Carr government bans student peace march

April 2, 2003


SYDNEY — In an extraordinary move, the newly re-elected NSW Labor government has denied a permit for a student peace march on April 2, organised by Books Not Bombs, the national student anti-war organisation.

Books Not Bombs coordinator Kylie Moon believes “this is a part of a conscious campaign by the government and the media to attack and marginalise the powerful youth section of the anti-war movement, and to vilify young people from Middle Eastern and Islamic backgrounds.”

If you believed the NSW police force and the media, you would probably think Sydney's Books Not Bombs student strike on March 26 was "hijacked" by young Arab men, who had been recruited by radical anti-war activists to, as the March 28 Australian put it, “incite violence against the police”.

Take the Daily Telegraph report: “With bottles and knives in their hands and hate in their hearts, a mob of violent troublemakers yesterday ambushed a student anti-war rally to lead a vicious rampage through Sydney streets.

“A group of young men, described by police as 'Middle Eastern males' created havoc by throwing chairs, rocks, bottles, eggs and golf balls at the police and media during several hours of chaos in the CBD.”

Police presence

What really happened is a different story. The size of the protest was fairly similar to that of the March 5 student strike in Sydney, with one addition being the arrival of university students after the Town Hall rally.

The main difference between the strike held on March 5 — which the media described as “peaceful” — and the March 26 strike — which the media have labelled a “riot” — was the massive police presence at the latter. There were between 100 and 200, mainly Operational Support Group (OSG) police officers present at Town Hall by noon on March 26, and there appeared to be even more by the time the protest had marched to Hyde Park.

The police had made their intentions very clear on March 25, when police commissioner Dick Adams lied to the media, claiming that the protest’s organisers had not approached police for a permit to rally and march. This lie was the basis of a scare campaign run by the corporate media, particularly the right-wing talk-back shows, to urge parents not to allow their children to attend the protest.

However, this campaign was somewhat stymied when strike organiser and Sydney University student Simon Butler showed the rally and march permit to news reporters.

The false claim was also the basis for the huge and unwarranted police presence at the rally. Despite the last demonstration being peaceful, police said they were “expecting trouble” this time.

On the day

Although the protest wasn’t scheduled to start until 1pm, students had begun filling Town Hall Square by 11am, generating a festival feel as they spruiked on megaphones, chanted and danced to drum beats. A couple of protesters burned a US flag.

Clashes began after the police arrested two young Arab-Australian men, both in their early teens. Protesters swarmed up to the glass door entrances to Town Hall, through which the young men were visible lying face down, handcuffed. OSG police officers beat back the crowd. One OSG officer tore the hijab scarf from the head of a young Muslim woman while pushing her backwards. This enraged many of those present, and in the ensuing melee some protesters chucked chairs at the police.

Chris Latham, who was the Books Not Bombs member liaising with the police, told Green Left Weekly that organisers tried to convince the police to allow the march to begin 15 minutes early in an attempt to defuse the situation, but police refused.

The march to Hyde Park was peaceful and vibrant, and included hundreds of university students who had marched to Town Hall from Sydney University and University of Technology, Sydney, where there had been on-campus rallies.

At Hyde Park, while speakers were talking about the war on Iraq from the platform, police arrested a 14-year-old Muslim girl. This again sparked anger among the protesters. Her younger brother was in tears, crying “Don't touch her, don't touch her, she didn't do anything!”

A young Anglo-Australian woman demanded of the police, “Arrest me, if you're going to arrest her”, pointing out that the difference between them was not their behaviour but the colour of their skin, to which the crowd cheered and applauded.

The students, however, continued the protest, marching to Prime Minister John Howard's office to condemn his decision to commit troops to the war. OSG and mounted police formed a line across Phillip Street, so the march could proceed no further than Howard's office, and then blocked off the entrance to the road with another line, imprisoning hundreds of protesters between the police lines. Students who asked to go home were refused.

After being trapped for half an hour, with no police indication of when they would be released, many protesters were furious, some scared and a few were on the verge of panic. An attempt to charge their way out was unsuccessful, and simply provoked more police repression. When individuals tried to push their way through, they were arrested by the police. One young man was punched in the face by a OSG officer and fell back, unconscious. Another protester had her face cut just above her eye.

Protesters were imprisoned by police for almost three hours — and denied access to water and to toilets.

Eventually, the police began to allow the protesters to leave in groups of five, letting the young women in private school uniforms out first, and finally the university students and Middle Eastern male high school students. Protesters were made to walk out in single file through a police cordon, and had their bags searched.

The racism of the police was as evident on the day as their provocative tactics were. Adams was right when he told the media: “We had a group of people who went to Town Hall for nothing other than to incite trouble” — that is exactly what the police did! Having told the media the protest would be violent, Adams and the police force set about making this a reality.

The job started by the police was finished by the corporate media. The commercial television and radio stations, the Fairfax media and the Murdoch press were unanimous in condemning the protesters, not the police.

The purpose of the combined police and media campaign is to reduce the size, and influence, of anti-war protests. By vilifying Arab-Australian protesters, and hyping up the “violence”, they hope to deter other students from attending the protests.

They want to divide protesters by race and religion, and derail a powerful, combined movement that could force the withdrawal of the Australian commitment to this war. The police also clearly hoped to demoralise and scare off many of those at the protest.

But they also want to divide the anti-war movement, by convincing broader anti-war groups to disown the most vibrant and energetic component — the youth. The media campaign of condemnation is an attack on the whole anti-war movement.

Most importantly, the police and media are using their distorted representation of what happened on March 26 to attack the civil liberties of every person in this state.

Next rally — Wednesday April 2nd

Books Not Bombs is determined to go ahead with its peace march on April 2, despite police threats to obtain a Supreme Court injunction to arrest every person who marches.

“We refuse to be silent while the bombs continue to fall on the Iraqi people. We will not be intimidated by the police or Carr, and we are urging all peace-loving people to join us in defending the right to demonstrate”, said Moon, who is also a member of Resistance.

Books Not Bombs is also demanding an independent inquiry into the behaviour of the police on March 26. They urging people to send messages of support for their right to protest to <>.

From Green Left Weekly, April 2, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.