Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sydney : Inside 'The Cage'

"We're Like A Bunch Of Fucking Rats In A Maze!"

The 'steel wall' goes up only metres from the Sydney Opera House.

Report And Photos By Darryl Mason

On the outside of the 'steel wall' stretching five kilometres through the centre of Sydney, it looks like a fence. A three metre high, concrete reinforced fence.

But it's only once you're on the inside of the 'security zone' that you realise what it really is.

It's a cage. It's not the Great Wall Of Sydney, as the media were referring to it a few days ago.

It's The Sydney Cage.

One of The Cage entry points for vehicles in the heart of Sydney.

Inside The Cage yesterday afternoon, police, security guards and foreign secret service agents patrolled the streets, manned entry points along the 'steel wall' and videod every person who walked past the side and rear service entries to the Intercontinental Hotel, where President Bush is now staying.

The few pedestrians and tourists wandering around inside The Cage barely spoke. Heads down, shoulders slumped, people moved as fast as they could to get to where they were going. Entire cafes, normally crowded with tourists, sat empty, rows of chairs and tables bereft of customers. If you wanted coffee, or food, you waited until you were outside of The Cage to stop and get what you wanted.

Nobody wanted to linger in there. Inside The Cage was a Sydney I'd never seen before. Quiet, subdued, confused and nervous.

Inside The Cage, police can stop you, demand you show your ID, question you about your reasons for being inside the 'security zone' and ask to see photographs on your cell phone or digital camera.

The police 'can' do all these things, according to the media. We must get used to it.

But there isn't any law that allows the police to do any of these things.

The media has actively helped to create the mindset amongst Sydneysiders that they have to do what police and security guards demand of them, whether that be hand over their day planners and cell phones for investigation, or provide details of where they work.

But police don't have the law on their side. You can refuse all these police requests, and on Tuesday afternoon I witnessed a number of Sydneysiders, furious and frustrated at being forced to navigate a series of steel corridors just to cross the street, telling police they were not going to comply with requests for ID and personal details.

"You have no right to ask me for that information," said one elderly man, on Bridge Street. "Show me the law that says you have the right to question me like this."

The policeman couldn't, and he look embarrassed at being challenged.

At best, all the police can do inside The Cage is ask to you leave the area, and if you fail to do so, they are allowed to escort you out. If you resist, police are then able to arrest you on any number of minor offences related to resisting police directives.

More than 40 wireless 'emergency alert' speaker systems were installed throughout the city centre. They emit ear-piercing sirens and spoken alerts.

Before the arrival of President Bush, the general mood of the hundreds of security guards and police milling about at various check points and gate ways along the walls of The Cage was not tension, or paranoia, it was sheer and total boredom.

Inside, or outside, The Cage, there were no hordes of "violent protesters". No "roaming gangs" of anarchists and anti-capitalists as the media and John Howard had promised.

There were just an enormous number of security people standing around doing nothing, or chatting quietly with tourists.

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The only people I found in two hours of walking around inside The Cage who were close to anarchy were the owners and managers of retail shops, tourist outlets and restaurants and cafes.

Dozens of cafes and food courts and restaurants and bars had less than four or five customers, many others sat completely empty. Food outlets that struggle to break even at the best of times were selling off meals and containers of unsold food for a quarter of their normal prices. Literally forced to give away their products and produce by the presence of an economic summit that promoted free trade and free markets.

Nearly all the small business owners I spoke to inside The Cage, that rely on street traffic trade for their livelihoods, said their takings were down 60 to 80% because of the APEC summit, and the presence of the 'steel wall' security fence. They still have five more days of such economic ruin to endure before The Cage is taken down.

For many of these pro-capitalism entrepreneurs, the APEC summit has heralded a financial disaster that will take months to recover from. Staff have been laid off, deliveries from wholesalers cancelled, the financial damage seeps out from these small businesses across the sprawl of Sydney and its suburbs.

Tens of thousands of Sydney workers have been told they aren't needed to work this week in restaurants, cafes and retail outlets. For most of these casual workers, a day off means a loss of a day's wages. A week with no work means big financial trouble for minimum wage workers who are already struggling to get by.

None of the cafes, restaurants and retail outlets inside The Cage who are suffering from a massive loss of trade and income due solely to the APEC summit have been offered any kind of compensation by the state or federal government.

The three metre high 'steel wall' also, bizarrely, cuts through the heart of Sydney's Botanical Gardens. The local fauna were as confused as the office workers who usually eat their lunch in the park.

"I don't want to go in there," said one elderly German tourist to his family, at Circular Quay, as he balked at entering The Cage. "I don't like checkpoints and questions."

Neither do most Sydneysiders.

The crush of pedestrians on street corners at 5pm as people headed home from work was intense. Open gates to get out of The Cage were few and far between. You were forced to squeeze through small openings, people rushing to make buses and get home slammed into each other as the disorientating effects of so many 'steel walls' and checkpoints and gate ways caused confusion and anger.

Sydney, 3pm Tuesday - No cars, few pedestrians, stunned tourists, local businesses suffer 80% downturn in takings.

It's remarkable how easy it is to get disorientated trying to navigate your way through the maze of fences. Street names and routes through the city you've known and walked for decades become mysteries as you discover you can no longer duck down that back lane, or cross the street where you have thousands of times before. Everything looks different when there's a three metre high security fence blocking your view and looming over your head.

"We're like a bunch of fucking rats in a maze!", one business man cried out on a Bridge Street corner. "Look at this bullshit! We're rats in a goddamned cage!"

None of the dozens of people, all trying to squeeze through the one metre wide gap in the fence to get across the road, disagreed with him. Nobody laughed. Everybody just wanted to get out of there.

And then, on the other side The Cage, outside of that rat maze, the tension in the crowd visibly lifted. The pedestrians streaming towards relocated bus stops began talking, some were laughing, but everybody seemed far more relaxed.

It was like being free, for the first time that afternoon.

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