Melbourne saw four days of protest action in late October as activists protested against the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). IMARC is a forum that brings together representatives from some of the world’s most destructive mining companies. It is a meeting where the captains of industry plan to profiteer at the expense of people and the planet.
These companies are some of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental destruction. Many are also well known for their abuse of workers’ rights, and the theft of Indigenous people’s land.
In the months leading up to the event a coalition of activist groups came together to organise protests against the gathering. This culminated in a series of actions aimed at disrupting the IMARC event, and exposing the corporate greed of the participants.
The height of the protests was on Tuesday October 29 when hundreds of people gathered outside the conference centre. The front entrance of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre was partially blockaded from 6am, making it difficult for a number of delegates to enter.
This modest disruption was too much for the police, who acted as the private security force of the corporations present. Within the first hour the police began attacking peaceful protesters, violently dragging them off the picket lines and into the conference building.
Victoria Police have recent form in delivering severe bashings. Earlier this year police ripped an innocent man’s arm out of its socket and shattered the bone in a bungled raid on an LGBTIQ bookstore. This came after multiple incidents of police brutality in 2018 including a horrifying assault on a disability pensioner.
At IMARC police horses were recklessly ridden through the crowd, rendering at least one protester seriously injured. Dozens more people were assaulted by police, including some who were choked. Several people were beaten with batons. Pepper spray and OC foam was used liberally, especially on Wednesday October 30.
The police response was clearly premeditated and political. Snatch squads of police were used to arrest people they considered to be organisers of the protest. They ran through the crowd to grab megaphones off protesters, and even did their best to stop the media from filming some of the worst of their violence.
At one point a senior officer instructed an underling to confiscate Socialist Action’s banner. Clearly one of their aims was to stop protesters sending a political message, as well as to intimidate people and discourage others from joining the actions.
On the Tuesday alone about 50 people were arrested, mostly on spurious charges such as refusing to move off a footpath. It was reported that over the course of the four days more than 70 were arrested, two of these people are members of Socialist Action. We await news as to how many will actually be charged.
Many protesters and onlookers were shocked at the level of violence meted out by the police. It was indeed in stark contrast to the way they had acted only a few weeks earlier when Extinction Rebellion (XR) engaged in civil disobedience against climate change.
Many of the XR protests blocked roads causing minor disruption to commuters. From the point of view of the rich and powerful those sorts of actions can be tolerated, and sometimes they are even welcomed. That’s because it gave them an opportunity to try and turn ordinary people trying to get to work against those fighting for climate action.
No tolerance when you attack profits
But the attempt to disrupt IMARC was a totally different story. This was a meeting of big business leaders, a place where deals are done and profiteering is planned. While the blockade was modest, it did prod the powers-that-be where it hurts. The protests were trying to expose the way the profit system works, and the real culprits behind environmental destruction.
With that being the case, the police, acting on behalf of the government and their big business backers, wanted to send a clear message. The corporate press played their usual role and ran with the narrative that it was actually the protesters who had provoked things. They falsely portrayed the protest as being “anti-mining,” when in reality it was about climate change and the broader ecological crisis and the role these corporations play.
They ran stories along these lines despite the fact that all the footage they showed exposed the police as the aggressors. The worst they could come up with was that some protesters were yelling and chanting at the IMARC conference delegates.
It wasn’t just the gutter press like the Herald Sun, but almost all mainstream outlets ignored the fact that the police were the only ones that brought and used weapons, including dangerous chemicals like OC foam.
While the Labor government in Victoria is sometimes touted as the “most progressive in Australia”, the Labor police minister was quick to defend the police violence. Even Premier Daniel Andrews said “Victoria Police are out there … doing every one of us proud”. Meanwhile the Liberal opposition in Victoria, and the Morrison federal government have used the opportunity to call for even harsher anti-protest laws.
At a federal level Labor have indicated that they will look at joining forces with the government to curtail the right to protest. This is to be expected given that Labor, just like the Liberals are funded by and represent many of the companies present at IMARC.
The trend towards greater powers for the police, and for more repressive laws needs to be resisted by all progressive forces, most importantly the trade unions. Today repression is used against youth fighting for action on climate change, tomorrow the same laws and OC foam will be used against striking workers.
Police don’t exist simply to ‘serve and protect’ us all, but instead are defenders of the rich and powerful and their system. Victoria Police in particular have worked with big business to target climate change activists with special surveillance, intimidation and repression over the last 10 years.
Instead of a senior police officers being appointed by big-business governments, socialists stand for democratic community control and accountability of the police. Elected oversight committees could set policies and priorities to look after genuine safety concerns, with power to investigate abuses and punish perpetrators.
A wedge through the movement
While the police response was partially dictated by their defence of IMARC’s corporate interests, there was clearly also an attempt to drive a wedge through the climate movement.
There is a division emerging within the movement between those who think climate change can be addressed by lobbying, begging capitalist politicians and voting for parties like the Greens and Labor. Groups like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), who have helped organise the massive climate strikes stand in this camp, as do most of the trade unions.
The other, as yet smaller wing of the movement, sees profits and capitalism at the heart of the problems we face. This left wing of the movement demands more systemic change, and it was these forces that were behind the IMARC protests.
Disappointingly, neither the trade unions, or the AYCC, participated in or built for the IMARC protests in a real way. If they had added their weight and numbers to the protests, the police response would have been very different. The fight to put climate action on the political agenda would have been strengthened immensely.
While socialists recognise that this political divide exists, we work to do everything we can to stop our opponents from exploiting it. We stand for a united movement that debates the way forward democratically.
We are confident that capitalism will further expose itself and that more and more people will see that this system and real action on climate change are not compatible. We are also confident that the ranks of the trade unions and the young people participating in the climate strikes can be won to the need for more radical action and system change.
Socialist policies needed
At the moment it is the leaders like those from the AYCC and the unions who stand in the way. They stand far to the political right of people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn who have raised some basic socialist proposals to deal with climate change.
These include a Green New Deal that encompasses a transition to a zero emissions economy while protecting jobs and communities dependent on carbon intensive industries.
We would however go even further. Given that 70% of global emissions are created by the top 100 companies we need to fight to bring many of the companies attending IMARC into public hands. By removing the profit motive, a sustainable plan of production could be introduced. The needs of people and the planet could be put first.
The fact that IMARC was made a target of climate protests was extremely positive in that it points towards the corporate interests that need to be tackled if we want to save the planet. That said, the weakness of the IMARC protests was that a political alternative was not expressly put forward.
For the most part, the speeches and comments made in the media did not reflect the anti-capitalist mood of the protesters and the organisers. For example, Greens politicians were invited to speak on several occasions despite the fact that they didn’t even mobilise their members to the actions.
It was a missed opportunity to put forward socialist solutions to the climate crisis more boldly. As we see from both Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK, basic socialist ideas can be wildly popular. We need to push forward with the idea that we need system change to deal with climate change, and that workers and their unions are the forces who can make this happen.
The hope is that the IMARC protests have set a new tone and that they encourage more people to target the real corporate climate criminals. More bold protests and strikes, coupled with socialist policies, are the way to take to the climate movement forward.
By Anthony Main
Socialist Action is calling on people to support those who were unjustly arrested at the IMARC protests. Please donate to this defence fund so that those targeted by the police are not lumbered with huge fines and legal costs.