“Strengthening our community, building a sustainable future”, proclaim the banners that have been erected on Sydney’s poles for APEC week. Presumably the slogan refers to the high-level discussions among world leaders, but one can’t help but think of the large metal and concrete fence that was built across the central business district to strengthen the city.
The word on everybody’s lips for the past week has, of course, been APEC. The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation recently held in Sydney brought the often obscure and distant global discussion forums to the forefront of Australians’ minds. For Sydneysiders, APEC has gone from an obscure acronym to a tangible reality, disrupting the city and its roads in the process.
Parts of the CBD went into “lockdown”, fenced off from the public and effectively excluding them from public space in their own city. The security was formidable and incredible. On Saturday, September 8, police lined the streets around Hyde Park forming a human chain, police buses with metal grilles were parked throughout the CBD, helicopters buzzed overhead constantly and, for the most part, the city was a ghost town.
The long-predicted protest almost materialised, but was largely peaceful. Otherwise, the streets of central Sydney were pretty much deserted. The security apparatus was highly effective in scaring citizens away from their own city spaces.
Threre were a number of factors disrupting peoples’ lives in Sydney during APEC. There was an exodus of people out of the city for the long-weekend; the presence of formidable physical and psychological barriers erected by the security forces; and there were special powers granted to the police for the week. The latter included the ability to stop, search and demand identification from anyone deemed suspicious, extended powers of arrest, and an Orwellian surveillance effort. Some of the news stories of ordinary people accidentally getting caught up in this are chilling indeed.
During the conference itself the experience of actually being in the Sydney CBD was surreal. Familiar streets and places were transformed into sinister and shadowy places, ghosts of their usual existence. There were police officers or suited and ear-pieced agents literally on every corner, and a constant feeling that one was being watched. It was apparent the public were not welcome and did not belong, especially after having been warned, through the media, to stay away.
Thankfully, progress was made in the high-level discussions among world leaders on economics, trade, climate change and regional security. The meeting and its outcomes have attracted attention from around the world, vaulting Sydney into the focus of the world’s media as the backdrop of these talks. Hosting the conference has brought many benefits to Sydney, not least a way to solidify its position as a post-September 11, 2001 global city that can host a delegation of heads of state, combat terrorist activities, and effectively control its populace when necessary
Yet it’s debateable whether the security was over the top for the purposes of protecting the delegates from attack or harassment, and the city from violent protest. The organisation and security of the event speak volumes about how cities and citizens are controlled and disciplined. A remarkable show of force was created, giving the impression of a formidable security machine that instilled a sense of fear and trepidation among many.
Securing Sydney also conveniently served a variety of interests.
Politically, it was an excellent opportunity for the federal government to show how serious it is about national security and about protecting important events from terrorist threats. Making the security so overt, intimidating and intrusive allowed the government to show off its abilities, as well as instilling a sense of fear in the public - a fear that terrorism is likely to happen, therefore we must all go along with the changes to the city in the name of the wider good, and (presumably) trust the government to manage it all.
This perspective is somewhat cynical, but the construction of fear definitely creates valuable political opportunities that can then be exploited by offering solutions, albeit ones that impinge on civil rights and disrupt the ability of ordinary citizens to go about their everyday lives in the city.
APEC’s security also benefited the police force. There were unprecedented powers to control the public, albeit for a limited period, and individual officers had enormous discretion to arrest, question, detain, interrogate and control. Head command could show off its co-ordination abilities and deployment of equipment to appease the political masters. Essentially, it was a psycho-sexual fantasy of disciplinary power that dispensed with the usual restraints of valid reasons for an arrest, presumption of innocence and access to legal representation for those detained.