About five kilometres from Perth’s CBD, as the F/A-18 Hornet flies, an earnest group of young people were gathering on the edge on the CHOGM security area. They had been told to meet at the roundabout on Bolton Avenue for a six o’clock start and had arrived suitably early. They didn’t appear entirely sure where to go, but the edge of the CHOGM security area seemed like a pretty safe bet.

A stone’s throw away from the Burswood Convention Centre, where Julia Gillard was attending a gala dinner at the CHOGM Business Forum and arguing in favour, as the protesters put it, of making the world’s poor even poorer, Bolton Avenue’s roundabout was to serve as the site of a warm-up protest ahead of Friday’s much-anticipated march on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Not that the protesters would have dared to throw any stones, of course. From the moment the CHOGM Action Network’s Alex Bainbridge showed up, carrying all the placards and banners and giving the early arrivals someone to follow after, the police presence in the area began to grow with disconcerting rapidity.

Bainbridge would later tell me that the media has played up the police crackdown on protesters so it doesn’t have to play what they’re protesting about at all. I was more than happy to do so, but in the meantime it was difficult not to notice, as the banners were unfurled and a cord around the bullhorn unwrapped, that the two yellow-vested police officers on the corner had suddenly become 10 and that the suited fellow out the front of the hotel had suddenly become six. I had arrived maybe 10 minutes before anyone else, the first at the protest but not a protester, and had tapped along to the otherworldly throbbing of the police helicopter overhead. Now there were two of them, and they were flying lower.

Bainbridge, red-bearded, fanny-packed and politically shirted, ignored it all. Instead he led his ragtag bunch — only one of whom, I noted with some disappointment, was wearing a tutu with his tight jeans and Doc Martens — away from the roundabout and up a small embankment to look out on the police officers who were stationing themselves at regular intervals opposite. A protester who might have looked a little like Norm Macdonald from a distance were it not for his mild platypus lips took charge of the banner calling for 100% renewable energy by the beginning of next decade. Someone else took charge of the one that proclaimed: “Our Lives are Worth More Than Their Profits”. Bainbridge brought everyone in close for a moment and I wondered whether or not he was going to tell them what slogans to scream should the police go berserk and try to throw them in the paddy wagon.

“I’m just wondering,” he said, “whether we shouldn’t move over there.” He pointed to a position back towards the roundabout. “That way Seven will be shooting towards us from over there and Nine will be shooting towards us from over there. After they’ve done their live feeds we can come back over here.” Cameramen from Nine and Seven were shooting him as he floated this idea. So were several newspaper photographers.

If the police outnumbered the protesters, it seemed to me, then the media outnumbered the police. One group wore purple-and-white CHOGM Protest stickers, another wore National Visits Media Cards on lanyards, and the last wore guns and expressions of disdain. “The reason I like this spot, though,” a voice came from behind the “Our Lives” banner, “is because it’s the activist equivalent of sticking our fingers in the cops’ face and saying, ‘I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you’!”

Thus the decision was made to move. As the sun went down on the buildings across the river, and the television lights warmed up across the road, a banner advertising the time and place of Friday’s march was produced and appropriately positioned. Bainbridge began to lead the group — whose numbers would climb from about 25 at this point to a high of about 40 an hour later — in a call-and-response that similarly advertised the protest. When he eventually switched to another rhyme with a rather less promotional message — “What’s outrageous?” “Sweatshop wages!” What’s disgusting? Union busting!” — there was a little bit of confusion on the part of the chorus but he eventually got them in unison again. “We’re going to be out here in big numbers on Friday!” Bainbridge yelled into the bullhorn to polite applause.

While I was finding myself slightly tickled by the behaviour of the well-intentioned protesters, on the one hand, I was also finding myself slightly disturbed by that of the police, on the other. As the former group railed against the Prime Minister — “Lock up Gillard! Throw away the key! We won’t stop ’till we free the refugees!” — two members of the latter emerged from the trees opposite, one of them carrying a clipboard and the other an unsheathed baton. Only it wasn’t a baton but a monopod, about the length of his forearm, with a tiny digital camcorder screwed onto it at the head.

Then there was the curious man who looked like Vladimir Lenin from one angle and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White from another. Dressed in a sky-blue shirt and a navy jacket with purple lining, I initially thought he might be nervous about coming over and joining the anti-capitalist fun. But then, when he did finally come over, he just stood there like a mob enforcer, a little off to the side, glaring. I had just about convinced myself that he was a plain-clothes police officer when he purchased a copy of Green Left Weekly from someone. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

The journalists had meanwhile begun realise that there probably wasn’t going to be any violence. The Communist Party representative was taking his turn out the microphone, taking the art of the non sequitur to strange new heights, and they decided to call in their stories rather than keep listening to him. “They’re mostly Socialist Alliance members,” The West Australian‘s reporter told his superiors. “There’s probably more media here, to be honest … No, well, don’t say that. Let’s be generous. Make it 50. No, man, we’re just waiting for Julia Gillard to drive past, see what happens …” He eventually hung up. “That was a big sigh,” a female colleague remarked. “Oh, you know …” The Communist Party representative pumped his fist.

I was meanwhile talking to Bainbridge about the purpose of this week’s series of protests. After citing the usual spate of issues taken up by the Australian far-left — Aboriginal rights, an end to mandatory detention, the withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan, a commitment to renewable energy — Bainbridge turned his attention to Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, whose right to visit Australia, he argued, let alone their right to take part in CHOGM, should be objected to in the fiercest of terms.

Whatever one thinks of Bainbridge’s other policies and the assonant doggerel with which he promotes them, the activist’s condemnation of this sorry pair is certainly more than warranted. A brief of evidence compiled by the International Commission of Jurists recommends that Rajapaksa be investigated for alleged war crimes, along with Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe. In a diplomatic cable from January last year, US ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis said that responsibility for alleged war crimes perpetrated against ethnic Tamil civilians at the end of the country’s long-running civil war “rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Rajapaksa] and his brothers”.

One needn’t excuse the Tamil Tigers’ atrocities in that same war to know that an estimated 7000 civilian deaths cannot be excused or ignored without a great deal of casuistry. Of course, Colombo and Canberra are working closely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers to the latter’s shores.

Meanwhile, Kagame presides over a sham democracy that The Economist has compared unfavourably to Zimbabwe’s, and that the International Federation of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have accused of “serious violations of international humanitarian law”. Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army has been accused of systematically massacring Hutus in Rwanda when he took power, and then again in Congo after he ordered the army to invade and loot the place of some $100 million in minerals.

“I understand that sometimes you have to observe diplomatic niceties,” Bainbridge told me. “But I haven’t heard Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd say anything of anything substance against Sri Lanka, for example. We’re aligned with these criminals.” Where Barack, Tony, Nicholas and the rest must hate all those of photographs of themselves with Muammar, so is Julia likely to one day regret getting up close and personal with Mahinda and Paul.

Bainbridge said that serious coverage of such human rights issues had been deliberately overshadowed by stories about the police build-up and, more recently, by the fact that the CHOGM Action Network and the Occupy movement are making common cause together. “Everyone is interested to see how these two movements will come together — including myself, to some extent — but the media’s interest has more to do with cashing in on the current cachet of Occupy Wall Street than it does with engaging with the issues we’re talking about.”

I got the impression that Bainbridge was happy with the evening’s eventual 40-strong turnout. It was, as he announced at the beginning of the proceedings, a warm-up event, after all. But he also told me that he’s really hoping for hundreds more — ideally, more than a thousand — at the end of the week.

He confirmed that Friday’s march would go through CHOGM security areas, where protesters will be subject to random police searches, but denied he had ever said protesters would breach any restricted areas as originally reported by The West Australian. “There have been a number of acts over the last ten years that have given police special powers while curtailing our civil liberties,” he said. “Each one of these acts has been worse than the last and it’s important that people are made aware of that pattern. But we’re not going to risk 12 months in prison by crossing any roadblocks or anything like that. Do we look like a security threat?”

They didn’t. Some of the protesters were beginning to fall back, sharing cigarettes and exchanging phone numbers. “So are you over from Newcastle, too?” one asked. “No, I’ve come from Sydney,” said the other. Those left holding the banners were smiling for yet another television camera. At some point it had been decided not to bother moving back to the first spot. A middle-aged protester in a bucket hat and headphones looked at the three cassette tapes in his hands before finally deciding upon one for his Walkman. The Communist Party representative tried to get another chant going, but Bainbridge was still holding the bullhorn. Lenin decided he was Bryan Cranston after all and walked off without his leftist newspaper.

“The police are more than welcome to search all 1000 of us if they want,” Bainbridge said. “But I think that they’ll look pretty silly if they try.”

Peter Fray

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