End the hypocritical crackdown on civil liberties

State governments have been using COVID-19 health restrictions to limit the right to protest safely. However, authorities’ hypocritical application of the law is being challenged.

Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews dusted off the Crimes Act 1958 to charge refugee rights activist Chris Breen with “incitement” in April. The police fined the 26 activists who took part in the safe car convoy around the Mantra Hotel that day each $1652. Breen was also detained in a cell for nine hours.

Normally, incitement is linked to a serious crime, such as murder or assault — which protesting is not. 

The Andrews’ government argument that organisers are “inciting” people to breach public health restrictions is not convincing. Protesting safely from a car is not a health risk.

Victoria’s state of emergency provisions, instituted on March 16, adds to its Public Health and WellBeing Act 2008. Since then, the act has been extended every four weeks. Under a state of emergency, organising public gatherings and assembling in public places are criminal offences and therefore subject to penalty.

In Brisbane on May 8, during the fourth week of action outside another refugee hellhole, Kangaroo Point Central Hotel, police broke up COVID-19 safe picnics. They also fined at least six protesters $1334 each.

On June 3, police visited activist Aaisha Slee’s home searching for details about a Sydney Black Lives Matter protest on June 5. She has been visited three more times since.

The NSW and Victorian governments used COVID-19 to stop the Black Lives Matter protests that had planned nationally in response to the police murder of Black American George Floyd.

NSW police took Raul Bassi to the Supreme Court used a technicality to stop the protest, which it did. That technicality pertained to public assembly regulations contained within part 4 of the Summary Offences Act 1988 in which Section 23 states that a rally organiser must present an official notice to the commissioner outlining details at least seven days prior to its scheduled date.

Bassi had lodged the notification within the seven-day rule. He told Green Left that when the rally numbers grew, he emailed the NSW Police alerting them to the need to change the location from Sydney Town Hall to Belmore Park to allow easier physical distancing. The court declared the protest illegal, but that didn’t stop tens of thousands of protesters from turning up. And as they did, a court of appeal overturned the decision.

On June 6, Black Lives Matter organisers in Victoria were fined $1652 for breaching “directions of the Chief Health Officer”.

On June 13, the Sydney Refugee Action Collective organised a small COVID-19-safe rally. Organiser James Supple received a fine of $1000. The NSW Supreme Court had declared the rally illegal.

On June 13, Brisbane Greens councillor Jonathan Sri was arrested at a protest outside Kangaroo Point and was detained for several hours in the watchhouse. The charges were later dropped.

On June 18, activist Stephen Langford was arrested by NSW police, denied bail, strip searched and incarcerated for 24 hours for using craft glue to paste a sheet of paper with a quote from Lachlan Macquarie on the statue of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in Hyde Park.

On June 26, in Sydney, six activists including myself, were visited at home by Special Force Odin, and given letters telling us not to participate in or organise protest actions or risk breaching the COVID-19 public health orders.

On June 30, the NSW government passed the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) 2020. It falls under the Public Health Act 2010 and has been amended to curtail assembly rights five times.

On July 28, several activists including organiser Padraic Gibson were arrested and fined $1000 each at a Justice for David Dungay, Stop Deaths in Custody protest in Sydney’s Domain.

On August 1, six refugee protesters were fined in Brisbane’s Raymond Park.

On August 8, police visited Brisbane City Greens councillor Jonathan Sri at 1am in his houseboat. The officers ordered Sri to show up at court seven hours later in relation to a 400-strong protest which Sri had not attended.

On August 13, the Queensland Supreme Court granted an order to block a refugee protest on Brisbane’s Story Bridge, citing concerns about coronavirus.

On September 15 at Sydney Town Hall, activist Tony Wakeham was charged under the Graffiti Control Act for “posting bills” about Julian Assange. The Free Julian Assange group has been protesting outside Sydney Town Hall for 40 weeks with a pink and silver banner proclaiming “Free Julian Assange” tied on to flagpoles. This suddenly constituted “bill posting”. The police have since dropped the charges.

On August 28 at Sydney University, a small safe protest organised by Students and Staff Say No Cuts drew police, riot police and vans and dogs. They deployed a clause (also used at the Black Lives Matter rally in July) of the emergency health regulations that states that public gatherings of more than 20 people “for a common purposeare illegal. At least 10 students were each given $1000 fines.

On September 16, at Sydney University, another 10 students were fined $1000 for taking part in a safe protest. Adam Adelpour was arrested for refusing to comply with police move-on orders and faces 6 month's prison and/or $11,000 in fines under Section 10 of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW).  Adelpour is the first person in NSW to have been charged for breaching COVID-19 rules as a result of protesting.

On September 17, the NSW government said crowds of up to 40,000 people could attend stadium events, as the owners of the venues had provided detailed COVID-19 safety plans.

On September 23, police fined up to 30 students and staff for taking part in an outdoor “Higher Education and Democratic Dissent” seminar, organised by the National Tertiary Education Union Casuals Network. Honi Soit reported that eight groups of COVID-19 safe contingents of 18 people, holding distinct banners were chased by police on horses on Sydney University. Sydney University alumni and Charles Firth, part of The Chaser, addressed the protesters. The fines for students and some staff have been estimated at $42,000.

On September 25, at Sydney University, police broke up an education action group meeting of less than 20 people, with “regular police and riot police cars pulled up alongside Cadigal Green, and four police officers patrolled the area for around an hour”, reported Honi Soit

The NSW government has just announced that 40,000 people will be able to attend the National Rugby League grand final.

COVID-19 is being used as cover to attack people’s right to organise and participate in protests. However, authorities’ hypocritical application of the law has been noticed. As anger rises about the recession and cuts to the special support payments, the onus is on activists and others to challenge this unjust crackdown on our civil rights.

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