Why the Stop Bush, Make Howard History protest was a success

Without wanting to endorse the specific approach of the DSP, we can't help but agree that there was a lot of ultra-left posturing in the lead up to the Stop Bush demonstration. Thank goodness that the sense of the demonstrators won through and it was a peaceful and disciplined march.

By Pip Hinman and Alex Bainbridge, DSP

The success of the Stop Bush protest on September 8 during APEC was not only a victory for the progressive movements, it revealed that the mass action tactics being advanced by the DSP/Resistance and the Socialist Alliance and others throughout the debates among the Stop Bush Coalition over how to organise this particular protest proved correct.

From the outset, since the Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference in 2005, we argued that the visit of George Bush to Sydney for APEC would be the key mobilising draw card given the US-led role in Iraq and Afghanistan. We argued that despite how hated John Howard is, he would not pull the same attention.

Given that it was apparent for about a year that APEC would be close to an election, most people (rightly or wrongly) would be more interested in just voting him out.

We also argued that focusing on APEC as a summit protest would not work not only because APEC is not a significant trade organisation, even for the capitalists, but also because the post-Seattle anti-globalisation movement had, in all significant respects, become the anti-war movement in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and beyond.

Focus on Bush

The focus on Bush was disputed among the left: Solidarity and the International Socialist Organisation (caucusing with each other) were unconvinced, as was Socialist Alternative at the outset.

A Solidarity position paper sent to the Stop the War Coalition organising list on May 4 stated: "The biggest possible protest will be achieved by politically building our actions as an opportunity to mobilise against the Howard government's agenda (including its neo-liberal agenda for the region) to help kick them from office and build stronger movements in the process."

However, most were convinced that having a focus on APEC would not be a strong drawcard (apart from the Greens who also changed their tune closer to the protest).

Solidarity, along with the ISO, until the last minute, argued that Howard had to be the protest's main focus.

Their reasoning was that: as Australia was hosting APEC; as Australian imperialism is increasing its militarisation of the Asia Pacific region; and as it cements an even closer alliance with US, having a focus on Howard would help build a movement to throw the Coalition out of office. While we agreed with the political critique of Australia's imperialist role in the region, we disagreed that the sentiment against Australia's role in the region, and the more abstract question of its alliance with the US, was enough to bring people out into the streets during APEC.

While the organised section of the anti-war movement has dwindled in Australia since 2004, with the invasion anniversary events shrinking to some 800 people in Sydney this year, we judged that the anti-war sentiment could be mobilised onto the streets when Bush was in Sydney. This was confirmed when US vice-president Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Sydney in February. We had just two weeks to organise a response, and more than 500 people turned up to one protest, defying the police crack down, and about 150 to another the next day.

The following paragraphs are Solidarity's position (largely supported by the ISO throughout the debates) from their May position paper, a position its members were arguing right up until the protest on September 8.

"Within Stop Bush 07 committee, there has been a perspective that focussing on Bush, 'world's number one terrorist', and doing promotional work for this demonstration will bring large numbers of people and re-invigorate the anti war movement. This is demonstrative of a tendency [they mean Socialist Alliance] that has held back Stop the War Coalition since the February 2003 rallies - the idea that there is a big antiwar 'sentiment' in society that can be brought into action simply by promoting some particular rally."

But this is exactly what happened on September 8, and Solidarity is not honest enough to admit that they were wrong.

Solidarity continued:

"By itself Bush being here won't build big demonstrations. It will of course be a particularly significant focus and give poignancy to any demonstration such as we saw when Cheney was in town."
"But for the movement to be built and bigger numbers won to the importance of street demonstrations, Stop the War cannot fold into logistics for "stopping Bush", but must redouble its efforts to creating domestic political issues out of the international situation - linking the war to prominent local concerns of the day such as Workchoices ..."

Civil rights attacks

The 10,000-15,000 [sic] peaceful protest in Sydney proved Solidarity's perspective wrong. But rather than let facts get in the way, they are now arguing that it was their focus on the excluded persons' list that brought the massive crowd onto the streets. That despicable fear campaign by the state would have helped make people angry about the security overkill, but it did not bring people into the streets.

If anything, the lightening rod that made people decide to come out was the extreme lengths to which the state was prepared to go to keep people away, and to stop people from entering certain parts of the city - the security overkill - which the Chasers' stunt so well sent up. When the barricades went up, the water cannons, the snipers, the mobile police units, and the excluded people list came out, people were rightly enraged.

But being angry doesn't necessarily mean that will take action. The Stop Bush Coalition's emphasis on the need for these protests to be peaceful to draw in the largest numbers of people, and to show up the violence of Bush and Howard and the police state - put largely by DSP member Alex Bainbridge, media spokesperson for the Coalition - had a huge impact on people deciding to come out on the day. We know that because so many people, not members, have told us.

Relating to the unions

Solidarity agreed, rightly, that it was important to involve more groups - in particular climate change groups and the unions. But they were only prepared to work with those who shared their overall political perspective.

They paid lip service, at best, to wanting to work with the unions: the fact that the couple of unions which did decide to support the Stop Bush protests, the Maritime Union of Australia and the Fire Brigades Employees Union, stressed that they would only do so if the rally was peaceful was lost on Solidarity. And it was largely us, and ISO member Jim Casey from the Fire Brigades Employees Union, who did most of the work to get union support.

UnionsNSW had, early on this year, met and decided not to allow its union affiliates to support the Stop Bush Coalition protest, on the pretext that it did not want union flags to be mixed up with "protestor violence" as that would jeopardise Labor's chances of being reelected. This was how the left union, the CFMEU, explained it to one of the protest organisers. When it looked like the protest was growing, AFTINET decided to organise a stationary "protest" in Hyde Park, on the Friday, an opportunity for unions to be seen to be doing something about APEC.

While it was always clear that the Labor state government was preparing for a huge security operation for APEC, just how big that was to be was revealed with the new police powers laws being leaked to the media, and then all the equipment and numbers of police being assigned.

The militarisation of Sydney for APEC was clearly going to scare a lot of people away from joining the protest. But Solidarity, along with the ISO and some anarchists, were opposed to the Stop Bush Coalition declaring that the protest would be peaceful from the start. For them, this had pacifist connotations, and would send the wrong signal that the protestors were not defiant, or militant, enough!

While they continued with this ultra-left posturing right up until the very last minute, it did not receive majority support from non-aligned activists in the Stop Bush Coalition meetings.

Ultra left posturing

Solidarity and their anarchist friends scored a phyric victory at the 500-strong convergence meeting the night before the protest when Ian Rintoul (a leader of Solidarity) put a counter motion to the first part of a motion being moved by the majority of the tactical committee about the march route.

This first part of the tactical committee's motion (moved in the name of Alex Bainbridge (Socialist Alliance), Anna Samson (Stop the War Coalition), Damien Lawson (Greens), Diane Fields (Socialist Alternative), Paddy Gibson (Solidarity) and Paul Garrett (MUA) was:

"That we confirm the planned march route for tomorrow's rally will be from Town Hall, down Park Street to Hyde Park North".

Solidarity's counter motion was: "That we reject the prohibition of demonstrations in the declared zone and declare that we will march to the police lines to assert our right to protest and our opposition to APEC, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to their nuclear agenda and to Workchoices and the attack on workers rights."

Solidarity's motion won 273 to 221, largely with the help of the Socialist Party, Workers Power, ISO, Alliance for Civil Disobedience Coordination, Latin America Solidarity Network - from Melbourne. From Sydney, Mutiny, Flare in the Void, and some others also supported it.

Ian Rintoul, at the time, admitted his motion would not actually change the march route. He knew that the Stop Bush Coalition had been informed by the NSW police that they would be lining the march route and that given the huge mobilisation of police, there would no chance of breaking through police lines. But he, and others, insisted that it was the "attitude" of the motion that was different.

Solidarity's motion was a posture, designed to make out that they were the "militants". This is despite their consistent refusal to take any serious responsibility for the overall organisation of the protest, a product of their lack of political confidence in the overall shape of the protest as supported by a majority at every Stop Bush Coalition meeting.

(Solidarity's lack of confidence in the rally and its political focus was confirmed again on the Saturday afternoon when two of their members admitted that they'd only expected 3000 people to show up. The Stop Bush Coalition had been publicly saying it had expected 5000 or more.)

The rest of the tactical committee's motion, which was unanimously adopted, was:

"That we plan a sit-down (or die-in) in the middle of the march
"That we endorse the list of planned speakers (overleaf)
"That we all on all groups and individuals to respect the unity and diversity of the Stop Bush/Make Howard History protest."

The tactical committee's motion had been discussed and moved by a majority of the tactical committee, although a member of Solidarity had implied on the Stop Bush organising list that the sit-down motion was his idea.

Having lost the overall political debate about tactics, Solidarity, and others, are now trying to scandalise the DSP, in particular, for not respecting a "democratic decision" of the convergence meeting to sit-down at the police lines.

This is untrue. As already mentioned, a lot of people did sit down, some many times, and a lot didn't (some because the ground was wet).

The biggest sin, apparently, was that Alex didn't announce that there would be sit-in from the platform!

After the first bracket of speakers, Alex went to the corner of George and Park Streets to organise to get a mobile sound system there for the sit-down and the middle bracket of speakers. But getting any sound to that point was difficult given the police obstruction and size of the march. In any case, the unions led the march off, and everyone starting moving, although a section at the back of the march remained at that corner.

The MUA and others organised a longish sit-down at the front of the march. Others organised their own - to make a statement that the city belonged to us, not the cops. The inadequate sound system meant that a lot of people with megaphones, including Alex, and Paul and Warren from the MUA, and the union secretary from Geelong (also a Socialist Alliance member), urged people to sit down.

The criticism that the motion's "politics of defiance" and our rejection of the exclusion zone was not put from the platform is also absurd. The Stop Bush Coalition, from the beginning, has stressed that it did not accept the special police powers and the exclusion zone (organising public meetings around this very theme, and constantly putting this line through its media work). This political line was not only put at the rally by the co-chairs, it was also put by most, if not all, of the speakers.

The criticism that the motion was to march to the police lines and this didn't happen is bizarre. The rally was already at police lines before the march had even started to move!

Paul (MUA), Paddy (Solidarity) and Alex were at the corner of Park and George Streets and agreed that a sit-down would happen when the front of the march reached the second set of lights. Paddy agreed with this course of action. Alex announced it over the megaphone as the rally marched off down Park Street.

We were at the police lines - we couldn't have gone any closer without trying to bust through them. But is this what Solidarity wanted to do?

Solidarity, Socialist Party, ISO and others did canvass among themselves a day before whether they would try and bust through police lines on the Saturday, and decided that they would only be able to muster a small number of people to go with them and therefore decided against carrying out this ultra-left stunt.

The questions that Solidarity (and the ISO) should be asked include:

Why did they want a clash with the police?

How would that have advanced the confidence of the movement?

If they had decided to have a clash, it would have only have fed into the police operation, and it certainly would have helped John Howard in his much hoped-for post-APEC electoral boost.

The fact that the majority who came to the protest denied Howard his much-needed APEC electoral boost with our determination to carry out a peaceful protest in the face of huge provocation.

This shows that the mass action approach which the DSP, Resistance and Socialist Alliance had argued for in the Stop Bush Coalition for almost a year, was correct. It allowed the Coalition to win a section of the union movement, the Greens and other non-aligned movement activists to play a big role in making this protest a success. This is also in a context in which the Sydney anti-war movement coalition, Walk Against War, had been split by the ALP after the Iraq invasion.

Mass action approach

The feeling on the streets on September 8 was electric and defiant - but apparently not enough for Solidarity and a section of the anarchists whose long faces stood out from the crowd.

They argued that their motion was different because it conveyed "the politics of defiance"! They seemed to completely miss the fact that people who came to the rally were very consciously being defiant.

Solidarity's argument is the argument of those who wish to separate themselves out - the so-called "militant minority" - from other working people.

They believe, wrongly, that they have to show everyone else how to think and behave politically, and that this is "leadership". In fact, the real leadership was shown by those who took up the challenges of organising a protest in difficult circumstances, who did the work instead of only turning up to meetings to criticise and point score, and who were prepared to discuss with people who did not always share their opinions the often tricky tactical decisions. Real leadership was shown by those who knew the movement would gain confidence from having pulled off a huge rally.

Trying to scandalise the DSP, now, for the success of the protests back fires badly on Solidarity (and the ISO).

The success of the Stop Bush protest was that it managed, under very difficult circumstances, to bring out a slice of that pre-war rally in February 2003.

The strategy followed by the DSP/Resistance and Socialist Alliance was one of mass action: that is, to build a broad united front around concrete demands. It is a general strategy, there is no rule book to follow, and certain political realities dictate certain choices.

This is a vastly more effective strategy than trying to separate out a "militant" minority from the rest of us.

The mass action approach derives from our understanding of how change comes about, through the self consciousness and self-organisation of the working class. Our tactics should be geared to drawing in the mass of workers into active struggle and not tactics that drive those workers out of struggle and help the ruling class strengthen its ideological influence in the working class.


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