Mainstream media attention surrounding the October 30 student demonstration in Melbourne has tended to downplay the heavy-handed tactics employed by Victoria Police in arresting demonstrators and attempting to disperse the crowd.
I was part of the demonstration, which saw 100 protestors march from Parliament House down Bourke Street in protest against the Liberal Government’s inquiry into higher education, which could see Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt privatised and university places capped.
At the intersection of Bourke Street and Exhibition Street, students burnt two effigies – one of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and one of Education Minister Chris Pyne – before making their way down Exhibition Street to the Liberal Party Headquarters. Shoes were thrown at the building as a symbolic gesture against oppression – adopted from the incident where an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush during a 2008 press conference.
None of these events, according to rally organiser Sarah Garnham, should have come as a surprise to the police officers who, by this point, had us outnumbered roughly 2:1. Garnham, who is a member of the Victorian Education Action Network said that the network had contacted Victoria Police and made them aware the effigy burning and shoe throwing was to occur.
I personally saw a small number of shoes hit police officers, but I cannot comment on whether this was intentional or the result of bad aim. Seconds after the last shoe was thrown, police swarmed in to make seemingly arbitrary arrests and disperse the crowd.
One woman passed out from the force used to arrest her before being carried to a nearby police van. Police officers are said to have rejected protestors’ concern that she be seen to by paramedics.
Barely five metres away from me, a woman fell down during a scuffle and was trampled on by a crowd of police officers as they attempted to arrest someone. Half a minute later, a friend of mine was thrown to the ground near the gutter by two or three police officers. I remember thinking that if he’d fallen a couple of inches to the right and hit his head on the curb, he could have been seriously injured.
The police reaction was met with resistance. Protestors stood their ground and screamed at police officers to get off their friends. One protestor is alleged to have punched a police officer in the face: something that featured heavily in mainstream media reporting.
A spokeswoman for Victoria Police said that police were in attendance to ensure the safety of all involved. The force employed by police officers did not suggest this.
Protest leaders decided to direct the rally to the East Melbourne police station via Bourke Street to make a formal complaint. This didn’t eventuate, presumably because no one was sure where arrestees had been taken. The destination was changed to the Victorian Trades Hall.
We linked arms and chanted “this is not a police state, we have the right to demonstrate” and “this is a peaceful protest, that is police brutality” as we moved down Bourke Street, police boxing us in from all sides. At one point we were stopped near an intersection and forced to continue our protest on the pedestrian walkway. I remember two more arrests being made, though accounts vary from two to four.
One of them was Jay Wymarra, Indigenous activist and 2014 First Nations Officer at the La Trobe student union. According to a note he added to his Facebook page that evening, he was arrested for lighting the effigies and is currently waiting to find out if he will be formally charged. Protestors argued that this was racially motivated, changing their chant to “always was, always will be Aboriginal land”.
Later, walking up Swanston Street, another person was arrested in a nasty snatch-and-grab move by what looked like eight police officers, as a wall of police cordoned off perceived resistors.
The demonstration ended in the RMIT university cafeteria where protestors debriefed.
Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of this demonstration is that student action against education cuts and other issues can only be seen as violent, misguided lunacy when viewed from the lens of the mainstream media. Students’ ability to articulate their struggle has been consistently ignored.
But for many activists, the events of this demonstration has only strengthened their resolve to fight what they see as an inevitable decimation of our higher education system by the Liberal Government’s proposed inquiry. That’s the conversation we should be having right now.
Matthew Campbell is an editor of Lot’s Wife, Monash University’s student magazine. This article originally appeared on their website, lotswife.com.au.