Last week’s strike at USYD has given rise to claims of police brutality and questions over the University’s responsibility for the actions of riot police on campus. The May 14 strike, the third in 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 three previous strike days in March, violent clashes between picketers and dozens of police distinguished this protest from its predecessors.
The morning was marked by frequent physical clashes between police and picketers at the City Road and Carillon Avenue entrances to the University. As protesters prevented vehicles from entering, police attempted to break up picket lines, pushing protesters to the side of the road.
Several times at Carillon Avenue, where up to thirty riot police were stationed, police dragged protesters from the picket and threw them to the ground.
Several students have been left injured and traumatised in the wake of these clashes. Student Wynand van der Woude’s leg was broken at the City Road picket after he fell to the ground when police attempted to break up the picket line. He was hospitalised for three days and has had a metal plate inserted into his ankle.
Fellow student Tom Raue says a policeman choked him at this entrance as well, writing for Honi Soit: “I could not breathe…I was frightened for my life” (see here). SRC President David Pink, also part of the picket, witnessed the incident and told Honi that it lasted for about a minute and a half. “His whole face went purple and his body was completely limp,” Pink said.
There are also reports that a staff member suffered a cracked rib.
The protest came to an end when the picketers moved to Victoria Park for a rally at 12:30pm, part of a nationwide protest against the Government’s planned cuts to tertiary education funding.
Pink has also expressed concern at the police presence on campus. “Students have the right to protest peacefully at their own University,” he told Honi. “The response of the riot police was violent and completely unprovoked.” Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch stated that the police numbers deployed were “commensurate with the assessed level of risk”.
In response to these 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 and to cease inviting them on to campus.
However, Spence has disclaimed any responsibility for police action. In a response to the SRC, he denied that the University invited police on to campus and that it has authority to exclude them.
He told Honi that he cannot comment on the police’s operational decisions or control their movements on campus.
This is despite visibly obvious collaboration between Campus Security and police at the Carillon Avenue picket.
Instead of police, the Vice-Chancellor has laid the blame for last Tuesday’s events squarely at the feet of picketers.
While claiming to “deeply regret” the injuries suffered, he wrote to the SRC that physical interactions only arose when agreed picket line protocol was breached by demonstrators.
When asked if he was worried that the presence of police on campus was a threat to student safety, Spence told Honi: “Absolutely not.”
Instead, he urged the NTEU and CPSU to join him in “condemning the actions of a minority of demonstrators”, whose actions in blockading the University, he said, led to what he described as “this regrettable occurrence.”
Students are preparing a complaint to the Ombudsman about police violence, and have planned a snap action on campus this Thursday.
The next strike is planned for June 5.