We 30A protestors were in fine spirits when we left Customs Square to converge upon the police lines at the Opera House. In the face of a hostile corporate state we had come together to bear witness for peace, justice and a sustaining Earth at the gates of the Forbes Global CEO Conference. We had heard some inspiring speeches and sworn the Eureka oath together.
We were the valiant few. Police later estimated our numbers at 500. We were much fewer in number than anyone expected but here we were together occupying public space, confident in our strength.
The CEOs were not at the Opera House and we knew it; in fact we soon learned that they were dining at the Overseas Terminal at the other end of the Quay. But we chose to "march" in the opposite direction, to a temporary fence erected and defended by lines of police, dogs and horses.
As the signatory on the Schedule One Notification of the Intention to Assemble and Parade in Public Place, I always assumed that our 30A protest would go to police lines and bear witness. I was also conscious that in fact this "march" had been specifically invited by police liaison, an offer that was both a deceit and a ruse, for they knew that the CEOs would not be there.
But no alternative was ever suggested amongst the 30A organisers and the idea of a "march" to the police lines which were excluding us from public access to the Opera House, took on a momentum of its own and became the thing to do; and me carried along, as much driven as driver.
My original vision was that it be a carnival parade of samba drums and a sea of Eureka and Anarchist A banners; but this had been radically adjusted by the drop out of the Samba Blisstas (scared off by media reports of impending violence) and the events of the day.
After weeks of negotiation to have some height in our parade, specifically the 4.2 metre bamboo poles that hold our banners, on the afternoon of their delivery to Customs House Square they were denied to us by the Operations Special Group (OSG = paramilitary) police on duty there.
As agreed with police liaison I had delivered the flagpoles early, 3 pm for a 5 pm start time. So only a handful of 30A supporters were present and they intimidated by the platoons of OSG police already in position.
Right from the outset the police on duty were aggressive and minutes after our arrival I found myself sitting in Happy Wheels wrestling with the left arm and hand of a Superintendent who had attempted to snatch the keys of Happy Wheels. The key ring also held the loaned key to STUCCO, and, going through my mind as one by one I furiously levered his fingers apart to retrieve my keys, was: "What would my student hosts say if I lost the STUCCO key to the cops?"
Police liaison to the rescue!
The OSG commander on the day was a strutting bonehead by the name of Superintendent Cullen. Although he had not been privy to any of the lead up planning meetings and negotiations, and although he had never held a bamboo flagpole before in his life, he was top gun and suddenly an expert on public safety.
Police liaison introduced me and he shook my hand firmly, avoided my eyes, looked beyond me, puffed himself up in his blue paramilitary fatigues and declared that given the wind conditions (a gusting, light breeze), the poles were a threat to public safety and so verboten.
What would he know! I fetched him a pole with an Anarchist A flag and thrust it in his hand. "Who's feeling unsafe now?" I asked.
But there is no arguing with boneheads. The making and readying of the flags represented weeks of work and now the OSG police were threatening to confiscate them. We stalled and tarried in the pack up, talking to arriving friends and dealing with the media, while police liaison urged us to hurry and lent a hand to dissembling the flags from poles.
Overhead helicopters hovered; three of them and the noise so loud that I could no hear my mobile phone ring and so missed calls including one I had set up for a interview live to air on ABC Radio drive time.
In the cacophony and confusion, the early arriving socialists of the 30A Network skulked in a corner. Only my Nimbin mates, John Peace and French Sam, comrades in many a protest past, were willingly to stand by me and defend to Eureka flag against another police assault; only they in the moment could see the poetry.
And so it was in Customs House Square on 30 August 2005, 150 years and 9 months after the suppression of the Eureka Stockade, we hoisted the Eureka flag and stood truly together in defence of our rights and liberties under the Southern Cross.
The Eureka flag flies in Customs House Square, 30 August 2005, while three police helicopters hover overhead
The Eureka flag high was on a joined 8 metre pole which we tied it to a tree. We retained and handheld four Eureka banners on 4.2 metre poles and about it. John Peace stood fierce and strong in front of the Eureka flag facing the police lines across the Square. He glared at the police, daring them with his eyes and demeanour to try it on. Meanwhile I tipped off the waiting media.
Reinforcements arrived in the form of the CFMEU stage truck and the PA then there were, more people, more fractious negotiations, and more confusion. The threat of confiscation never materialised. But by the time the PA cranked up and the crowd drew near, Happy Wheels, its PA, signage and load of 46 flag poles were in temporary police custody around the corner.
We few Peacebus.com pioneers had held our ground. If only we had been brave enough to defend more of those poles! If only I had not trusted police liaison and arrived later, just in time, when the crowd was there!
Now the speeches were over and we had seen the ghouls of capitalism dance before our very eyes, we were off to the police lines. John Peace strode off carrying his Eureka standard. Eager strangers seized the Anarchist A banners to carry and Simon the Fireman and I together shared the flag bearers' burden of the Eureka flag on the 8-metre pole.
The ghouls of capitalism dance in Customs House Square, 30 August 2005
As we walked together, struggling with the weight and balance of the pole and ducking overhead obstacles, I was moved to say how much I had enjoyed Simon's contribution to the 30A organising and how much I had enjoyed his company. Simon had been a participant and a witness to our disappointed efforts in police liaison. A fire captain and a union activist, he had also worked to get union support for the 30A mobilisation and had been likewise disappointed.
"Mutual," declared Simon and Eureka spirit jumped between us like a spark.
Such was the night and such the feeling in the crowd.
Younger people strode past us and we walked at the back of an eager throng. When we got to the police lines we found it to be defined by a flimsy cyclone wire temporary fence, which was brightly illuminated by the lights of media cameras. Behind the Opera House sails loomed up in the night, a magnificent backdrop. It could have been a movie set. It was!
This insubstantial and non descript piece of temporary fencing was now charged with sudden significance, for here the line was being drawn between the rights of the rich and the rights of the poor.
We ragtag dissenters were being denied access to public place, frustrated at every turn by police obstacles and threats. By contrast the Forbes conference CEOs were being subsided about $30K ahead from NSW State and federal coffers to be there. What's more their right to be there was being defended with the full armoury of police crowd suppression powers and techniques it was a police operation involving some 2,000 officers and an estimated cost of $300K to NSW taxpayers.
The crowd was in high spirits and the drummers (a few bongo beaters mainly) went to the front and danced up the energy. Some of my peace lanterns bobbed overhead. With the fence as the theatrical focus, people soon climbed upon it; me too for a while trying to adjust the 30A banner that had been draped across it.
Gull, a young feral activist who had come up from Melbourne climbed up and sat on the top facing the crowd. She dropped her pants and gave the police behind a brown eye. I had my back to her when she did this, and only saw her look of exultation as she flipped her pants back over her bum. But watching the crowd I saw the women who were watching Gull, whoop with delight.
Soon the flimsy fence was rocking wildly. And soon it came down. But by then I was at the back of the crowd. I heard later of dog attacks, of 12 arrests and a friend suffering a broken collarbone, crushed against a wall by the arrival of the horses.
The breached fence at the Opera House, 30 August 2005
Contested territory, the very thing we had set out to avoid in our early initiated police negotiations, had become the order of the day. Everyone seemed to want it: the police, the media and the dissenters themselves. Indeed it was the defining image of our 30A protest and it flashed about the nation and the world: the rag tag poor battering at gates closed to all but the super rich, their parliamentary courtiers, their servants and their guardians, the NSW Police force. Not an inappropriate metaphor for the times.
It was also another media cliché of protestor violence and another TV ad for increased police powers: something for everyone.
But it was not where I wanted to be, so I set about bringing in the flags lest the fear that they be used as a weapon against the police lines become another self-fulfilling prophecy. Besides which I am old man and it had been a long day: I had been on the go since 6 am, Jennifer and Miffy were locked up in the STUCCO basement and they were calling me for exercise and food. My day was done.
As I was bundling the poles in readiness to shouldering them back to Happy Wheels, Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Layhe, our trust bearing, trust breaking police liaison officer, appeared at my side.
"Where are you going?" he asked. "Out of respect for you and our agreements about poles, I am out of here," I replied. "Here, let me give you a hand," he said.
And so it was that with Andrew at one end, genuinely contrite at the betrayals both he and I had known that day and in days past, and me at the other, together we carried the flags past police and protesters and out of the crowd.
As we walked I gave him some of my reflections on trust and police liaison.
It had been pointed out to me that a common movie plot involving police negotiators in hostage crisis is that the negotiator succeeds in building a relationship of trust with the hostage taker and genuinely works for a non violent, win-win resolution. But behind him are the hard men with guns and they don't give a shit for relationship: they are waiting for the moment to kill. Their superior judgement and decision making power derives from the fact that they have guns and the delegated power of life and death. They know they are right and when the moment is right, they betray and kill. The negotiator is devastated but goes back to work next day.
Andrew laughed at the scenario and said: "If only you knew what it is like being a negotiator in real life." Then he went silent.
Back at Happy Wheels, while Andrew waited patiently, I brewed up a cup of sweet ginger tea and contemplated the illuminated halls of commerce towering all about us and what mighty effort it takes to get noticed in the face of such vastly invested and relentless grunt.
"What a monster Sydney town has become. Who would want to hold power in a city such as this?" I ruminated aloud to my friend and nemesis. "What grief; what suffering to be had." And I quoted from the last testamentary teachings of 17th century Buddhist scholar/poet/missionary to Tibet, Phadampa Sangay: "He who has the most worldly power may have the most evil deeds: hanker not for worldly power."
Andrew grimaced, his mind churning with the betrayals. "My wife sees good in everyone," he replied. "I see the good in some for it shines them. But in others I see the darkness of their souls."
And bearing light is our mission.