It has been a busy few weeks for activists in Melbourne. The Australian government forced a humanitarian crisis with its cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers held as political prisoners on Manus Island. Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton’s starvation and dehydration tactics and denial of medical aid did not deter the courageous resistance stance of the prisoners who refused to be moved to another prison camp on Manus Island. The minister resorted to brute force. Under the watch of the Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police the men on Manus were beaten by the notorious PNG mobile squad to force them to leave the compound.
The events on Manus created a real sense of emergency among refugee supporters in Australia, with a resurgence of attendance at rallies, along with direct actions to disrupt business as usual. The demands are clear: to evacuate the Manus Island and Nauru detention facilities and to safely resettle the asylum seekers and refugees.
In step with the increased mobilisation on the streets came an increased police presence, including the use of intimidatory tactics. Miltarised “robocops” have lined the streets of Melbourne, with mounted police on alert in the laneways, in an attempt to stop people marching and blocking roads. This has created a contested space, with the state seeking to block intersection occupations that disrupt business as usual. Paradoxically, this has resulted in the police blocking the intersections in place of the protesters.
Last Friday night became a crisis point in the state’s attempts to control activist freedom of movement and our right to demonstrate. Several known fascists stormed the stage and grabbed the microphone from the speaker. The police intervened, not to defend those demanding human rights, but to arrest an activist who had been attacked by a fascist. While some cops had a familiar little chat with the fascists down on the corner, other cops beat an activist until he was bloodied and limp. We called an ambulance to attend to our wounded comrade, but police prevented it reaching the man; instead, they held him in the “brawler” for 40 minutes until he was driven to the police station, not the hospital.
Fortunately, the victim of the police assault was not as badly injured as first suspected. The issue remains, however, why the paramedics were not permitted to treat a patient. Did the paramedics, as health professionals, question the police decision to delay medical treatment? Prisoners have died in the back of police vans. Close the Camps Action Collective asks United Voice and the Health Services Union what their position is on the delay of medical treatment by their members to a fellow worker and unionist at the direction of the police.
After the police “intervention”, they squirted pepper spray at us. Enraged by the police treatment of our comrade and concerned for his health, we held our ground. We were determined not to be kettled on the streets. We pushed through police lines, chanting “We will march!”, to occupy the contested space of the Flinders Street intersection which we held for several hours by encircling the police lines.
Two days later, on Sunday, we were back on the streets to protest against the police violence on Friday night and to reiterate our demand for an end to the violence against refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. Setting out from the Bourke Street Mall, we marched down Swanston Street to join the “#SOS Manus” rally organised by GetUp at Federation Square. The police, again dressed as if for battle, tried but could not stop the power of the people: we again succeeded in blocking the Flinders Street intersection. The mood in the crowd was calm and powerful. People shared water, food, umbrellas and sunscreen. Passers-by shared their support, and many challenged the cops why they looked like they were prepared for a war zone rather than the streets of Melbourne.
Stymied by the activists sitting peacefully on the road, the police directed a tram driver to nudge his tram up to the police line to effectively divide the protesters. We may have been physically divided, but we remained united in purpose and in communication with each other. Close the Camps Action Collective asks the Rail, Bus & Tram Union (RBTU) what their position is on the use of their members by the police to attempt to break up protests. Their fellow workers and unionists were protesting human rights crimes committed by the Australian government, not sitting on the road for no reason in particular.
On Wednesday, climate justice activists and environmental defenders gathered at Parliament House in Spring Street to protest against the state government’s logging of old growth forests which will endanger native species. An experienced climber suspended himself from the roof of Parliament House in an attempt to unfurl a banner. The police refused to negotiate with our police liaison team; instead they unnecessarily called in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Two firefighters, at the direction of the police, used the sky lift on the truck to remove the climber, a fellow worker, from the roof anchor points. Close the Camps Action Collective asks the United Firefighters Union what their position is on the use of their members by the police to attempt to break up protests.
Meanwhile, another activist was detained by construction workers on the adjacent building site until the police arrived. A worker wearing a CFMEU shirt walked past the activists and yelled at us to “get a job”. We do have jobs, mostly jobs in an insecure casualised workforce. Close the Camps Action Collective asks the CFMEU what their position is on the use of their members by the police to attempt to break up protests. Our Collective reminds the CFMEU that there are no jobs on a dead planet and invites members of the union to fight together with us for environmentally sustainable jobs.
Many activists, whether they act for human rights or as environmental defenders or both, also support workers’ rights and unions. We have supported campaigns, signed petitions, marched and boycotted. We are fellow workers and unionists.
Close the Camps Action Collective asks the Victorian Trades Hall Council to review the affiliation of the Police Association of Victoria with the Council. The police, as enforcers of the state, attack pickets and break up protests. They bash our comrades and assist deportations of asylum seekers who have not had the opportunity to exercise their full rights to seek asylum.
Victoria Police must be held to account. They have a choice: stand down from attacking workers’ pickets and breaking up protests for human rights and the environment or be disaffiliated from Trades Hall.
Gaye Demanuele is a member of the Close the Camps Collective
First published in Red Flag