G20 lockdown: the challenge of balancing freedom and security

The Toronto G20 summit showed what starts out as a peaceful protest can turn into a violent clash. EPA/Sergei Ilinitsky

The Brisbane G20 summit is shaping up to to be Australia’s largest security operation. In recent decades, most large-scale protests in Australia have been relatively peaceful events, but the policing of mass protest is potentially unpredictable and volatile.

“Strategic incapacitation”, which includes exclusionary no-go zones, pre-arrests, strategic mass arrests, heavy surveillance, tear gas and pepper spray, has become a regular feature of the containment of mass protests in the 21st century.

The academic literature may argue for police facilitation of peaceful protest based on negotiated management. But during economic summits, police around the world have prepared for worst case scenarios and utilised high tech weaponry and riot squads.

The unknown unknowns

Police face challenges in dealing with anti-globalisation protesters who have diverse agendas and targets, fragmented strategies, and operate as cell-like structures.

It is difficult for police to establish dialogue with such protesters and impose acceptable behaviour limits. Extremist groups such as Black Bloc and Mutiny scorn dialogue with police, and vice versa. Police can analyse intelligence and open source information about identified groups; however, unknown and international groups may pose greater threats.

The policing objective for Brisbane is a “safe, secure, dignified and effective G20”. The safety of world leaders is the priority, but aligned with this is the facilitation of peaceful protest and maintenance of community confidence.

Brisbane’s G20 will host 36 dignitaries, 4000 delegates and 3000 media personnel. Police face a delicate balancing act of maintaining security and protection but also allowing freedom of expression. A secondary objective is to “showcase Brisbane” as a commercial and tourist hub, but care is required that the spectacle does not overshadow the security substance.

The G20 is not “business as usual”. As the event draws near, the scale and complexity of safeguarding people and property are further evolving, with additional protests anticipated against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attendance.

Policing of the 2006 Melbourne G20 meeting, before the mood changed. Julian Smith/AAP

A year of planning

Police, military and security personnel have been planning for the Brisbane G20 for well over a year. The situation has been complicated by Islamic State terrorist activities. Australia’s terror alert level recently increased from “medium” to “high”.

The federal and state governments maintain that there is no specific terrorist threat against the G20. In a volatile crowd context, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) needs to carefully distinguish between a potential terrorist threat and protests.

QPS is applying the lessons of recent global talkfest protests at home and abroad where examples of chaotic street violence occurred. The Melbourne G20 in November 2006 saw splintered, extremists groups take possession and trash part of the CBD. The NSW Police learnt from that experience and undertook extensive preparations for the September 2007 APEC summit.

Police arrest a protester at a ‘Stop Bush’ rally ahead of APEC, 2007. Paul Miller/AAP

NSW Police, expecting a full-scale riot, used the psychology of the threat of force, rather than its actual use, to deter protest. Preparations included exclusionary zones, 5000 NSW Police, preparatory police-military exercises, police snipers on CBD rooftops, water cannon, and a prohibited persons list. These measures effectively prevented violence, but arguably negated the rights of protesters.

The G20 has its own dynamic: if a violent minority hijacks part of an event, police need to safeguard the rights of others. In Toronto in June 2010, a minority group dressed in Black Bloc garb conducted a violent rampage which encountered limited police resistance. Subsequently, the police drastically changed tactics to “take back the streets” and were heavily criticised for employing excessive force, unlawful arrests and human rights violations in the clampdown against protesters.

Lessons from Toronto

QPS, aware of potential pitfalls, has had discussion with the Toronto Police Service (TPS) about their violent G20. More than 20,000 police and military and security personnel confronted an estimated 10,000 demonstrators that culminated in 1118 arrests but only 32 convictions. The policing of Brisbane is more moderate: about 6000 police, including 1500 from New Zealand.

Senior TPS commanders labelled some protesters as “terrorists”; a perverse connection of the two, and engaged in stereotyping certain protesters. There was a cycle of escalating violence as the TPS viewed the protesters as violent, and police themselves lacked the skill to de-escalate confrontational situations.

Toronto police communications between command and officers failed. QPS will be coordinating the policing operations across police and security agencies and have the capacity to move police rapidly (including by bicycle).

TPS had a mere four months to prepare for the G20; QPS has been planning for well over a year. QPS has met and liaised with various protest groups. Almost 100 groups have been identified, including anarchists. The QPS website states that “it understands and respects the right of citizens to protest lawfully in Queensland” and explains that External Engagement Officers:

… liaise with assembly organisers to ensure that organisers are aware of what the QPS expects from them and their rights under the G20 (Safety and Security) Act 2013.

QPS officers need to effectively explain measures and provide clear warnings and sufficient time if protesters are directed to disperse.

‘Kettling’ was used by police during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010. Warren Toda/EPA

Containment was utilised on at least ten occasions during the Toronto G20. The “kettling” tactic, where large numbers of police contain protesters in a small space, was severely criticised after the 2009 London G20. Both have now abandoned “kettling” as a public order tactic.

QPS could contain people during the G20, but the length of time and exit points are important considerations. Authorities in Toronto held the G20 in the centre of Canada’s largest city. The Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre will host the main meetings of the Brisbane G20, although some concern exists about its suitability due to its proximity to the Brisbane River and limited exit routes.

One thousand police, intelligence officers, ADF and other agencies were on duty during the Finance Ministers’ meeting in Cairns in September 2014.

Police hailed the “trial” operation as an overwhelming success, with no arrests necessary and no security incidents. A march of 150 protesters was heavily outnumbered by police. This police numerical superiority won’t be repeated in Brisbane. Police are predicting more than 1000 arrests and fully occupied watch-houses. The world will be watching how Australia enforces security and accommodates protest.