G20: Australian police get set for protests

Security officers and protesters prepare to meet on Brisbane’s streets at this weekend’s G20 summit.

Brisbane police have been granted special powers for the duration of the G20 summit [Brendon Qu/Al Jazeera]
Brisbane police have been granted special powers for the duration of the G20 summit [Brendon Qu/Al Jazeera]

Adelaide, Australia – The eyes of the world will be on Brisbane this weekend as the city hosts the 2014 G20 summit.

Leaders from the world’s richest countries will soon touch down in Australia’s third-largest city to discuss everything from Ebola and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to economic recovery.

Inside the G20, Australia has already caused a stir with the country’s fiercely conservative government said to be frustrating attempts to put climate change on the summit’s agenda. For those outside, a different story is unfolding between police and protesters as the city goes into lockdown.

In what is widely seen as a test for the state of Queensland, the professionalism of its police force has been staked on what happens over the next few days on Brisbane’s streets.

While authorities are keen to avoid the kind of violence seen at the 2009 G20 in London, many are hoping that authorities will be able to do so while also respecting the right to protest, despite a range of security measures and expanded police powers.

Protesters wary

Earlier this week, Queensland police minister Jack Dempsey promised the 2014 G20 in Brisbane will be the “safest and friendliest” ever.

A lot of people are going out of the city because of the holiday and the police presence. We're not intimidated though. In Aboriginal communities, this is pretty much the norm anyway.

- Boe Spearim, Aboriginal rights activist

But there are questions about whether the “Sunshine State” is up to the task, as Queensland has a somewhat chequered relationship with protest groups.

In one incident in 1982, the state government of the day called a state of emergency to stop an Aboriginal land rights protest taking place during the Commonwealth Games.

The significance of this is great for groups such as the Brisbane Aboriginal-Sovereign Embassy, which has so far been one of the most active so far. The group has bussed in people from Aboriginal communities across Australia and has been engaged in marches, forums and workshops since Monday, with plans to continue for the duration of the summit.

So far, the relationship between protesters and police has been positive, but the heavy police presence has been intimidating for some people in the general public, said Boe Spearim, an organiser with the group.

“A lot of people are going out of the city because of the holiday and the police presence,” said Spearim. “We’re not intimidated though. In Aboriginal communities, this is pretty much the norm anyway.”

Similarly, Ewan Saunders, an organiser with the Brisbane Community Activist Network (BrisCAN), has mixed feelings about the relationship with police and protesters so far.

While there have been no real incidents, earlier this week, the police announced they had access to “sonic cannons” if protests got out of hand, and offered activists from BrisCAN an opportunity to attend a demonstration at the police academy.

Activists said they recognised this as a “veiled threat”, which Saunders said ties into the “climate of intimidation” that has been created, and isn’t helped by the expanded powers given to police.

Other activists, such as Surya McEwan, 29, who plans to join the protest march planned for Saturday, said they worry that tough talk by police in the media is only going to serve to keep people away.

“The People’s Assembly is more than a protest, it’s a reclaiming of shared space,” said McEwan. “Any confrontation, as well as any talk of confrontation, is a distraction from the G20. It gives everyday Aussies an incredibly negative impression.”

McEwan said there is also talk of an “exodus” from the city, as locals may use the public holiday to get away from the heavy G20 security presence, leaving Brisbane a ghost town.

If so, this would be a blow for state and local officials who had hoped to use the G20 to showcase Brisbane to potential investors and tourists.

Extra powers

Special legislation passed by the Queensland government has expanded G20 police powers. The special legislation makes most of central Brisbane a “declared area”, while setting up “restricted areas” at hotels and venues where delegates will spend most of their time.

In the declared area, police will have the power to question a person about what they are doing and if the officer is not satisfied with the answer, they can force the person to leave or ban them during the G20 summit.

Protesters march through Brisbane, Australia [EPA]

The legislation also allows officers to shutdown a protest, even a peaceful one, based on the behaviour of a single individual.

Other security measures include military-style checkpoints around the city, “unobtrusive” snipers on rooftops, and military aircraft patrolling the skies overheard before and during the summit.

On top of this, 70 items have been banned from declared areas and include various objects ranging weapons to surfboards, reptiles and eggs.

Face-coverings, such as the masks worn by internet activist group Anonymous, are also banned, but Walter Sofronoff, barrister and former solicitor general of Queensland, has publicly questioned the legality of the measure.

Sofronoff told Al Jazeera if a mask is being used to make a political point where it won’t threaten anyone’s personal security, and is not being used to hide a person’s identity, wearing it would be lawful.

“Everything depends upon the particular circumstances,” said Sofronoff. “A blanket ban on masks or loudhailers used during protests anywhere, however removed from issues of orderly conduct of the meeting and security of attendees, may be very difficult to justify under the act.”

The impact on civil liberties led to Michael Cope, president of the Queensland Council of Civil Liberties, publicly calling the legislation “draconian”.

“It’s a bizarre take on democracy to say that when the most powerful people are here, that the other people should go away,” said Cope.

Earlier this week, the police made their first arrest under the powers when a 52-year-old man was arrested for taking photos on the steps of the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre and refusing to provide identification to police.

It has to be said that the Queensland police have been very professional in their preparation for the summit.

- Scott McDougall, Caxton Legal Centre

A woman was also questioned by police at the first official G20 protest on Saturday.

Walking the tightrope

For the 6,000 officers and security personal, some of whom have come from New Zealand to reinforce the Queensland police, what awaits is a delicate balancing act. They will have to manage the security of delegates and the general public, while facilitating the right of people to protest.

When contacted, a police spokesperson stressed the Queensland Police Service’s commitment to the task in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“The Queensland Police Service has been working with groups and will support and facilitate people’s fundamental right to peaceful and lawful protest,” it said. “However should a protest become violent or destructive, then the Queensland Police Service will take swift and decisive action.”

With protests already taking place over the last few days, and more planned over the weekend, things are going well so far, according to Scott McDougall, director of the Caxton Legal Centre.

The centre provides more than 50 independent legal observers during the G20 in a bid to “temper” the behaviour of protesters and police.

“It has to be said that the Queensland police have been very professional in their preparation for the summit,” said McDougall.

While things may be running smoothly for now, tensions will run high as powerful heads of state arrive.

Source : Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read