A contemporary website promoting the S11 protests (Image: Supplied)

It was 20 years ago today — again, again — that several thousand people, including your correspondent, gathered at the junction of the Queens’ Bridge and City Road, Melbourne out front of the black-polished behemoth of Crown Casino, to perform a mass citizen’s arrest of a gang of international criminals…

… Or the WEF, the World Economic Forum as it was and is known — the Davos crowd, the crew of prime ministers, CEOs, elite bureaucrats, spare Bonos, tame academics and a very few dissenters.

Outside, with several layers of cyclone fencing in between, were 10,000 protesters, give or take — the rag tag army of the anti-globalisation movement; activists, students, high school kids, all in that “explosion in an op-shop” style of the day; together with trade unionists, with big CFMEU and maritime union contingents, Vietnam (protest) vets, lefty academics and teachers, the masked shadows of the anarchist “black bloc”, and any number of people who’d just heard about it on the radio (a popular device of the time) and thought they might go along.

The event was S11, the latest in a series of global protests against the post-Cold War institutions implementing global neoliberalism through the “Washington consensus” — the joint use of the IMF, the World Bank and the new WTO to bully nations of the south into destroying their public sectors, opening up closed mixed economic-social systems to global corporations, thus destroying their basis of life and extracting destructive interest payments from whole peoples for loans taken by Western-supported kleptocrats. 

The ’90s wave of resistance to this had kicked off in Oaxaca, Mexico, when the Zapatista guerilla force had taken over the town of Chiapas on the day that NAFTA was signed, demanding the right to reject a global market that would destroy their communal independence in the name of “freedom”.

A coalition of indigenous people and urban activists, they combined grassroots militancy with global savvy — “the Zapatistas have a website”, we remarked in wonder in the ’90s. Their cause was taken up by European activists, especially in Italy, and coming out of the Marxist “autonomist” movement which had been scattered by state repression in the 1980s. By 1996 and ’97 they were organising their own protests and movements such as Reclaim The Streets in the UK. 

As the new rulers of the world put the machine into action, crushing local economies with “anti-competition” WTO lawsuits, the protest rose to match them. They acquired a distinct branding. J18 was one of the first — June 18, 1999, in London, to coincide with the G8 in Cologne.

Your correspondent was at that one, in the City Square Mile, watching the clowns do their street theatre thing and a bubble-maker blow enormous rainbow tubes into the sky because capitalism, thinking this is just the ’80s again. And then it went off and thirty different groups, no internal wrangles, no bullshit jostling for leadership, charged the stock exchange. Other numbers followed — Seattle came after that, the big one, so big it didn’t need a number.

News teams did stories about the prep weeks ahead, marvelling at the range, from raised-fist Maoist groupuscules, to abseiling graffitists, to guerilla gardeners. When the WTO conference started, it was days of running battles to control the city centre.

Protesters at the S11 rally, 2000 (Image: Goongerah Environment Centre)

The ludicrous popular culture that came after the event labelled it as undirected chaos, but the purpose was clear enough: to shut it down.

If capitalism and western power was now not about juntas and death squads but a series of deals, then making it impossible for them to easily make those deals was the main game.

The global conference roadshow was a giant PR exercise. As a consumer bubble steadily swelled in the West, they were selling not merely a people’s capitalism, but a global system that would lift everyone out of poverty. Even then it was clear this was a con, but it still played in the mainstream press. 

So when it came to Melbourne, everyone was pretty keyed up. This was still the place nothing ever came to, and now they were serving it up on a plate.

It was a good time to have it. The local left had come out of the doldrums it had been in for a while, the green movement was active and the Victorian Trades Hall Council had opened up Trades Hall, offering long-vacant offices to community groups, while the late Paddy Garritty’s re-opening of the bar brought unions and activists groups together.

Victoria had a Labor government, ostensibly of the right, but more left than the current lot, and the leadership were quietly having kittens about the coming stoush.

The city was match fit. There were meetings for weeks beforehand. In the days before it you could wander from a huge conclave at the RMIT student union to an anarchist confab at a cafe and back to Trades Hall. I noted with relief that the tangles of the ’80s, when meetings dissolved into debates about the logocentric power of the essentialist voice, weren’t playing.

“Ah I don’t believe in any of that stuff,” said one of the hundreds of young women who had flown, trained and bussed in from interstate for the stoush, and I wanted to kiss her. Also I agreed with what she said. 

The first day was pretty much everything everyone hoped it would be. People from all sorts of groups locked arms to block off every entrance to Crown Casino, whose tumorous, metastatic spread across the Southbank we got to know very well.

The cops quickly shut down about four blocks round Crown, and several major intersections. Ghettoblasters gaffer-taped to bikes were playing, a big sound system was pumping from the back of the truck. The multi-group medical service set up tents and spaces; the legal observers, some in Target suits and unironed shirts in case there had to be a court appearance.

If you needed to get stuff from one place to the next, you called up the bicycle courier outfit, and some skunked up stoner was there in five riding a huge spliff with a reconditioned Chopper hanging beneath it. You wandered around car-free streets, did a bit of blockading, ran into people you knew. It was a temporary autonomous zone, the freedom of the city.

Yeah, yeah people couldn’t get into Crown to tip their change into Packer’s pocket. Cry me a Yarra.

And that day we shut that mofo down. Melbourne S11 (and solidarity demos in a dozen other cities) often gets left out of the story — a few more encounters after us came Genoa — a bloodbath, where the local cops showed that if you want fascism, the Italian police still do an artisanal, handcrafted, al dente variety second to none.

But that was our claim to fame. Seattle stopped bits and pieces of their WEF, but we shut it down for a whole half-day; the WEF grandees loaded up on max security buses for a couple of hours before being taken back to their hotels. 

That night, it’s said, Bill Gates, the star of the show, read the Riot Act to premier Steve Bracks at some Asian-fusion rubber chicken do, and on the evening of day two the cops waded in, and hard.

There was no warning given to blockading protesters, just batons and boots, and some pretty thuggish types shuffled to the front of the charge. The cops were tired and overstretched and, well, cops, the command knew they’d take it out on us, and they did. On the final day, an unmarked car of plain clothes drove through a street of protesters, a killing avoided by luck more than anything else. (Honesty compels me to add I was blockading a car park entrance they didn’t give a damn about and was utterly unscathed.) 

After it all, with teenagers and grannies in casualty getting stitches, Bracksy, geed up by his advisers, called us “left fascists”. Since his advisers were SDA groupers on the edge of fascism, that was a bit rich. Didn’t matter, even though some gentle and good people were cut deep by those wounds, beyond the physical.

We’d already won on points. We’d kept the flame going around the world, vitai lampada and all that, and turned this oily sales pitch into a pitched battle, exposed its claim to be a consented-to process, and its “world leaders” as just a self-appointed crowd of shonks.

The global carnivale had a few more stops to go, but Genoa in July 2001 where protester Carlo Giuliani was shot dead, two months before that other September 11, was the end of the cycle.

Neoliberalism’s brief solo reign was over, as was the Blair-Clinton-Fukuyama-Third Way nonsense era about the weightless win-win economy. The state, the Atlantic alliance, the glorious West came strutting back. They too us to Iraq and killed a half-million, and destroyed it and created ISIS, among other triumphs. They took us to Afghanistan and we’re still there, troops younger than the war itself fighting it.

The WEF masters of the universe gave the corporates open slather, they pumped every spare dollar up into finance, leveraged the cash-starved US property market and crashed the world.

Nothing we could have imagined doing to capitalism equalled the effect of these towering geniuses. What we were fighting for was modest compared to the epochal global battles of the post WW2 era. The slogan was “another world is possible”, which allowed everyone from neo-primitivist anarchists to Marxists to left social democrats and labourists to fight one banner without having a three-day, nine-split battle about the wording stitched on it.

That worked because the world that the global state-corporate Borg wanted was planed flat, one in which everything — from the seeds you grew, to an idea you had that morning, to a cell line in your kidneys — was commodified and sold back to you at a profit.

We were, and are, standing for the simply human, the multiple, the locally autonomous, the spirit of a real equality, against a (now battered and discredited) inhuman calculus that no longer works even by its own narrow criteria. 

So how did it all turn out at the time? For a while the global powers that be played it dumb and cute. We were anti-globalisation, we were luddites, blah blah — even though the movement had set up global comms and organisational networks from desktop PCs sticky with Jolt Cola in shabby internet cafes around the world. But the “Washington consensus” was already under pressure from failure on its own terms.

The movement forced it to politicise itself in the public eye, and it changed some of the very worst practices. More important was the multitude of links created between north and south, between proto-hipsters and landless peasants, around women as a global class, between first nations and digital natives.

It would take another essay to explore the politics that came after, through Occupy to Black Lives Matter, not all of it an advance on a millennium moment that looked forward, but also back to the great material struggles of the past century.

Long answer short is that the 2008 crash, the China-led rise of the global south and the vast inrush of biosphere destruction made global solidarity easier in that we are fighting for our own lives as much as for some other wretched of the earth.

The failure of the global elite has been working from the other direction two decades after a bunch of kids with Indymedia sites, dressed like Sonic Youth, set a world on fire, on fire.

As opposed to the miserable, lonely right’s counterfeit extasis, it was a time to be alive, it was Melbourne as a rebel city, and like most, I’m guessing, I felt proud and honoured and lucky to be there.

And this one is for everyone who was, and to the memory of Paddy Garritty.