An online rally organised by the Refugee Action Collective Victoria (RAC) on October 2 discussed the widespread concern about draconian laws being used against rights activists.
The event was held just before RAC activist Chris Breen’s first court appearance on an incitement charge. Breen was arrested for helping to organise a car cavalcade drive past the Mantra Hotel in Preston in April. The safe event was designed to show solidarity to the 65 refugees detained inside. Breen was charged with “incitement” under the Crimes Act 1958 because he was considered one of the organisers.
Yet, all he did was to post information about the event on Facebook. “I didn’t turn up in the car, I didn’t get fined. The police came to my house and arrested me. They seized my phone and computers, including my 15-year-old son’s computer,” Breen said.
“It’s beyond question now that state governments and police are using COVID-19 to shut down the right to protest. That crackdown has been deliberate, systematic and ideological.
“Our protest was a creative attempt to fit within the guidelines. It was no different to the car convoy parade organised in that same week by the Country Fire Authority.”
Musician Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar, who spent seven years locked up on Manus Island and is now locked inside the Mantra told the forum that “succussive Coalition governments have attempted to convince the Australian people that refugees are less than human. It makes it easier to justify the abuses they inflict on us.”
He criticised the government which he said relies on “torturing and imprisoning children and innocent refugees” to advance itself.
Graham Thom, coordinator of Amnesty International’s refugee work, said that civil disobedience is an important part of freedom of assembly and needs to be protected. He described the police response to the RAC car cavalcade as a “sledge hammer approach”.
Australian Education Union branch councillor Diana Beaumont said the union is “enormously concerned” about the precedent the charges against Breen represent. If they are successful “these antiquated laws will be used to suppress any challenge to unjust laws or campaigns that would improve society”.
The branch council of the Australian Education Union in Victoria passed a resolution in calling for the charges to be dropped, she said.
Brisbane City Council Greens councillor Jonathan Sri spoke about the campaign to free the refugees at Kangaroo Point. He said the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992, which came in after the struggles against National’s Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen needed to be protected.
“As soon as we started lodging formal notices, the police started taking us to court to prevent us holding protests,” Sri said. “As the [COVID-19] shut-down restrictions eased a little bit, we started holding larger assemblies on site.
“One of the first large assemblies a few months ago, we had hundreds of people on site, safely distanced, being cautious ... and the police started kettling us onto footpaths. What started off as a safely-distanced protest was suddenly a crowded protest on the footpath.”
Sri was given onerous bail conditions after being arrested for the first time at one of the protests. He criticised the police for being on a “power trip”.
“Protest is not just about raising awareness about an issue or showing that a lot of people are annoyed about something. It’s about building solidarity and relationships. We need to fight for that right and resisting the idea that it’s up to the police and the state to determine what forms of protest are acceptable and safe,” he said.
Breen’s case has been adjourned until November 18, with the full hearing likely to be scheduled early next year.
The incitement law was used to shut down a protest scheduled for October 3. RAC member teacher Lucy Honan was threatened with incitement if RAC went ahead with a protest involving two people at a time (from within a 5 kilometre radius) standing socially distanced, with masks, gloves and placards outside the Mantra Hotel.
Police later admitted the protest, which was against the federal government’s bill to take mobile phones away from asylum seekers and refugees in detention, would have been considered safe.
RAC came up with a creative way of showing dissent by projecting holograms onto the side of buildings showing people holding up “Free the Refugees” signs.