Activists defy NSW Police bullying tactics

Sydney protest against Black deaths in custody on July 5. Photo: Peter Boyle

New South Wales Police are stepping up their harassment of activists following several rallies which, despite threats, went ahead with health measures in place.

On June 26, police from the Operation Odin unit visited the homes of two activists and myself to deliver a warning not to participate in or organise protest actions or risk breaching the COVID-19 public health orders.

Nick Riemer and Evan Van Zijl, who are active in supporting refugee rights and myself were all participating in the refugee action on June 13 which the NSW Police had successfully persuaded the NSW Supreme Court to prohibit on the grounds of the “risk” to public health.

This was despite the protest organisers, the Refugee Action Coalition, taking steps to ensure that people stayed safely distanced at all times and wore masks. About 100 people attended the Sydney part of the national day of action on that day. About the same number of police were present. James Supple, an organiser for Refugee Action Coalition, received a fine of $1000.

I was not at home when, two weeks later, 10 police turned up at my front door trying to hand deliver the warning.

The letter said that we were “identified as participating in the Sydney CBD [protest] that exceeded the number of people permitted under the Public Health Order”. Further, it stated that the letter was “an official warning” to not participate in “another public gathering of more than the number prescribed by the Health Minister’s Order restricting the number of people who can gather in a public place” or “the NSW police will take action against you for that breach”. Riemer and I attended protests a few days later.

The refugee protest took place a day after some 650 police piled into Sydney’s CBD to try and stop protesters from attending a Stop Deaths in Custody–Black Lives Matter protest. NSW Police fined one person who attended it.

On July 3, another warning letter was delivered to refugee rights activists Adam Adelpour and Mark Goudkamp and myself, this time by Australia Post workers. The same day, another person who had organised a Black Lives Matter protest in the Blue Mountains was visited by NSW Police.

The same day, the NSW Supreme Court ruled against the NSW Police’s efforts to prevent a Stop Black Deaths in Custody-Black Lives Matter rally from being organised in Newcastle on July 5.

In Sydney on July 5, up to 3000 people protested in Sydney’s Domain for an end to Black deaths in custody despite the huge numbers of police, including the riot squad, horses, dogs and custody vans.

The hypocrisy of the NSW Police, on instruction from the government, is increasingly obvious. While schools return and shops, bars and restaurants reopen, some authorities still deem that protesting breaks public health laws.

The NSW Police argued in the NSW Supreme Court that the Newcastle Stop Black Deaths in Custody protest would bring about an “unnecessary and unacceptable risk” of coronavirus exposure, whether authorised or not. But NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant told the court that the event presented a low risk.

Not to be deterred by health officials’ advice, the NSW Police visits to people’s homes is nothing but an attempt to intimidate us from speaking out about injustices being done to those who do not have a platform — detained refugees and Indigenous people in custody.

As Riemer said on social media on July 5, the NSW Police’s efforts to date to harass and bully activists not to proceed with organising protests has come to nought. “After the organisers and the Maritime Union of Australia made it perfectly clear that the [Stop Black Deaths in Custody] rally was happening regardless of what the police wanted — and, in fact, that if the police tried to obstruct it they’d escalate — what was the reaction? A complete backdown.

“All that intimidation, all that chest thumping fizzled away to precisely nothing. As one of the elders said at the start of the demo: ‘This is our land, and we will hold our ceremonies on it. We’re the ones who decide what the law of this land is’,” he said.

[Rachel Evans is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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