Australian police, judiciaries and state governments are working in tandem to present political activity and privacy rights, on the one hand, and public health, on the other, as a zero sum game. Advertisements encouraging us to download the COVIDsafe tracking app and to dob in neighbours breaching coronavirus restrictions bombard our news cycle daily, alongside images of Australian Defence Force personnel in camouflage gear and face masks, signifying the realisation of techno-totalitarian state surveillance. The Morrison government has exploited the pandemic by introducing a bill to beef up ASIO’s capabilities, receiving criticism from lawyers and the Australian Humans Right Commission in the process. Expanded compulsory questioning powers, which represent a shift from ASIO’s focus on terrorism towards politically-motivated violence, could be used to target Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters.
Just this week, Victorian police bashed Aboriginal man Korey Penny who was on his way to work when officers racially profiled and misidentified him. Penny has an exemption for mobility restrictions during Victoria’s stage four lockdown thanks to his role in Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel project. You might forgive USyd students, then, for being distrustful and wishing cops off campus.
As COVID-19 has set in, police have come down even more heavy-handed than usual on protests, despite significantly more people congregating at professional sports matches – 7051 at the recent A League Grand Final, for instance – and shopping malls. Invoking the Public Health Order (No. 4) 2020, police have issued move-on orders and fines to disperse crowds before some protests have even begun, often outnumbering the protesters in number and failing to social distance themselves.
At a peaceful counter-protest to a far-right “Free Raimond Kelly” rally in Newtown on 15 July, anti-fascist protesters, cordoned off from the far right activists and numbering no more than twenty, were shocked when police arrested a Sydney branch member of the Australian Communist Party (ACP) for “offensive language”. When another ACP member tried to intervene, the police charged her with “assaulting a police officer”. Video obtained by Honi, however, shows no aggression or resistance on her part. The strict bail conditions for the former of these two ACP members includes not attending “unlawful gatherings/protests”. Similarly, police have sent letters containing official warnings about attending further rallies to certain local activists.
Police pressure on leftist organising culminated on 28 August in the most disproportionate police presence witnessed for a protest at USyd in recent memory. As the crowd at the National Day of Action education rally scattered, obeying police orders to disperse, riot police descended, fining attendees indiscriminately. A phalanx of horses left behind a shit-smeared Eastern Avenue. As Honi recently reported, one police officer taunted a student he had apprehended and bruised over a previous sexual assault report she had made to police.
By allowing law enforcement to enter university grounds, university management cannot guarantee students’ emotional and physical safety. When questioned by Honi, the University failed to make any immediate or concrete pledges to prevent police from entering campus grounds or to reduce future police presence. A USyd spokesperson stated: “We share concerns about the police response to the small and peaceful protest last Friday. The Vice-Chancellor has written to the NSW Police Regional Superintendent seeking an explanation as to why such an extensive police presence and operation was deemed to be required, and the disturbing allegations about the treatment of one of our students. We have offered to discuss options for different approaches, so we can try to avoid a similar situation occurring at future events… We were aware of plans for the protest on Friday but did not try to prevent it from taking place, and did not initiate contact with NSW Police about it.”
One attendee who requested anonymity expressed shock at the sight of ten to twelve riot trucks and mounted police in a place he normally associated with “status” and “freedom of thought and expression”. This was “jackbooted thuggery – authoritarianism in the most blatant and in your face form.”
Many believe police arrived at this rally with a predetermined list of targets, speaking to a siege mentality among politically-engaged youth. SRC Education Officer Jack Mansell has penned an opinion piece for Honi, theorising that university management, campus security and police are once again collaborating.
In 2013, Honi uncovered emails between university staff and Newtown police, obtained via freedom of information laws. These emails indicated that university management had worked with police to break the picket line during staff strikes. Emails included an offer to Simon Hardman, the Superintendent of Newtown Local Area Command, to go for a “milkshake”. The relationship between Newtown police station and campus security is so entwined that Hardman was later employed as the Head of Campus Security and Emergency Management (2018-2020). Allegations of homophobia plagued Hardman across both roles.
That the university was set to host “Coffee with a Cop” sessions last year specifically intended for international students – a community especially vulnerable to police discrimination – speaks volumes.
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Our neoliberal state has broken up protests and platformed digital technologies including the COVIDSafe app, while leaning on contract tracing, private security firms and defence force personnel ill equipped for a public health crisis. These measures have a dual purpose. In some cases, they may improve public health. But they are also a smokescreen hiding the limitations of privatising hospitals and smaller government.
COVID-19 has exposed the idiocy of forever pining after a budget surplus and glorifying austerity measures, privatisation and deregulation. Private security firms – and an industry rife with pay disputes and “sham contracting” – are responsible for Victoria’s hotel quarantine disaster, for instance.
It’s lazy for state authorities to blame protests as hotbeds for COVID-19. This is a cop-out response. Despite Liberal Party politicians and conservative media outlets promulgating the narrative that active political organisers are reckless and self-indulgent, there is no evidence linking BLM protests in Australia to COVID-19, just as there is little to suggest that BLM rallies in the US have become spawning grounds for the disease. The National Bureau of Economic Research suggests, in a paper published in August this year, that BLM protests have not caused a spike in the number of American cases of COVID-19. Based on extensive research into 315 US cities, the study showed that urban areas with BLM protests concurrently saw a rise in social-distancing and stay-at-home behaviour. While neoliberal states platform individualism and the nuclear family, these facts expose yawning fissures in neoliberal architecture. They indicate that socially-responsible citizens can self-organise and prevent a public health crisis without the express authority of the state or a need for excessive totalitarian measures.
It’s about time university management stopped pointing fingers at protesters and stood against police brutality. Continuing university support for police – the shock troops of neoliberalism – perpetuates a model ill-suited to our current crises.