The Ballroom at Melbourne Trades Hall was packed with about 130 people on May 4 for a public forum titled “Protest on Trial”. The event sought to build support for the “Max Brenner 19” — Palestine solidarity activists on trial for taking part in a protest outside a Melbourne Max Brenner chocolate shop last year.
Speakers at the forum drew links between the violent attacks on Occupy Melbourne last year and the police repression of peaceful Palestine protesters outside Max Brenner.
Inbal Sinai, an Israeli Palestine solidarity activist from Anarchists Against the Wall, described to the meeting the incredible level of restrictions on political protest by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
Sinai said: “Organising and participating in protests is banned in the Occupied Territories”. Printing leaflets to influence opinion is also banned.
“The minute there is a protest,” she said, “any representative of the army can use force to stop the demonstration, including rubber bullets and beatings.
“If a Palestinian is killed in a demonstration, the army doesn’t need to investigate.
“Hundreds of Palestinians are jailed for participating in protests and can be held indefinitely without charge.”
Sinai described a protest at the West Bank village of Bi’lin, where the Israeli soldiers arrested 60 young children, all under 16-years-old. She ended by saying: “It is very difficult for us to demonstrate so it is very important for us that Palestine solidarity activists in other countries keep the right to protest.”
Vashti Kenway, one of the Max Brenner 19 and convenor of Students for Palestine, outlined the new police squads that had been formed by the Baillieu government and how they had become increasingly violent towards protesters.
These units are trained in crowd control and engage in the practice of kettling, where they surround the protesters.
Overland editor Jeff Sparrow told the audience that “political cases like this [Max Brenner case] are designed to demoralise and intimidate” activists.
He drew a comparison between apartheid in South Africa and Israel, saying: “South Africa only got freedom because of the tremendous work of activists all over the world”. He said that in one year in the early 1970s, 700 anti-apartheid activists were arrested in Australia.
Sparrow was one of five activists arrested for participating in a 1992 protest against the axing of the Austudy payment to students and its conversion to a loans scheme. After a big public campaign, the activists succeeded in beating the charges.
Maritime Union of Australia secretary Kevin Bracken said it is disturbing that people are getting used to police attacking them on protests. He said that the besetting charge had been used against Australian Manufacturing Workers Union members in the Visy picket line in 2010.