On Friday 1 August, at a socially-distanced protest organised by the University of Sydney Education Action Group, two activists were arrested and fined $1,100.
What is more concerning than this blatantly cynical attack, under the guise of public health, on the right to protest? Probable collaboration between University of Sydney security and the NSW Police.
There is ample evidence to support this collusion. Firstly, the late arrival of the riot police implies that they were tipped off or came at the request of someone, the likely culprit being university security.
Secondly, security under Vice-Chancellor Dr. Michael Spence’s management have a sordid history of working with the police. In 2013, when the university was shut down by a strike of university staff, security and police were shown to be working in tandem to smash the picket line and break the strike.
Lastly, Spence has reasons to wish last Friday’s protest to be swept under the rug; it specifically targeted his decision to push through voluntary redundancies, which amount to the cutting of permanent positions.
This is a blatant and outrageous attack on the free speech of students and staff. The university is meant to be a place where students can discuss and debate ideas, not just in an academic sense, but also relating to the real world. Collaboration between university management, security and the police endangers students and creates an atmosphere of censorship and the crushing of dissent. How can students pursue an interest in social justice or political issues if at any time, armed riot police may be called on them at the request of security?
Just like with multiple Black Lives Matter rallies held in Sydney, the riot police repressed them by invoking the public health restrictions to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet shutting down protests clearly has nothing to do with a concern for the public’s health. The main sites of confirmed cases in NSW remain cafes, restaurants and pubs. Go to a pub, sure. Go to the footy with thousands of others, sure. But demand an end to systematic racism, or oppose drastic fee hikes, and now you’re a threat to public wellbeing – even when social distancing by the standards of current health advice.
The EAG plans to have another rally at USyd on 28 August, as part of a National Day of Action called by the National Union of Students. While it is safe to do so, it is imperative that students mobilise to oppose the fee hikes, cuts to jobs and courses and state repression of protests. Although I wonder whether every protest and political event from here on will be squashed by university security and the police working in tandem.
Spence must release evidence as to whether his security team did or did not collaborate with NSW police. If it is proven true, he should publicly apologise, fire those management members responsible, and pay the fines of the two students detained. Nothing less than the staff and students’ freedom of speech and right to protest is at stake.