Reflections on G20

Robin Taubenfeld

By initiating open meetings to discuss "community responses" to the G20, Friends of the Earth (Brisbane and Australia) took a key role in facilitating and supporting local community conversations and action around the G20 Leaders' Summit, which took place in Brisbane in November 2014. As an organisation that is non-aligned politically; committed to social and environmental justice; part of a global network of grassroots organisations that have historically responded to the G20 and similar structures; structured enough to have basic material infrastructure and campaign credibility; and yet not afraid of protest and direct action, FoE was able to provide momentum for and help maintain community collaborations around the G20.

The Brisbane Community Action Network (BrisCAN) was one such collaboration, comprising local and international environmental, political, social justice and ecumenical groups. BrisCAN agreed to collaborate on a Peoples' Summit and March, to respect the autonomy of groups organising within BrisCAN, and to support the Decolonisation Before Profit Program of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE).

BASE coordinated a week of ceremony, rallies, marches and forums, re-establishing the Aboriginal Embassy in Musgrave Park, a block away from the G20 Summit venue, the Brisbane Convention Centre. Brisbane came to a virtual standstill as the leaders of the 19 largest economies and the EU met. The meeting itself was rather unremarkable. However, the outcomes and impacts of hosting such a meeting are worth examining.

Scare-mongering media

It is hard to fathom the repression tolerated or the level of fear generated by the state in the lead up to the G20. After a year of relentless scare-mongering media, manufactured largely by NewsCorp, the atmosphere of fear was palpable.

We were warned: the entire centre of Brisbane was to be a special security area, "the red zone". Six thousand police officers would be on the streets at any given time. We saw front-page pictures of armed black-clad paramilitary-type police pointing guns at stereotypical "protestors". They said ferals and anarchists were planning mayhem.

On November 8, the Saturday before the official Leaders' Summit started, the front page of Queensland's Murdoch tabloid, the Courier Mail, carried a large picture of a police officer in riot gear, with burning cars behind him, with the headline "City's longest week under way as invasion begins".

As the population who had not evacuated trembled, Christian social justice networks set up a "mock tax haven", a fake luxurious beach scene in the centre of town, and the Murri community began setting up a sovereignty camp in Musgrave Park, near the G20 Summit venue. No violence to be seen.

My own picture had earlier appeared under the headline "Protestors vow to unleash hell on our streets". At the time the photo was taken I was wearing a Martin Luther King Jr t-shirt with the words "violence is immoral", standing with a small group of pacifists outside a warfare arms expo. The banner I was holding read "Qld government cuts funding for renewables, schools and hospitals − Sponsors arms fair". The t-shirt, the peaceful protest and the banner were all missing from the photo.

The RACQ (motor) magazine featured a cover story about the police commissioner that illustrates the insidious nature of state-manufactured consent. A normal mom of "sports-mad" 8 and 10 year olds. She just happened to be in command of two surveillance centres specially built for the G20, at least one armoured personal carrier, a contingent of over 6 000 local and foreign police officers working alongside armed private security personnel with unprecedented police powers.

G20 planning

For Brisbane, the G20 served as a catalyst for a year of community conversations, many of them difficult, long, insightful and meaningful. Online disagreements over messaging, styles of organising, meeting management, "campaign" or action ownership, leadership, priorities of our demands/needs, discussion about race, class, gender, age, ability ... many useful conversations were had, many hopeful connections were made.

As a coordinator for BrisCAN-G20, my phone ran hot for the week of the promoted "invasion" – until on Saturday November 16, when the Leaders' Summit was on its way, Obama and co. were in town, and the crowd of approximately 3,000 of us marched peacefully through the streets of Brisbane carrying our unlawfully large banners (yes, there were restrictions on the size of banners!). Some of us wore masks, some ceremonial paint, a cohort of Climate Angels was followed by the dignified and graceful movement of 100 or so Falun Dafa practitioners. Into Musgrave Park we marched to be welcomed at the Brisbane Sovereign Aboriginal Embassy's Decolonisation Before Profit camp.

In the lead up to the G20, we saw the Queensland Council of Unions follow police recommendations to not allow outside groups to hold meetings in their premises, universities decide to move exam time and shut down their campuses, city office workers given training to respond to threats from "anti-capitalists" and local businesses who market themselves as funky, local community-centric spaces refuse to hire venues stating they are concerned about "appearing to be against the government".

Officeworks in Cairns, where people protested the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting, and Officeworks in Brisbane refused to print or scan G20-related material.

BrisCAN, the Aboriginal Embassy, various social justice groups, some unions and some church networks planned actions, forums, camps, marches, listening posts, street theatre, panel discussions, punk gigs, press conferences, film nights, street medic, legal and media teams, and public meetings.

Ukranians gathered in numbers to protest or support Putin. Tibetans and their supporters rallied in the city, Oxfam did some street theatre stunts and other groups did creative actions. Larger organisations generally stayed at arm's-length from the G20 actions, to ensure that they would not be associated with balaclava-wearing, cop-car-smashing rabble-rousers that anyone concerned about the G20 was portrayed to be. Nevertheless, some larger organisations did have a presence − an arm's-length presence − campaigning against austerity or privatisation, or for action on climate change or to save the reef or for workers' rights.

The repressive apparatus of the capitalist state

Special police powers were in place to ensure that people could be arrested for not carrying ID, or searched without suspicion, and the public had been informed that you could be in trouble for carrying "prohibited" items such as eggs, canned tomatoes, surf boards, masks or, of course, reptiles or insects.

There was no doubt that the special powers could and would impact on Brisbane's (and Cairns's) most vulnerable people. There seems to be an unspoken understanding that when events such as the G20 take place, homeless people are removed, the city is "cleaned up", and we all accept limitations on our rights to assemble.

A raft of laws had been put in place. VLAD − Vicious, Lawless Association Disestablishment Act (aka the Bikie Laws); the G20 Act; the Out of Control Events Act (aka the Party Powers Act); the Brisbane City Council Public Land and Council Assets Local Law 2014. These laws criminalise association, use of public space, poverty/homelessness and political expression. Only the G20 Act is no longer in place.

While the Newman government severely cut funding for youths and the arts, state-sponsored graffiti appeared on Brisbane freeway pylons, and Queens Park – one of the few remaining spaces generally used for rallies – was turned in to a knit-bombed, kids art space and then ironically into an exclusion zone as authorities were determined to curtail protest action in town.


A highlight for me was seeing a huge 20+ metre banner that said #Genocidal20 carried through town. Another was the handing over of a statement developed out of the three-day Peoples' Summit to a trade union activist from Turkey – the venue for the 2015 G20 − and hearing him speak about organising in his community.

I felt excitement when I saw a street medic team form; reverence when a ceremony was conducted before our biggest march; inspired when the Anonymous crew manifested a citizen journalist media space; grateful for the support of local businesses, churches and groups; inspired by people from overseas and interstate who came to Brisbane because they shared concerns about the G20; respect for First Nations people asserting – not asking for – sovereignty; and hope when I saw young people and new people taking action.

With its focus of bolstering the "growth economy," the G20 perpetuates political and economic systems based on violence and inequality. The leaders of the 20 largest global economies gathered for their own agendas − not ours. Among them, every declared nuclear weapons state − but they were not talking about disarmament. They did not gather in to pursue peace and cooperation − they found it almost impossible to even include the word "inclusive" in their concept of growth.

Structures such as the C20 (Civil Society 20), the Y20 (Youth 20), the L20 (the Labour 20) and others are officially sanctioned, select groupings that respond to, not set, the G20 agenda. Unsurprisingly, of these side-groupings the B20 – the "Business 20" − has the most access to the G20.

The lands that the G20 met on in Brisbane are the traditional lands of the Turbal and Jagera people. The G20 met on stolen land – perpetuating the colonisation of this space and reconfirming its embodiment of injustice, dispossession and inequality.

The G20 is perpetuating a system devoid of moral authority, which therefore relies on state power, and on the power of the Murdoch tabloids to manufacture a perverse narrative.

Despite the repression, the remaining surveillance centres, the draconian laws and the Murdoch media, the connections in response to the G20 are ongoing. The Newman government has been deposed, an Aboriginal woman has been elected to the Queensland parliament for the first time and women make up an unprecedented percentage of parliamentarians overall. People are feeling vigilent but cautiously hopeful.

Robin Taubenfeld is a member of Friends of the Earth, Brisbane.

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia,