left within demonstrations to make these kind of arguments. If people thought mass militancy wasn’t tactically useful on the day, that’s one thing. But to try and put it at the feet of the 3000 people at the demonstration is not right. Particularly since I think that the mood on the day was quite militant.