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Martin, Christopher --- "Public assembly and dissent in Sydney: one year on from the Olympic Games" [2002] AltLawJl 11; (2002) 27(1) Alternative Law Journal 32

Public assembly and dissent in Sydney: One year on from the Olympic Games

Christopher Martin[*]

An examination of what happened when the government took on the role of corporate Olympics organiser.

From the start of the bid in 1991, until after the Games closed in October 2000, the Olympics dominated people’s talk about the city of Sydney. Prevailing themes were: the visibility of Sydney before a global audience; the production, communication and consumption of images of the city; and the promotion of certain impressions and values about the place. The Tourism Taskforce summed up seven years of rhetoric from government and business by describing the Olympics as ‘the world’s biggest billboard; they don’t come much bigger, and we’d be crazy to stuff up this opportunity to promote our city’.[1] The Olympics were to be a stage for representations of what was called ‘Brand Sydney’,[2] at least as much as the city was the stage for the Games.

That the Olympics might also be an opportunity for presenting dissenting views about life in Sydney and Australia was appreciated from the start too. Indigenous groups in particular indicated that they would use the Games to focus world attention on Australian human rights abuses and racism. Early talk of lobbying for the disqualification of Sydney’s bid and then of boycotting the Games was abandoned by mid 1999 as Aboriginal activists began planning a highly visible campaign of ‘shaming’ governments through public protests and extensive media activity.[3] As September 2000 grew nearer — and especially as the outrages of the 1996 Atlanta Games became known[4] — other groups, such as Rentwatchers and the Olympic Impacts Coalition began campaigning against the effects of the Games themselves, and indicated that they would also use public protest to communicate their messages. Finally, the growing anti-capitalism/ anti-globalisation movement identified the international Olympic movement, its perverse greed and corruption exposed, as a symbolic rallying point for public protest and dissent.

This article is about what happened to public assembly and dissent when the eyes of the world were on Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games, and what that may mean for the right to assembly one year on. The public order powers given to police are an element in the regulation of public assembly, but there is more to the matter than that. When, shortly before the Games began, Michael Knight reminded that ‘the whole world will be watching us and that is why it is imperative that we get our delivery right‘,[5] he was referring to a variety of administrations, decisions and plans made by a range of different authorities and actors trying to put Sydney’s most pleasing face forward.

Law, order and protest

The State government always took its own contribution to this effort very seriously. At the time of the bid, the coalition government’s Tourism Minister warned that ‘anyone who threatens Sydney’s Olympic bid had better watch out’.[6] In November 1999, a Labor government passed a number of new legislative provisions dealing with public order and the Olympics. To an extent, limitations on freedom of assembly go with hosting the Olympics: Rule 61 of the Olympic Charter stipulates that ‘no political meeting or demonstration will take place in the stadium or on any other sports ground or in or near the Olympic village(s) during the Games’. The government’s legislation, however, went further than that. The Homebush Bay Operations Act and Regulation 1999 (HBO), and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority Regulation 1999, gave police and officials the power to remove people causing ‘inconvenience’ or ‘affront’ from public spaces at Olympic Park and on the Harbour foreshores. After the passage of the Olympic Arrangements Act 2000, the distribution of articles was banned and the HBO Regulation powers extended throughout the CBD and many other places in Sydney.[7]

None of this went unnoticed by protesters and civil liberties advocates. In February 2000, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) began briefing Aboriginal groups and others on Olympics policing issues and, with the New South Wales Law Society and the Council for Civil Liberties, publicly criticised the new laws. For their part, at this stage the police ‘welcomed’ protests during the Games. One officer liaising with activists said: ‘it’s an opportunity to show the world how Aussie-style demonstrations happen’;[8] but the messages were mixed.[9] The experience at demonstrations staged in the months before the Games added to apprehensions. A Rentwatchers’ demonstration — a mock medal ceremony for rental profiteering — at Darling Harbour in September 1999 was moved on by security guards dismayed at the ‘un-Australian’ attitude on display. A well-attended Olympic Impacts Coalition protest outside SOCOG headquarters in early 2000 was reportedly better attended by police than protesters.[10]

By the time the Olympic Arrangements Act 2000 was passed in April, suspicions were already simmering. That same week, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs made his infamous denial that there ever was a generation of stolen Aboriginal children, and feelings erupted. ‘It’s burn, baby, burn from now on,’ Charles Perkins was provoked to warn. ‘Anything can happen.’[11] As the media ‘counted down’ the start of the Games on 15 September 2000, the spectre of public protest haunted the city’s preparations: suspicions deepened, feelings ran higher, activists and advocates mobilised.

Up to 250,000 people marched in the Walk for Reconciliation on 27 May 2000. A very much smaller protest at Bondi beach against the volley ball stadium, on the other hand, saw 150 or more regular police and approximately 20 mounted police in attendance, plus two police launches in the water and three helicopters overhead.[12] In June, the new powers themselves were rallied against at a ‘No Olympic Police State’ demonstration.[13] In July, Sydney University’s Institute of Criminology held a public seminar on what could be expected of public order policing at the Olympics and, disconcertingly, the police withdrew their representative. Community Legal Centres produced fact sheets on the security legislation — and where the laws were too draconian for strictly legal advice, the right to freedom of assembly was asserted instead.

In July, activists launched the Sydney Independent Media Centre,[14] a website designed to cover activism during the Games, as the Seattle Indymedia site had during the famous World Trade Organisation protests and violence of the previous year. Also in July, a group representing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra established another highly visible Embassy of 40 tents in Victoria Park in inner-city Camperdown, while another claimed to be bringing 30,000 people to rally at Homebush Bay in September.[15]

Through August, police raided the Block in Redfern (nothing to do with the Olympics, said police; ‘an attempt to remove the eyesore before the Games get here’ said local Aboriginal activists)[16] and South Sydney Council tried to evict the Tent Embassy from Victoria Park. The Embassy’s supporters rallied, increased the camp’s size to 80 tents and it stayed. The OCA, though, made it clear that no demonstrations or political speeches were to be conducted at Olympic Park’s indigenous pavilion; protesters instead indicated that they would line the airport routes with a ‘human chain’ of demonstrators in the days before the Opening Ceremony.[17]

On 11 September 2000, four days out from the Opening Ceremony of the Games, police with batons and helmets broke the S11 barricade of the World Economic Forum at the Crown Casino in Melbourne. The day before the Games were to begin, with feelings at their highest, Premier Carr told reporters that people had a right to protest, but anyone impeding the Games would ‘see out the Olympics period enjoying the splendid comfort of the Central Industrial Prison at Long Bay’. The stage was set.

Dissent at the Games

‘A disastrous damp squib’ is how the Guardian described the first of the planned protests, the 1500-strong human chain of demonstrators at the airport. The chain never showed up.[18]

It would be untrue and unfair to say that protest failed at the Games. On the morning of 15 September 2000, about 500 people rallied at the Tent Embassy where the Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan participated in a smoking ceremony with the camp’s elders; in the afternoon, 400 demonstrators marched on State Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s Sydney offices to demand redress of the wrongs done to Aboriginal people. But no-one marched on Olympic Park. Protest camps were not set up in the parks. The Tent Embassy issued a press statement on Monday 11 September — reissued on Friday 15 September— declaring that Victoria Park was not to be used for any anti-Olympics protests. The Anti-Olympic Alliance rally was called off.

Public assemblies did take place over the first weekend of the Games, but these were of thousands of partying Games fans at the Olympic ‘Live Sites’ in the City. At least at Martin Place the public order powers of the police were called on, but rather to deal with crowds at the site’s dance club where too many alcohol-affected people were concentrated with more glass bottles than was safe. Apart from that, the crush of people at the Live Sites was ‘exuberant, but good-natured’.[19]

So what had for months, if not years, looked like a storm gathering did not break. On Sunday, 17 September 2000, 15 members of the Anti-Olympic Alliance gathered in Martin Place, and protested for about an hour before being peacefully moved on by police: the glow of the scene of conscientious campaigners paired with patient police so gladdened the heart of the Sydney Morning Herald writer who reported it that it became one more reason for Sydneysiders to feel ‘blessed’.[20] From Monday, 18 September, some schools and churches displayed ‘Drop The Debt’ banners on their buildings in support of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and small ‘chain gangs’ of debt protesters began appearing in the city, handing out leaflets and talking to anyone prepared to listen, but not impeding traffic.[21]

One conflictual protest did take place, on 26 September when about 100 CACTUS (Campaign Against Corporate Tyranny United in Struggle) activists rallied at the Nike shop in George Street and marched through the City. There was pushing and shoving with police at the PM’s office, and exchanges about the ‘unauthorised public assembly’ (protesters took this as a reference to the Olympic security provisions; police say that they cited the Summary Offences Act 1988), but the protest was allowed to continue.[22] For the Sydney Morning Herald the most interesting angle was the bodyguards of Carl Lewis and Marion Jones taking up positions against the protesters outside the shoe shop.[23]

However one looks at it, the Olympics did not go according to the script read by activists and advocates in the months before the Games. A number of reasons have been offered: Jenny Munro, organiser of the human chain protest, put its failure down to ‘the great Australian tradition of leaving everything to the last minute’, and also the ‘confusion’ of different indigenous groups organising competing actions — other Aboriginal activists agree on that point.[24] Policing was an issue: one activist notes that in the months preceding the Games protesters did feel ‘quite an aggressive vibe … people were intimidated to a degree, especially people who mightn’t have protested much before’; and activists from Rentwatchers concur. Others point out that, in particular, the violence of police towards S11 was very intimidating; another again suggests that S11 left a lot of activists tired and injured. The drubbing S11 received in the press also dampened enthusiasm, and ‘all the nationalistic hype and patriotism’ probably deflated plans for protest even more. Public protest during the Games turned out to be, for a Rentwatchers activist, just ‘not a good look’ strategically for their cause.[25]

There is truth to all these reasons, but in terms of the general prospects of the right of public assembly, the last — the incongruence of dissent — is most intriguing. New police powers were one contribution to ‘getting the delivery right’, but arguably more important was the proliferation of images, sentiments and sensations of Sydney’s Olympic spaces in the context of which public protest seemed incongruent, improbable, and strategically incoherent.

Millions of words, images, designs and understandings were produced about Sydney before and at the time of the Games, by governments, SOCOG and the OCA, events managers, designers, architects, businesses, advertisers, media and members of the public. All of these entailed related visions of social ordering, and were deployed, articulated or lashed up in subtle arrangements for the control of space and action. A couple of examples emerge from the developments detailed above.

Olympic Park was built for crowd control. ‘Comfort and ease of movement’ are cited as the primary qualities of the public domain at Homebush Bay.[26] The main axis, Olympic Boulevarde emulates the first crowd control initiative of modern urban planning, the boulevardes of Haussmann’s Paris, in that both are grand, straight and clear, but openness is ubiquitious at Olympic Park. Whether you are with a crowd or standing in an empty Olympic Plaza, the scale of the site — the size of the stadia and even more the spaces in between — and the visibility permitted is striking.

The expanses of space between the facilities, however, are not unstructured: at the Games, moveable barriers directed visitors through temporary security points, quickly on to their venues and safely to the queues. These structures, however, were not visually obtrusive, affording unimpeded lines of sight for a system of around 100 closed circuit television cameras to monitor crowd movements across the vast Park. Preparing for the Games, the Olympic Co-ordination Authority (OCA) saw the cameras as less a security device than a ‘site management tool’. The cameras could direct OCA rangers and police to incidents and permit the pre-emptive removal of known trouble-makers, but mostly they were to make sure that the bins were emptied and the crowds kept moving.[27]

In its pre-Games ‘update’, the OCA cited public approval for the priorities designed into Homebush Bay: ‘This place is so good for kids. It is clean, well organised, a beautiful layout, and the Olympic site is really exciting.’[28] An OCA manager considered that any security response to protests would need to be as much directed at protecting demonstrators from angry passers-by as containing the disturbance.[29] Any public assembly would have a hard time in a site of such dwarfing spaces, secure entrance points, comprehensive surveillance and flowing, contented crowds — but the first barrier to dissent is the projected image of sheer blank orderliness.

Part of Olympic Park received special consideration in relation to protests: the space provided for an indigenous cultural pavilion could have provided public dissent with a degree of purchase lacking at the rest of the park. Featuring displays, artwork and information, and selling artwork by indigenous people, the pavilion was operated under contract from the OCA by the Metropolitan Land Council. Metro, chaired by Jenny Munro and known for its activism, had been an advocate of on-site protests, but in taking up the management in March 2000 contracted not to use the site for political activities. As well as the HBO Regulation policing powers, the pavilion site was overlaid with contractual obligations, including a right of review by the OCA of almost all texts on display in the pavilion, and sanctions including closure of the pavilion should any ‘political activity’ take place there.[30] The warning to protesters in August was an exercise of this power. Munro was satisfied with the input she got from the deal and Metro, having been brought inside the tent, was as good as its word. A strategic resolution of two groups’ representations of Aboriginality on the ground operated as an additional control against protest.

Though they were subject, thanks to the Olympic Arrangements Act 2000, to the same laws as Olympic Park, the spaces of the City of Sydney were not subject to the same sort of order. Martin Place, for example, is a pedestrian plaza, but the buildings and structures that define it — the cenotaph, the imperialist GPO building, the banks, especially the colossal Commonwealth Bank building — inscribe it with a different power to that of Olympic Boulevarde. The political, cultural and economic power self-consciously and very visibly framed in this space gives Martin Place a potent civic value and, by that very fact, a potential for its appropriation through public assembly. And the Games did see protesters turn out twice in Martin Place. It also saw five big Olympic rings erected, and many more people turned out for the big screen, music, crowds and liveliness of the Live Site. When the Sites were opened, 100,000 people filled them, including 20,000 people in Martin Place alone, a cheering, partying public assembly.[31]

Commissioner Ryan was not enthused: ‘I can understand the celebrations — this is a big party, which is going to go on for weeks — but I wasn’t too keen on live sites because we are assembling large groups of people in public places’.[32] On the first weekend of the Games, the late night dance party at Martin Place was a particular headache for police: people started diving from the light poles and smashing pot plants, and some were injured on broken glass. The City’s Lord Mayor opposed the suggested closure of the Live Site: ‘its what we had predicted was going to happen. It’s basically exuberance’.[33] Not one to shut down good-natured exuberance in support of the Games, the OCA cancelled the dance parties and kept all Olympic Live Sites going throughout the Games. The City of Sydney had even factored a little damage to property into its plans. ‘Disorder’ is too strong a term, but something not quite orderly — ‘exuberance’ — was conceived as suitable to a Live Site in Sydney City.

But the conditions of staging a series of exuberant assemblies did involve some basic ordering of the space. The police powers regarding ‘good order’ are one aspect: they were called on at the dance party and apparently at the peaceful Anti-Olympic Alliance action. The power to close the site, as arose when the dance party got rowdy, is another. The private sector, too, was involved in order at the margins of exuberance: more and more private security guards were placed by businesses along the plaza. Sydney City Council, the foremost promoter of the ‘Living City’ imagery exemplified in the Live Sites, had instituted in the preceding years a new aesthetic regime throughout the CBD by installing new street furniture and a system of CCTV cameras — expressly with the Olympics in mind. As well as visually suggesting a subtle order permeating the City’s spaces, the design of the new bins and benches gives little comfort to homeless people and secures against their concentration in spaces like Martin Place.[34] Similarly, the cameras monitor for violence, particularly by looking out for ‘gangs’ and other signs of discrepancy, amongst the City’s feted freedom and diversity.

Finally, there are the power effects of the public assemblies themselves. While the Live Site was in full swing, the homeless people who use Martin Place did not need directions from police to know that they had to move on. And the protesters who turned up in Martin Place to reclaim the civic power of the plaza from the facades of imperial history and contemporary commercial might that dominate it, found that it was already being appropriated — by camp red and silver Olympic rings, folding chairs and party preparations. The City itself had turned over the significance of Martin Place and other spaces to people enjoying the Games and enjoying the image of themselves, as a city, having a good time of it all.

Without disparaging those good feelings, that image, like others from the above examples, is a vision of social order. To an extent, the generation of these visions of social order, and their combination in effective controls through space, were things the Olympic Games were uniquely able to do. Some aspects of these techniques of control, however, may prove more enduring, with continuing implications for public assembly and dissent.

The Olympic legacy

One year on from the Games, Sydney has a major new public space at Homebush Bay. A draft master plan has been produced to guide development of a ‘more human scale and character’ on the site. The creation of a ‘vibrant Town Centre’ is, according to the plan, vital — and to help, a picture is provided: two men and two women do business over a mobile phone at a footpath café. The words ‘vibrant Town Centre’ are used so many times in the plan that they are less a description than a formula: ‘themed retail, recreation, residential, cafés, bars and restaurants’. Maybe this project will result in Olympic Park getting ‘life and vibrancy injected into it’;[35] still it functions like Duloc on the Parramatta River. It is still a very deliberately governed space. The OCA has been succeeded by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority. The HBO Act and Regulation remain on the books.

In the City, street life is both better established and more spontaneous, but many small arrangements and artifices of governance are deployed to support favoured images and uses. In fact, in the Council’s plans for a new Town Square, protest is appropriated to the promotion of civic vibrancy and freedom.[36] Less favoured signs of disorder are warded off. Martin Place is decked out in flower boxes, but there is a by-law against a person camping there overnight. The Botanic Gardens, the Domain, and further out the Cricket Ground and Centennial Park all have their own legislative — and aesthetic — regimes that permit the removal of people interrupting good order. Unauthorised public assemblies are still illegal in the spaces of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

This is the terrain in which public assembly now takes place. For protesters, this means engaging with a range of strategies for the control and order of public space, and not just the use of force by the police — even though at least the threat of force has increased. Some tactical innovations may come from the Games: for example, the (re)appropriation of space in ceremony, such as occurred when the Police Commissioner participated in a smoking ceremony at the Tent Embassy and faced the abstract space of Aboriginal sovereignty, may be significant. Cyberspace, too, may provide further sites for protest. Or it may be, frustratingly, that activists will resort to more forceful forms of public unrest — tactics that are themselves ultimately exclusionary — in spaces where the police and others can remove ‘inconveniences’ and where demonstrations can be subsumed by spectacles more mundane than the Games.

[*] Christopher Martin is a researcher at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney

.© 2002 Christopher Martin

[1] Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 18 January 2000, p.21.

[2] SMH, 18 January 2000, p.21.

[3] SMH, 9 August 1999, pp.1, 4; SMH, 10 August 1999, p.6.

[4] Most notoriously, the harassment and removal of homeless people. For more, see Lenskyj, Inside the Olympic Industry, State University of New York Press, 2000.

[5] NSW Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, 5 April 2000, p.4163 (emphasis added).

[6] ABC Radio interview, 16 July 1993, cited at Booth and Tatz, ‘Sydney 2000: The Games People Play’, (1994) 70(7) Current Affairs Bulletin 10.

[7] See also PIAC, ‘Olympics Liberty and Security Issues: A Briefing Paper’, February 2000; Head, ‘Olympic Security’, (2000) 25(3) Alternative Law Journal.

[8] SMH, 7 February 2000, p.8.

[9] ‘Police equate “silence with violence”’, SMH, 4 March 2000, p.3.

[10] Jewell, ‘Hello world: Sydney 2000 a stage for sport and protest’, paper delivered at Institute of Criminology seminar, ‘Protest, Policing and the Olympics’, July 2000, p.2.

[11] SMH, 4 April 2000, p.1.

[12] Jewell, above, ref 10, p.2.

[13] O’Gorman, 22 July 2000. Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author.

[14] Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author.

[15] Freeman, 25 July 2000. Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author.

[16] Connor, 12 August 2000. Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author; SMH, 12 August 2000, p.3.

[17] SMH, 8 August 2000, p.4.

[18] Guardian Online, 22 September 2000.

[19] SMH, 16 September 2000.

[20] SMH, 18 September 2000, p.19.

[21] Ormerod, 29 September 2000. Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author.

[22] ‘vince’, 27 September 2000; Darcy, 27 September 2000. Originally posted at <http://sydney.> copy with author.

[23] SMH, 27 September 2000, p.3.

[24] Guardian Online, 22 September 2000.

[25] Activists’ comments are from personal correspondences with the author.

[26] OCA, ‘Update: State of Play: a report to the people of New South Wales’, June 1999, p.23.

[27] OCA manager, interview with author, 17 May 2000.

[28] OCA, ‘Update’, p.23.

[29] OCA manager, interview with author, 17 May 2000.

[30] SMH, 7 August 2000, p.4.

[31] SMH, 19 September 2000, p.24.

[32] SMH, 18 September 2000, p.19.

[33] SMH, 18 September 2000, p.19.

[34] Martin, ‘Crime and Control in Australian Urban Space’, (2000) 12(1) Current Issues in Criminal Justice.

[35] Sydney Olympic Park, ‘Vision for Beyond 2000’ <http://www.sopa.> .

[36] City of Sydney, Annual Report 98/99, p.27.

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