BY PETER BOYLE
SYDNEY — The April 2 Books Not Bombs student anti-war protest in Sydney is the latest of several peaceful political demonstrations to be declared "unlawful" in the last six months by the NSW Labor government, led by Premier Bob Carr.
In November, NSW police tried to ban protests against a World Trade Organisation mini-summit and to close down anti-WTO web sites. On November 15, hundreds of riot police attacked some 500 protesters near the conference site in Olympic Park. Nevertheless, the police did not succeed in preventing any of the protest marches against the WTO.
Police also tried to suppress a November 16 anti-war rally in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown. Initiated by the Socialist Alliance and the Canterbury-Bankstown Anti-War Group, the action also protested the wave of racist attacks on Arab and Muslim people sparked by the "war on terrorism".
Police rang some of the speakers the day before the rally and told them that the protest was "illegal". Police also hand-delivered a letter to the home of a protest organiser the night before the rally advising the event was "unauthorised". Despite this harassment, the protest went ahead.
Five months later, the April 2 Books Not Bombs protest faced an even more severe attempt at suppression. When the protest organisers lodged an application for a march permit, they were told it would be refused — as it was. Later, police threatened to seek a Supreme Court injunction to prevent the protest from being organised.
On April 1, Carr denounced the protest organisers as "Marxist extremists" who were out to "manipulate school children". The pro-war press and right-wing "shock-jocks" joined in a chorus of red-baiting and orchestrated intimidation of the organisers.
The pro-war media focused their attacks on two left-wing organisations, Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP). Allegedly violent "Middle Eastern youth" were also singled out for racist attack.
Just before the rally began, police informed Books Not Bombs organisers that they intended to declare the protest unlawful and were going to give the crowd one warning to disperse before moving in to arrest everyone! Nearly 1000 police surrounded the protesters and the inner circle of riot police began to pull on their leather gloves.
Some students and supporters were prepared to be arrested for protesting peacefully. However, in the end, the authorities announced that while this was an unlawful assembly it would be tolerated as long as no protester stepped on the road or hindered pedestrians. Anyone who attempted to march was threatened with arrest.
While this was a partial back-down by the police, what they did on April 2 was a much greater infringement on the right to protest than we have seen in NSW for many years. It was reminiscent of the notorious protest bans in Queensland under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
At this stage, Carr's attack seems designed to isolate the more radical and militant sections of the protest movements. Hence some actions are attacked while others are tolerated.
Carr is also deliberately encouraging a split in the anti-war movement, relying on the NSW Labor Council to do some of the dirty work. If he is successful, the end result will be a weakening of the movement and put it more under the control of a Labor Party that is increasingly ambivalent on the war in Iraq.
Carr's government has introduced the most draconian "anti-terrorist" state legislation in the First World, keeps more people in jail than any other state and ruthlessly exploits the politics of fear and racism.
The DSP views these developments as a grave infringement of democratic rights and appeals to all supporters of civil liberties to take a stand against this latest attack.
Already the Australian and NSW civil liberties councils, the Human Rights Council, Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Chris Puplick and scores of lawyers have expressed concern.
The DSP is determined to fight further attacks on the right to protest with a sustained political campaign and is calling for moral, legal and material support.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the national executive of the DSP. Offers of support should be sent to <email@example.com>, phoned to (02) 9690 1230 or faxed (02) 9690 1381.]
From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
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