It is unusual for the Police Union or Victoria Police chiefs to condemn the actions of any officer. But they have been forced to criticise the behaviour of two officers at the blockade of the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne last month.
One of the officers was caught making a white supremacist signal during the protest. He was later found to have far-right material on his Facebook account. The other covered his body camera with a sticker reading “EAD hippy”, commonly understood to mean “Eat a dick hippy”.
Yet there was no criticism of the police violence against protesters from police chiefs or the state government. Instead, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews and police minister Lisa Neville praised police for their actions, while accusing protesters of being violent, despite having no evidence to demonstrate this.
That two police officers have been condemned for inappropriate conduct indicates that public backlash over the police violence has had an effect. For the government and police, publicly criticising two officers is a good way to deflect attention from the role the police play in society.
Role of police
Some people have speculated as to why there was more police violence against IMARC protesters than at the Extinction Rebellion protests in early October. The protesters’ targets can, in large part, explain the scale of violence.
Extinction Rebellion’s tactic of blockading roads mainly affected motorists. IMARC protesters, on the other hand, were stopping a section of the ruling class — mining company CEOs — from entering their conference.
The state government was not too fussed over increased traffic, but were determined to ensure their rich mates were not interrupted. This meant police had the green light to use whatever violence they deemed necessary.
Some people say: “I support your right to protest as long as you don’t break the law or disrupt others going about their daily business.” Yet that is often the point of a protest.
Unions frequently set up picket lines to pressure bosses over wages or safety issues, for example. When all other efforts have failed, activists sometimes put their bodies on the line to stop an environmental crime from occurring.
Dealing with this issue of disruption, Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) explained in an open letter to Victoria Police on October 6: “There is no basis for claiming that a protest that is deliberately disruptive to the activities of others falls outside the protection of rights to freedom of assembly.
“The right to peaceful assembly, freedom of association and the right to political expression have far greater legal protections and recognition both within Victorian legislation and in international law than the Melbourne Flower Show, the Grand Final Day Parade, Moomba, White Night and many other similar public events regularly held in Melbourne’s CBD” that cause significant disruption.
“‘Disruption to others’ is not, nor can it be used as, an excuse, rationale or justification for limiting or preventing civil society groups from enacting the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of political expression at public events.”
It continued: “We remain concerned about recent public comments made by North West Metro Region Commander Tim Hansen, that seem to equate disruption with threats of violence...
“International human rights jurisprudence clearly recognises that peaceful assembly, by its very nature, is disruptive, and can inconvenience and be perceived as a nuisance by some people, but that ‘Rights worth having are unruly things’.
“Furthermore, the actions of some or a minority of people involved in an event do not remove the rights of peaceful assembly for others collectively; individual actions that are unlawful committed in the course of a demonstration cannot be used to justify the removal or limitation of the collective rights to peaceful assembly and expression.”
Ramped up powers
Police have a huge array of anti-protest laws at their disposal and a high degree of discretion as to when to use them. For example, police might watch protesters chalk a road at one protest, but arrest others doing the same at another protest.
MALS has recorded how innocuous activities such as honking your horn as you drive past a picket line have been interpreted as offences. In 2011, Victoria Police reacted in a heavy-handed manner when refugee rights protesters tied ribbons to the fence of the Maribyrnong Detention Centre.
Many activists at the IMARC blockade had never experienced police violence before, but it is not a new thing.
Police violence at the S11 blockade against the World Economic Forum in 2000 was far more violent. Twenty protesters were taken to hospital on the first night following a particularly violent baton charge by police and close to 400 protesters were injured over the three days of protest.
Batons also caused injuries when they were used by police against a picket line set up to oppose the closure of Richmond Secondary School in 1993. Victoria Police copped a backlash after they used a dangerous pressure point chokehold against environmentalists at a protest in 1994, leading to one protester losing consciousness for several minutes.
The dozens of court cases against the police subsequent to S11 led police to tone down their violence at protests, at least until after the G20 protest in 2006. Following the protest, police baton-charged protesters having a picnic outside the Melbourne Museum.
Days later, several men grabbed a man inside a shop, tipped him upside down, put his hands behind his back, pulled his pants down, searched him and cut his backpack off his back before shoving him into an unmarked van. Only 25 minutes later they identified themselves as police, saying they arrested him for assaulting an officer at the G20 protest. But he had not even been in Melbourne on the day of the protest.
In a further ramping up of police powers, Victoria Police set up the Public Order Response Team (PORT) in 2011.
PORT was used that same year against a pro-Palestinian protest outside a Max Brenner chocolate shop in 2011 and to violently evict Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square. MALS recorded 43 reports of injuries as a result of the eviction, including protesters having their eyes gouged and receiving punches to the face and back of the head.
PORT also carried out the bulk of the violence against IMARC protesters.
At the same time, Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission has been starved of funds, meaning it has only be able to investigate 2% of complaints about police. The end result is that most complaints are handed over to the police to investigate themselves.