COVID-19: one more reason to free the refugees (and defend the right to protest)

Kamala Emanuel harassed by police for holding a sign
Kamala Emanuel harassed by police for holding a sign. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

I’ve just come home from a collective action to free the refugees detained in a hotel at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.

It was the latest in a series of weekly actions in solidarity with refugees protesting for their freedom. Each action has been organised in a such a way to try to comply with social distancing regulations in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like most of the actions, this one was an exercise action: participants walked, jogged or cycled around the block while being urged to keep a healthy distance from one another.

I was carrying a sign, saying “Covid-19: just one more reason to free the refugees” and doing my best to walk the rather wobbly line-of-greatest-distance between myself, other participants and the health-insensitive aggregations of police.

I was approached by members of the police and told I could not carry the sign while exercising, and instructed to leave. When I returned around the block, they insisted on stopping me, told me they would send me an infringement notice and asked if there was any emergent reason why I should be allowed to stay.

They asserted that a magistrate had found in court today that protesting is against the chief medical officer’s orders and is therefore illegal.

I told them I needed to stay to call for freedom for the detained refugees and their health, and did not want to think health regulations (which I agree with in principle) would be used to stifle political protest when the group in general, and I in particular, were not doing anything to put anyone’s health at risk.

In fact, I had to insist repeatedly that the police allow me to step back from them so I could keep my safe distance (which they repeatedly ignored, stepping into my healthy-distanced personal space).

I am a doctor, and I have been taking precautions while at work and while away from work, strongly driven by a wish not to get infected so I can keep working (and so I would not infect my patients by working without realising I was infected.)

They told me they were going to take me to the watch house and took me away in the back of the police wagon. Instead, they released me at a nearby train station, saying there had been a change of plan.

What was crystal clear from the incident is that the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as an excuse to give police greater powers, not commensurate with the response needed to deal with the public health emergency.

The way the police clustered together, themselves not observing safe physical distancing, and repeatedly violated safe physical distancing with members of the public, made it obvious that their policing was not informed by good science but by removal of restrictions on their powers.

Permitting walking around the block as exercise, but not as a way to exercise the democratic freedom of political communication, makes no sense at all from a public health perspective.

As fascism comes with flags blazing in some countries, and by stealth elsewhere, we should resist efforts to close down free speech and freedom of political assembly that are not in keeping with other measures that are being taken to slow the spread of SARS-CoV2.

I’ve been let go, but refugees and people seeking asylum are still arbitrarily and indefinitely detained. I am more determined than ever to build the ranks of those who say: we won’t stop till we free the refugees. I hope others feel the same way.

[Visit the Green Left Facebook page for photos from this action.]

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