Police Powers and Protest

The changing use of police powers under the pandemic

Police repression of protests has escalated in Sydney in recent months, an intersection of tactical and ideological factors making way for a heavy-handed response that has been largely unchallenged by the public. This lack of public backlash against repressive police behaviours has been disappointing but unsurprising. The police force is itself a racist institution, one that exists in Australia to protect colonial peace and capitalist prosperity, two constructs which the vast majority of Australians believe are deserving of that protection.

Following the hugely successful Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally in Town Hall on the 6th of June, which saw tens of thousands of protestors turn to the streets despite New South Wales Police taking the matter to the Supreme Court, other events in solidarity with Indigenous deaths in custody were organised to capture the momentum of the movement.

Police at this first large scale protest coming out of Sydney’s lockdown were simply outnumbered by the sheer mass of people in attendance. Once the gathering was authorised by the Court of Appeal, they could only stand by as marshals. As though scorned by their loss of power and lack of control, their tactics evolved dramatically and immediately after this. Police have since made less effort to hide the intentions behind their actively racist tactics. This wasn’t unknown before, but should be given more spotlight considering not only the absurdity, but the danger of tactics such as bringing out sound cannons, and galloping horses to intimidate activists, which have been used at recent protests.

The 12th of June BLM protest saw over 600 police, including riot squads, mounted officers and vans filled with police dogs ready to shut down the action. This heavy handed approach was justified as being necessary for ‘public health’ in order to win favour from the media and broader public, despite the hypocrisy of their own lack of distancing from each other and from protestors. 

By the time the David Dungay Jnr and BLM protest came around on the 28th of July, police were interpreting the Public Health Act differently. 20 person groups were no longer allowed within larger gatherings, even if those groups weren’t interacting in a way that could lead to the transmission of the coronavirus. It became ideological; it allowed police to break up actions which had multiple groups of less than 20 people if they were there with a ‘common purpose’. This new interpretation of the Public Health Act was handed down to police by New South Wales Police Commander Mick Fuller, specifically in order to break up the BLM rally on the 28th of July. In turn, protests that have had an active anti-police stance such as the BLM protests have been targeted more heavily.

Activist Padraic Gibson helped the family of David Dungay Jnr organise this action, which was the first at which protesters received fines for breaching the Public Health Order. “The persecution of Black Lives Matter protestors is very closely bound to the persecution of Aboriginal people,” Gibson told Honi.

When it became clear that the police were going to shut down the protest in the Domain, there was a large focus on making sure that the Dungay family and other Indigenous protestors weren’t targeted or arrested.

“It was quite deliberate, the way we approached the police in the Domain. [There was] a determination on the part of the protest organisation that we didn’t want members of the Dungay family arrested. I think that they would have quite liked to grab Paul Silva, David’s nephew, who is quite outspoken, but he left the scene very quickly, as soon as the police attitude became obvious. They have given him an enormous amount of harassment travelling to and from demonstrations.”

“All left wing protests are now being policed with that very heavy handed interpretation, that it needs to be said, hasn’t yet been tested by a court. So that is the interpretation now of senior police command, and it means effectively a ban on any political demonstrations in Sydney,” said Gibson.

The way in which protests have been reported on in the mainstream media has additionally had significant impact on the power which police have gained. The widespread misinformation traced back to the Police Commissioner, but disseminated widely and uncritically by the media, that BLM rallies in Melbourne were responsible for the second wave of coronavirus was immeasurably damaging. It cut off tens of thousands of people who were interested in fighting against Indigenous deaths in custody and institutionalised racism from a movement that needs mass power now. It also justified, to some sections of the wider population, any amount of police repression, arrests or fines. This argument, while delusional, was easier to make when funeral numbers were still below 20, but is waning now.

Activist Seth Dias believes that “the media interest has definitely resulted in the extra police powers we are seeing at the moment.” The amount of media attention and the number of people who turn up to protests are also important factors in the way police approach the situation. In order to avoid criticisms from the wider public, the police have held back from repressing large actions, as these gain significant attention. However, it’s become very clear that they have no qualms with going hard at actions which are organised and carried out by students. At the University of Sydney Women’s Collective National Day of Action rally against fee hikes and job cuts on the 23rd of September, police command were heard saying “get every last one of them, don’t let any of them get away.” 21 students were fined.

In the past two weeks, the mainstream (non-Murdoch) media has become more sympathetic in their reporting on student protests. “I never think it’s the media that won that for us, though it is a tool that helps us reach others,” said activist Dashie Prasad. “It’s been activists continuing to fight and point out absurdities in the law that has brought some journalists on side.”

In response, the tactics of protesters are evolving in order to outsmart police in novel ways. Decentralised actions with different purposes are allowed to go ahead, which can be used to our advantage. Having a large number of protest contingents meet at separate locations and then join together to march with mass numbers is becoming both more popular and successful. Police shutdowns of this nature are far less justifiable, and mainstream media have become more sympathetic to protests in turn.

There is a clear racial element to this police repression. Dias told me that this has a lot to do with the fact that there was “a perceived threat of violence due to the instances of rioting seen in the USA following the murder of George Floyd” from the start which has been spurred on by racist narratives in the mainstream media. Notably, one of the most obviously racist tactics is the change to the 20 person rule made specifically to target the BLM rallies. Prasad, when being fined at the education protest on the 23rd of September, was asked if their ‘stop black deaths in custody’ shirt was the reason they were at the protest. Project Odin letters – which single out individuals as being on a watchlist, and tell them that they will be fined or arrested if they’re seen at another protest – have been sent to activists who have attended BLM rallies, to make them feel watched and in turn, scare them out of future attendance.

The 28th of July was a turning point in the police repression of protest, and the new interpretation of the 20 person rule was a specific attack on the rally organised by David Dungay Jnr’s family to bring attention to his case. The way policing protests has evolved over the past few months has been actively racist, but we can’t let it deter us. Rather, it is more important now than ever to be pushing back against police repression of protest, to be supporting Indigenous rights movements, and to be coming up with new tactics that undermine police authority.

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