The right to protest during the pandemic

By Chris Breen

On 10 April my house was raided. I was charged with incitement under the Crimes Act 1958 for being one of the organisers of a car convoy, calling to free the refugees being held in the Mantra Hotel and across Australia. 

The protests were designed to fit creatively within health guidelines, but police have made it clear that the right to protest is at stake. Police action hasn’t been about keeping the community safe from COVID-19, but rather using the health laws to stop safe protests.

The protest was stopped from going ahead and 30 refugee supporters were fined $1632 each – almost $50,000 in total – for breaching health regulations.

In Brisbane, seven protesters were fined $1300 for solidarity protests with refugees at Kangaroo Point Central Hotel. 

In May, whilst 100 people exercised outside the Kangaroo Point hotel, one protester was arrested for carrying a placard. In Sydney, police went to the Supreme Court to try and stop a refugee rights protest. The same day in Melbourne, refugee supporters had to decentralise a planned protest, after they were threatened with massive fines if they rotated small groups of protesters over time, as restaurants and shops are allowed to do with their customers.

Unlike protesters, police themselves didn’t seem to adhere to social distancing – this is clear from the photo above of Queensland police officers at Kangaroo Point.

Outspoken refugee protest leaders Farhad Ramati in Brisbane and Farhad Bandesh in Melbourne have been moved to detention centres away from where they were organising protests in the detention hotels.

When I was arrested at my home, I was driven by three police officers to Preston police station. We then sat for half an hour in the police car waiting to get into the station. 

Three different officers drove me back to my house to raid it. 

Six police officers went through my house seizing my computers, including my 15 year old son’s computer. The six officers didn’t practice social distancing either with myself or with each other.

Our protest was safe: the detention centres are not. 

Detention centres are like cruise ships on land, but worse. Refugees held there have been detained seven years without charge or crime, first offshore and now here. They came to Australia under Medevac laws, and have underlying health conditions from diabetes to kidney disease that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Many have still not received the treatment for which they came.

The charge of incitement against me has much wider implications. Long after the health laws have come and gone, it could be used against climate activists, unionists organising industrial action outside of the narrow window of Enterprise Bargaining, or any form of protest that police judge not to be legal.

Refugee supporters have not been the only people fined. 

Six unionists at a United Workers Car convoy for the #noworkerleftbehind campaign in Melbourne were fined for breaching health laws. Unionists in NSW were threatened with massive fines for a May Day car convoy; the police only backed off when union leaders held their ground, and it was clear the convoy would be large.

Organisers of the fifty thousand strong Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Melbourne were also fined $1652 each. 

Several weeks on from the national BLM protests there is no evidence of a single case of transmission from the rallies. Yet, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt still managed to blame the BLM protest for an uptick in Victorian cases. He claimed they caused a “relaxation” of attitudes towards social distancing. 

Governments pick their priorities about what is essential. In NSW the NRL is allowing crowds of thousands. In Victoria the footy is going ahead despite positive COVID-19 cases, horse racing is allowed and the ski fields are opening up. Daniel Andrews previously granted Crown Casino an exemption for a week, whilst other workplaces were shut down.

When thousands attended anti-5G protests nationally one week before the BLM protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “It’s a free country. People will make their protests and their voices heard”. An anti-lock down protest of 70 people on Anzac Day without social distancing was allowed to proceed in Gippsland – people who turned up were not fined.

Protest is essential for refugees. It was protest that led to families and kids being taken off Nauru, the US refugee deal (however flawed and discriminatory), and the Medevac laws. A mass blockade of Lady Cilento hospital by unions and refugee supporters succeeded in preventing baby Asha from being returned to Nauru. 

Protest is essential for workers if profits are not to come before our health, wages and conditions. With the Coalition making a new push for coal and gas, protest is also essential for the climate.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has shown that protest works. Here it is essential to stop black deaths in custody, and reverse systematic discrimination against Aboriginal people.

It will take further protest to free the refugees. 

The right to protest is essential to bring about change: we can’t allow it to be suspended indefinitely.

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