In the lead-up to the no-WTO protests in Sydney in Sept...
In September 2000, the World Economic Forum (WEF) was scheduled to meet in Melbourne for one of its annual conferences. The WEF, like the World Trade Organisation, had become subject to world-wide public scrutiny for its undemocratic support of economic globalisation, at the expense of people, social justice and the environment.
A wide range of community groups in Melbourne and across the country planned protests against the WEF. Anti-globalisation protests had achieved mass public support and intense media interest following the protests in Seattle where thousands of peaceful protesters successfully stopped the WTO meeting continuing, before riot police, using tear gas, batons and excessive force, dispersed the crowd.
Melbourne organisers of the protest against the WEF began organising under the name S11 (a reference to September 11, 2000 the date the WEF conference opened and hence the first day of protest). The S11 protests were expected to be one of the biggest seen in Melbourne for some time. People from all walks of life, all around the country were planning to converge on Melbourne to express their concern about the practices of the WEF.
In the lead up to the protest, there were media reports of Victoria Police planning mass arrests and detention of protesters. Whole country jails were allegedly cleared to enable protesters to be imprisoned.
Community legal centres in Melbourne became concerned to ensure that protesters were provided with adequate access to justice. With existing community legal centre infrastructure already stretched due to a lack of resources, S11 Legal Support was established to plan and coordinate a legal support strategy for the protest and thereby cope with the expected increased demand for legal assistance during the protests.
S11 Legal Support was co-ordinated by North Melbourne Legal Service, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service and Western Suburbs Legal Service. Community lawyers from a number of other centres also joined in the support team. Much of the work carried out by community legal centre workers was undertaken out of hours and in a volunteer capacity. The ability to understand and give legal consent to an action or arrangement.. S11 Legal Support also included over 100 volunteers from private law firms, the bar, law schools and the general community.
Community legal centre workers met regularly for up to 2 months before the protest to plan legal support for the event.
Planning included the development of standard documentation, information and procedures, accessing volunteer lawyers and non-lawyers and securing other resources. In particular it included the development of an incident report sheet, which allowed legal support staff to speak with protesters who had been arrested, injured or exposed to police violence to record instantaneous records of the event for later use, if necessary, in legal proceedings.
Employing the philosophy of community legal centres, the S11 Legal Support focused heavily on community legal education amongst protest networks in the areas of police rights and criminal court processes. Many information sessions were held in the lead up to the protest. The education strategy employed the use of specially designed rights stickers, leaflets which were distributed before the event at trainings and meetings as well as at the protest itself, as well as promotion through the internet. This community legal education had benefits far beyond the S11 protest.
In the lead up to the protest training was provided for legal and para-legal volunteers around police rights, the law of protesting and court process.
A 24-hour central telephone line and office – this office at Trades Hall was continually staffed by legal and para-legal volunteers. To support this work a whole office administration system and procedures were developed by the volunteers. An email address was also set up as another contact option.
On site legal support – The legal support team worked on site providing information, advice and taking notes about police actions. A small legal table at the protest site was placed next to the medical tent which became a busy focus throughout the 3 days. Injured activists would attend first aid then visit the legal support worker on site to make a statement. The ability to capture activist statements on site was crucial.
The legal support team worked closely with a range of other groups supporting the protest including the marshals, the medical team and the team of legal observers organised by the Pt’chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group.
As we now know, there were only a handful of arrests arising from the protests both during and after they occurred.
On Monday 11 September 2000, following the mass attendance of thousands of people around the venue of the WEF conference, Crown Casino, protesters had made it very difficult for the conference to continue with delegates struggling to gain entry.
On Tuesday 12 September 2000, Victoria Police command instructed its members to use whatever force necessary to ensure delegates accessed the conference. Rather than effect lawful arrests of protesters, Victoria Police members used force to remove peaceful protesters from around the conference site. In so doing, they caused many protesters to suffer injuries. Some police mistreatment including overhead use of batons, inappropriate use of horses and other unwarranted behaviour such as punching, kicking and hair pulling.
Over the 3 days of the protest S11 Legal Support took about 500 statements from people who had been injured or who had witnessed violence. These statements were taken out in the field at all hours of the day and night often sitting on the ground with injured activists listening to their stories. The level of appreciation for the legal support team was immense it was very powerful for the embattled protesters to know that there was someone on their side and that the legal profession was prepared to stick up for their rights.
Against a background of extremely biased media reporting of the S11 protest in which activists were demonised and marginalised, S11 Legal Support played an integral role in alerting the public to the facts of what was occurring on the ground.
Both mainstream and alternative media sources were used get the facts about police violence out to the public. S11 Legal Support Team workers coordinated a range of print, radio and television interviews and late on the final day of the protests, organised a well attended media conference which included representatives from the Trades Hall Council and the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty Victoria), Victorian Trades Hall and an injured activist.
At this conference it was announced that complaints had been lodged with the State Ombudsman. A public official appointed to investigate citizens’ complaints against the administrative agencies of government, or against members of a particular profession. about Tuesday’s baton attacks and about the police practice of removing name tags.
For the small group of protesters who were charged for protest related offences, the S11 legal support team helped co-ordinate legal defences or refer protesters to private legal professionals for assistance. In particular, private law firm Stary George & Myall agreed to represent protesters who were arrested over the 3 days on a pro-bono basis.
For over a year following the protest S11 Legal Support worked on submitting complaints made by protesters to the Victorian Ombudsman for investigation. Pt’chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group also made submissions, based on their own Legal Observer Team incident report sheets, to the Ombudsman.
The S11 Legal Support Team co-ordinated evidence presented to the State Ombudsman who conducted a public interest inquiry into the protest activities of Victoria Police. This huge job was carried out with the assistance of the non legal and legal volunteers meeting regularly and attending working bees.
The Ombudsman released his report in 2001, which while largely upholding the actions of police, provided substantial criticism of some of the tactics used during some incidents.
The S11 Legal Support Team worked closely with the private profession, in particular Slater & Gordon, to investigate and provide advice to people injured during the protests as to potential causes of action they may have against Victoria Police and the State of Victoria. These cases are ongoing.
What was remarkable about the S11 Legal Support Team effort was that the community legal centres at its core were able to harness the energy and enthusiasm of a broad range of volunteers, the private profession and Victoria Legal Aid for the benefit of the broader community.
Through the S11 Legal Support effort, community legal centres secured an estimated 1500 hours of volunteer time for the benefit of the community.
The work of S11 Legal Support Team also strengthened the links between community legal centres and the broader community through the broad range of groups that were involved over the three days including trade unions, church and school groups and environmentalists.
The work carried out by S11 Legal Support Team built on and consolidated the work that had been done by community legal centres around police accountability at past protests including Richmond Secondary College and North Ltd/Jabiluka protests.
Whilst the efforts of the S11 Legal Support Team secured the admiration and thanks of community protesters, the community legal centres who dared to stick up for the civil rights of the protesters were actually maligned publicly. Inflammatory commentary was made by media identities and several community legal centres received hate mail from right wing groups such as the Nazi Party as well as death threats. This did not deter the S11 Legal Support Team who continued to uphold the rights of those in the community.
The S11 Legal Support Team was the winner of the 2000 Tim McCoy Award, which is awarded to an individual or organisation for a special contribution to the community, social justice and legal aid. The prize commemorates the work of Tim McCoy, a community worker, lawyer and political activist, who died on 9 November 1987.