Anti-war students defend the right to protest



SYDNEY — On April 2, around 1200 anti-war students and their supporters defied the NSW police by gathering in Sydney’s Town Hall Square to oppose the war on Iraq and reaffirm their right to protest.

Despite a provocative police presence of up to 1000 officers — and the use of capsicum spray by a plain-clothed police officer — bubbles, balloons and flowers, interspersed with passionate speeches on the injustice of the war, remained the order of the day.

The peaceful protest was a partial victory for activists, who refused to be intimidated into canceling their protest and held a successful, powerful, event. The Carr government’s use of such excessive police numbers to ensure no march took place is, however, a significant attack on civil liberties. Without a stepped-up campaign to defend the right to protest, these attacks will only get worse.

In the week leading up to the protest, police, the corporate media and the government ran a concerted campaign against rally organiser Books Not Bombs. They claimed that students had been violent at the 10,000-strong March 26 BNB-organised student strike, and warned of “a repeat performance”. They used red-baiting, and condemnation of radicals to attempt to spilt the movement.

This hysteria was used to justify one of the worst attacks on civil liberties in Australia in years: BNB’s application for a march permit was denied and the education department directed school administrations to suspend any students who attended the march.

The protesters were a diverse group. Although most protesters were high school students, many had come to support them, including some activists who had had to fight for the right to march in campaigning against the Vietnam War.

Young or older, however, the protesters refused to be intimidated. More than 90 people acted as “peace monitors”, including a large number of “parents for peace”. A dozen volunteers from the Legal Observers Project also attended to monitor police behaviour.

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the protest, the police did arrest one young protester, on allegations relating to the March 26 protest. They swept in while most protesters were forming a giant peace sign in the square.

Although the protest was supposed to start at 1pm, protesters started arriving before 10am. Some students were too nervous to walk out of school, and instead skipped the day entirely.

A contingent from Sydney University arrived after midday, having caught buses from a rally held on campus, after police surrounded them and prevented them from marching down to join with the Books Not Bombs protest.

While waiting for the protest to “officially” begin, people used the megaphone to condemn the war, held hands, chanted, danced to drums and chatted. The enormous police presence highlighted for many the main reason they were there: to condemn and defy the combined media, police and government campaign to stop people protesting the war.

Before 1pm, the police cordoned off Town Hall Square, completely enclosing the protest within walls and lines of police officers. A cop announced repeatedly over a megaphone that, as the police force had not granted a permit for a march, anyone who tried to leave in a “procession” would be arrested. He then said that students would be allowed to leave in small groups, provided they went around the back of the cathedral.

The protest was further hindered by the police’s refusal to allow the PA system, which organisers had spent considerable money on, to be used. Instead, protesters had to cluster around the megaphone.

However, the protesters were not intimidated into leaving: they had decided to stay and carry out the peaceful, united action that they had intended, even if they were denied the right to march.

Despite the dozens of paddy-wagons parked round the corner, protesters stood their ground, with the chants of “no racism, no war, this is what we’re fighting for” and “Howard, Bush, USA, how many kids have you killed today” echoing round the square.

A wide range of people addressed the protest, including Sylvia Hale from the Greens, Arthur Chesterfield Evans from the Democrats and many students. At 2pm, the rally ended, although it took much longer for everyone to disperse as the police would only let people leave the public square in very small groups at a time.

Books Not Bombs spokesperson Kylie Moon told Green Left Weekly that, “we succeeded in carrying out a successful rally in the face of extreme provocation by the police, and disappointed media expectations of violence.

“We refused to be intimidated into silence. Instead, we got our message across peacefully and defended our right to protest, with or without police consent.”

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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