Yesterday’s strike at USYD, the fourth day of industrial action so far this semester, has given rise to claims of police brutality and questions over the University’s involvement in inviting riot police on campus.
The strike, part of the NTEU’s and CPSU’s ongoing campaign to secure a better deal with the University on working conditions, involved pickets at all major entrances to the University.
But while the subject of the dispute was the same as the strikes of March 7 and March 26 and 27, the presence and actions of dozens of police distinguished this protest from its predecessors. Although there were no arrests yesterday, unlike on March 26, more police were present on campus yesterday than previously, and they were more proactive in breaking up picket lines.
The earliest clashes with police happened in the morning at the City Rd entrance. Protesters formed a line across the road into the University, preventing vehicles from entering. Tensions escalated when police attempted to break up the picket line and push protesters to the side of the road, first at 8am, and then again at 9am. See Honi’s footage of the second of these incidents here.
It was at the City Rd picket that student and protestor Tom Raue says a policeman choked him. According to Raue, whose full account can be found here: “I could not breathe…I was frightened for my life.” SRC President David Pink was also part of the picket and told Honi that the choking lasted about a minute and a half: “His whole face went purple and his body was completely limp,” Pink said.
It was also here that fellow student Wynand van der Woude’s leg was broken. As of last night he was at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, awaiting surgery to insert a metal plate to put his bone back together. He told Honi that a member of the police force broke his leg while attempting to break up the picket, and that he is looking into legal action.
Meanwhile, all Union Board candidates except Will Dawes and Grace O’Brien, of Will & Grace fame, ceased campaigning out of apparent solidarity with the strike. When asked why he was campaigning on a strike day, Dawes said that he was wanted to hear what the “silent majority” had to say. Most people were not interested in the ideological aspect of the strike, he claimed.
At around 11am the epicentre of the protest shifted to the Carillon Avenue entrance to USYD, with protesters again forming a picket line to prevent cars entering the University.
Physical clashes between picketers and police were frequent. Several times over the course of an hour and a half up to thirty riot police allowed vehicles to enter by pushing protesters to the side of the road.
A number of protesters were also dragged from the picket and thrown to the ground.
The protest came to an end when the picketers moved to Victoria Park for a rally at 12:30pm.
SRC President David Pink has expressed concern at the police presence on campus. “Students have the right to protest peacefully at their own University,” he told Honi Soit. “The response of the riot police was violent and completely unprovoked.”
Despite the injuries suffered, Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch has said that no complaints have yet been received alleging police misconduct at the protest and that consideration is currently being given “to what action, if any, is required to be taken internally by the New South Wales Police Force” following protesters’ claims that police used excessive force. With regard to the large police presence, he stated that the police numbers deployed were “commensurate with the assessed level of risk”.
In response to yesterday’s events, the SRC Executive has written an open letter to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, calling on him to take responsibility for the presence of the public order and riot squad.
Although the police involvement at picket lines was greater than before, many students could avoid engaging with the strike. The picket lines were sparser this time around, and those entering campus from City Rd or Parramatta Rd at most times of the day could easily pass through. Gone were the ‘roving pickets’ of March 26 which interrupted classes that had gone ahead despite the strike. That meant that many were able to go about business as usual yesterday, unaware of the struggle between police and protesters going on a short distance from their classrooms.
The next strike is planned for June 5.