Spence ignores the truth

Nick Rowbotham critiques the Vice-Chancellor’s response to allegations of police violence at last week’s strike.

Police clash with protesters at Carillon Avenue
Police clash with protesters at Carillon Avenue
Police clash with protesters at Carillon Avenue

In response to the SRC Executive’s email to Michael Spence expressing concern about police violence towards students and staff at last Tuesday’s strike, the Vice-Chancellor wrote: “The police regularly patrol the campus and do not have to wait to be invited to do so… we welcome their assistance where deliberate disruption is being caused or in the case of safety concerns.”

The email failed to address any of the substance of the SRC’s concerns about heavy-handed tactics on the part of police, and was frightfully devoid of empathy for the individuals to whom Dr Spence ought to be ultimately accountable – staff and students.

Dr Spence’s PR Director, Andrew Potter, mysteriously and abruptly left the VC’s office two weeks ago, despite indications that he would remain in his position until the end of the year. Perhaps Spence’s callously managerial email is reflective of Potter’s absence.

Regardless, its tone was emblematic of a common response to allegations of police violence and heavy-handedness at the strike: picketers had been disruptive, uncooperative and violent, and police had simply acted “in the interests of public safety”.

The presumption of guilt on the part of protestors and innocence on the part of police is deeply troubling, particularly when it comes from individuals who had no involvement in the strike, and witnessed none of the events that occurred on picket lines last Tuesday. It is the exact opposite of what we should presume when staff and students are engaged in a lawful political protest.

The NSW Public Order and Riot Squad, the primary police unit engaged in confrontations with protestors last Tuesday, was formed in response to race riots in Redfern and Macquarie Fields in the mid 2000s. It was not designed to be employed against political protests, and frankly, the NSW Police Force should not be at all surprised when its use as such prompts claims of police violence. The Riot Squad is comprised of thuggish volunteers from the regular Force who have no interest in serving and protecting the public.

Dr Spence claims that police only acted to break up pickets when the NTEU’s ‘picket protocol’ was ignored. The agreed protocol during each of the three strikes has been that picketers have the right to attempt to dissuade individuals – and particularly vehicles – from entering the university. On a number of occasions last Tuesday, this protocol was flatly ignored by police.

Even when protestors were allowed the chance to argue their case at picket lines, police would attempt to impose time restrictions, and in some cases, encourage staff and students to enter the University to undermine the industrial action.

For many, it is difficult to accept that police can be the primary instigators of violence at protests, but the steady escalation of physical confrontations at the four days of industrial action this year lends credence to the thesis that police have primarily been present to shut down, rather than facilitate, protest.

Dr Spence claims that he has no control over police presence at the University. But it seems he is more than comfortable with riot police patrolling his campus. One of the managers of Campus Security was seen chuckling and conversing with riot police at the Carillon Avenue picket moments after the police had aggressively man-handled students and staff.

One student was strangled on a picket line, another broke his leg, and another suffered from internal bleeding after being crushed in a scrum. These are just the most serious incidents that occurred throughout the day. Why, then, should we presume that the Vice-Chancellor has any regard for the right to protest, and the safety of staff and students on campus?

Filed under: