An online forum on the power of protest was organised by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) and hosted by the Wheeler Centre on September 15.
Celeste Liddle, an Arrernte woman and Greens candidate for the seat of Cooper in the upcoming federal election, said that protest is a “fundamental human right” that puts pressure on political powers to make better decisions.
Former refugee Farhad Bandesh, an artist and musician who fled Iran in 2013 and was detained for 7 years on Manus Island and in Australia, said it is important to challenge the decisions of government and big business, showing that “we don't accept cruel and inhumane policies”.
Bandesh said protest can take many forms, including street demonstrations, letters to politicians, songs and poetry. When he was detained in the Mantra Hotel, protesters outside gave detainees hope, and showed them that “we are not alone, not forgotten”.
Bandesh said that refugees in detention also organised protests.
RAC activist Chris Breen discussed examples of successful protest action, including the campaign to prevent baby Asha being returned to Nauru after being treated at Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane, and the release of some Medevac refugees following protests outside detention hotels.
Breen argued that protests can be carried out in a COVID-safe manner, for example a car cavalcade in April last year which drove past the Mantra Hotel, where 65 refugees were detained.
Breen was arrested for allegedly inciting people to participate in the convoy. While he has been found not guilty, 30 other refugee supporters were fined for taking part. Most have refused to pay the fines and are awaiting trial.
Liddle said the large Black Lives Matter rally in June last year was COVID-19 safe. She explained how organisers had provided masks and hand sanitise, and there had been no reported cases of infection from the event.
While corporate media blamed the BLM rally for a COVID-19 outbreak, the virus spread via inadequately trained workers in quarantine hotels.
The deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Maria O'Sullivan, who chaired the forum, pointed out that while political protests are banned, huge indoor shopping centres such as Chadstone are open.
Liddle decried the over-policing of Aboriginal rights and refugee rights protests. She also criticised the aggressive policing at anti-lockdown rallies, describing the police use of assault weapons as “terrifying”. She is concerned that similar tactics could be used at anti-racist rallies in future.
Breen said there was a danger that incitement charges were being used more widely and both he and Liddle spoke about the need to encourage more union support for all rights protests.
In conclusion, Bandesh urged the forum not to forget the refugees who are “still locked up”.