Numbers count. The 50,000 people who showed up to the peaceful and safe Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney on June 6 had already decided to take a stand, despite the NSW Supreme Court declaring the rally and march effectively illegal.
The NSW Police had already been forced to back down from their aggressive stance as the numbers swelled around Town Hall steps, overflowing into the busiest intersection in the city centre. The people had spoken: Black lives mattered in Australia too.
The rally and march by mainly younger people was spirited, sometimes sombre, sometimes angry and very moving.
There was a powerful feeling of confidence arising from the defeat of the attempt to ban the peaceful march, but that peace was violently shattered by police after most protesters had left a packed-out Belmore Park at around 5pm.
About 100 young people had decided to stay on until they were ordered to leave, according to eyewitness Nikita Lee, who was pepper sprayed along with others who were pushed to the ground. She reported on Facebook that after being told to move, about 50-100 people were then blocked from getting on to their trains.
They had been forced by police into an underground passage in Central Station — away from most eyes — before police attacked them with pepper spray.
The police had also blocked off the station's toilets.
This police attack appeared to have been planned. According to Lee, at roughly 5.30pm about 10 police walked by her. One said: “They just threw a brick at the car”.
“I was literally next to this cop and had been there for about 5-10 minutes, and did not hear or see anything and this is in the middle of Sydney CBD, a well-maintained area with no construction sites nearby. So, I'm skeptical.
“Then, another cop said to start moving in and began kettling us.
“About 30 riot police came from Belmore Park direction and starting circling and closing in on the protesters. More cops come, including 5-6 mounted police units. Towards the end, I'd say there was a minimum of 100 cops for about 50 people.”
Mobile phone footage shows police decided to unleash their powers on people who were already following orders to leave the park and head home.
If chanting slogans is now deemed to be a crime, NSW Police have to be asked when it became so. Their random use of capsicum spray also needs to be investigated.
“Protesters continued yelling, including an Indigenous woman and another woman of colour. There was myself and about 6–7 other bystanders across the road by Belmore Park filming and observing … There were well over 100 police officers for less then 40–30 people at this stage,” Lee said.
“Protesters began saying there was no need to do this to them and became visibly more vocal and distressed as they were extremely compact and surrounded by 3-4 layers of riot squad and NSW police ... People were extremely outnumbered at this point: easily 10 cops for every person in there.”
At about 7pm, a Central Station announcement informed the public that any “protesters” in the building “would be arrested if they did not leave: and informing commuters that Eddy Ave including all entries/exits and the light rail were completely blocked off due to a police operation and heavy police presence.”
“After herding people into the station, NSW Police unleashed pepper spray including on minors, disabled people and bystanders (as Central Station was still operating as usual).
“Pretty much the entire group that was victim to this were young people under 25 years' old, some of whom were Black,” Lee said.
I've seen this done before, many times unfortunately, mostly aimed at people of colour. During the protests against the Iraq War, NSW Police used the same tactic, kettle in high school students who had walked out of school and then pepper spray them.
The brute force operation is designed to scare people away from protests, but it generally has the opposite effect. Young people have phones with cameras, and use them. They have a right to be outraged, and hopefully it spurs them on to get more organised. The incredible spontaneous upswell of momentum for Black Lives Matter needs to be built upon to win justice.
I arrived early at the protest yesterday, to observe and prepare for what we had assumed would be a clash: the sheer numbers put paid to NSW Police's plans. I watched as around 18 Tactical Response Group police unloaded from a van (not masked and not distanced). Their commanding officer barked out: “Move! Don't think!”
Last week, we were told by NSW Police chief Michael Fuller that they are “different” from police in the United States. Now, the submachine-gun loving NSW minister for police David Elliot wants new laws to ban protests during the pandemic.
More ham-fisted tactics from the NSW Police will only backfire on a generation of young people who are radicalising at speed.