This is what the centre of the universe looks like: stern concrete barricades, smeared perspex walls, steel mesh fencing, beetling police armoured cars and stocky coppers weighed down with weaponry. Occasionally, clutches of suited bodies scuffle along the pavements, lanyards swaying in the shape of a smug smile, phones held tightly to ears. Shadows etch Brisbane’s brutal light as it’s thrown against Southbank’s unyielding shapes. Even the litter seems too unnerved to wander. It’s a bubble of flashing amber traffic lights, of cavernous serenity, soulless and quiet.
It was 8.30am on Saturday outside the Brisbane Convention Centre, epicentre for the G20 Summit, which, as a helpful policeman let me know, was already underway inside. As we spoke, a subterranean roar chundered up from the maw of a car park, and eight two-wheeled beasts, three police cars, a van and a limousine with a tiny Saudi flag fluttering on its bonnet surged out. The keffiyehed head of King Abdullah could be seen in privileged, glass-tinted stillness in the limo’s back seat.
If you listened hard, you might have heard it. Out there in the deadly heat, already nearly 30 degrees and building to touch 38, were the people. And they were coming.
Yellow-shirted Falun Dafa demonstrators meditated and smiled at the police and quietly handed out brochures on forced organ donation in China. One of their members, who refused to be named, told me in heavily accented English that his mother had been imprisoned in a labour camp because of his dissidence. She is still in China, free but presumably cowed. He wanted to talk to Chinese President Xi Jinping. I wished him luck.
Amatus Douw stood in a lime green shirt and tie holding a banner and calling for reforms in and recognition for West Papua. He and his wife, standing next to him, wanted to speak to the leaders of Australia, Indonesia, Canada, the United States, China and South Africa. I wished them luck.
Toyoshige Sekiguchi stood alone and fairly forlornly in the baking heat on Hope Street. He was dressed in monk’s robes and held a small drum, which he tapped rhythmically with a Kilometrico pen. He had spent the past five years walking from country to country to bring a message of nuclear disarmament and peace. He apparently had no English. But I wished him luck.
And, out there, across the river with its slow-moving steel police boats and moat-like feel, and on this side, in the southside parks, they were building. And they were on their way. The Energy Angels were fluttering for Climate Change action, the fake Tony Abbott was hamming it up, the indigenous groups were baiting Noel Pearson. Ethiopians were glimpsed brandishing a flag and a chant I didn’t catch. Tibetans were pretending to die in George Street. Speakers were telling the gathering army that economic growth came with a cost. It came with obligations to have less so the elites, over there, could have more. Preaching to the converted.
In my heart I wished them all luck.
And the beast stirred and merged. It chanted over Kurilpa Bridge, joined with the Musgrave Park mob and bore down on Southbank. Some 3000 feet moving inexorably to the centre of the universe. A sweat-stained, noisy mass of bodies on the move.
They never really made it. They were never going to make it. In the time-honoured practice of public actions at major world events, the authorities later offered patronising “congratulations” to the demonstrators, who had “acted with restraint”, as if they had had much choice with the overwhelming power of the state bristling against them. No one in the bubble presumably was bothered by the commotion.
The protests became roll calls of causes recited on news coverage like a shopping list of hopes that we all know will never be bought. The real news — the Obama celebrity moment, the Brisbane Plan for employment and women’s economic empowerment — overshadowed the demonstrations. The hot bodies who had taken up the call drank warm water and wandered off to find the energy for another tilt the next day.
The windows of the Convention Centre can reveal the suburbs of Brisbane’s inner south and west and that perennial focal point of urban protest, Musgrave Park. They can also cast a view across the splendour of the Southbank cultural precinct, the jewel of the city. Theatres, trendy cafes and the vast complex of the idyllic Streets Beach, Brisbane’s inner-city man-made swimming hole, offer safer versions of the myths being reinforced at the meeting tables and in the hallway chatter inside. Families gambol happily amid stalking police and choppers overhead, acting the part of the benign citizenry those inside like to believe in.
This is how the centre of the universe looks. Part conflict zone and a scuffle for space and recognition. Here characterised by pitched battles between rights and privileges, power and empowerment, change and stasis, humanity and elitism. And, part dream, a world of comfortable and unquestioning burghers happily victorious in the lottery of economic success and largely trusting of those who look over them. And those inside the G20 had a choice of which way to look — towards the protesters, or towards those happy citizens. It’s a no-brainer. I could only wish the protesters luck.