Last night, hundreds of protesters clashed with police at the Australian Technology Park, calling for immediate action and broader policy change amidst the ongoing humanitarian crisis on Manus Island. Around 600 detainees are currently occupying the closed detention centre, with rapidly dwindling food, water and health care, saying they fear violent attacks from Papua New Guinea (PNG) locals if they are rehoused outside of the centre. Protesters, many of whom were Sydney University students, confronted attendees of a Liberal party fundraising dinner that featured Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton as guest speakers.
From the outset, protesters were met with a heavy police presence. The police had pre-emptively erected fencing and formed a human barricade, enforcing a 50-metre exclusion zone around the venue. As Daniel Cotton of the Campus Refugee Action Collective recalls, “we’re doing everything we can to free the refugees, and bring them here safely to Australia. The police were doing everything — including violently throwing us around — to protect the Liberal fundraiser, ex-cop Peter Dutton, and Australia’s criminal refugee regime.”
When on occasion protesters did manage to break the line and make contact with attendees, police reacted with violence, shoving and punching all in their wake, including many students. Liam Donohoe, a second year Arts student at the University of Sydney, said, “I was at the tail end of a group confronting an attendee… police rushed through from behind me. As they rushed through, I saw one of them make eye contact with me. He then threw a forearm into my face”. Blood was seen on Donohoe’s lips moments after.
Georgia Mantle, another student, claims that when she suggested a police officer would have been a member of the SS, the Nazi police force in 1930s Germany, he replied that “he knew, and loved it.”
Other students heard a series of misogynistic statements made by police officers towards female protesters. Leya Reid, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Women’s Officer, says “police were being quite aggressive and making a lot of sexist remarks… they were commenting on protesters appearances’ and at one point told her she ‘looks hot when she’s angry'”. Another officer responded to the chants of a protester by telling her that “the reason she was angry was because she hadn’t cum in a month”. NSW police also allegedly strip searched two protesters before releasing them with no charge.
As the dinner began, protesters moved to Gibbons Street, blocking traffic, and held up various signs including ones that read, “Peter Dutton has blood on his hands”. Eventually, they marched up the street and blocked the intersection outside Redfern station, chanting, “When refugees are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.” Some spectators joined the march from nearby streets.
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On numerous occasions protesters clashed with police, who eventually brought a riot squad, attack dogs, and poorly disguised undercover officers to clear out the protest. At one point shrieks were heard and police were seen throwing a protester to the ground while multiple onlookers took photos and videos. In an effort to stall the police, protesters formed a human shield around a van, which resulted in one more protester’s arrest.
Tooba Anwar, of Anti Islamophobia UTS, said students were taking “a firm stance against the Turnbull government and the Islamophobic rhetoric that is used to justify their torturous offshore camps.” Protesters were also quick to point out the harmful consequences of bipartisan support for offshore detention. Shannen Potter, the vice-president of NSW Young Labor and the leader of Young Labor Left, echoed this sentiment, claiming “bipartisan support gives [offshore processing] the veneer of respectability and legitimacy. We need the Labor Party to withdraw its support for offshore detention.”
These protests are the latest in ongoing and escalating attempts to remedy the crisis, which have so far included occupations of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the delaying of commuters on their way to the Melbourne Cup, and the unfurling of critical banners atop the Opera House’s sails. Protests will likely continue in the upcoming weeks.
“Right-wing media and the Liberals are crying about Christine Forster’s torn jacket,” said Cotton. “But our tears are with the men who have lost their lives in Manus and all those men whose lives hang in the balance today.”