Free speech, police force and the #Sydneyriot

Police kettle Muslim protesters in Hyde Park, Sydney, September 15. Photo: Josh Lees/Socialist Alternative

The very peaceful welcome to Aboriginal land passport ceremony was held on September 15 at the Settlement, Darlington. A great time was had by the 300 people who attended.

We were contacted by the Redfern police, as is their practice when an Indigenous Social Justice Association event occurs, to ask if they could be of any assistance during the event. They were politely told that we expected no trouble from any quarter and if trouble did arise, we knew where they were. We had no problems from any outsiders against our event whatsoever.

On the same day a gathering of Muslims rallied in Town Hall square to protest against a Youtube film clip they found denigrating to Mohammed and their religion. Of course it goes without saying, that that is their inalienable right as citizens of this country to do so. Being a non-believer in any religion it is not for me to question others as to what they believe.

The Youtube clip once again raises that discussion on the social minefield of what is to be considered as “free speech”. I am an avid supporter of free speech but I am also a firm believer that free speech most definitely does not allow hate-crimes to be perpetrated against others, whether of a racial, religious, sexual or any other kind.

The last time this debate was raised was when right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt decided that he had the right to vilify Aborigines who did not match his own racist views on what constitutes Aboriginality. Bolt was not practicing free speech, he was practicing the free speech of racism and hate against those who were not to his warped expectations.

That Bolt was supported by the right and the Tony Abbott-led opposition is no great surprise. They need this racialised free speech to continue to denigrate Aborigines, Muslims and others.

It is no great surprise that those who bellow loudly for their right to free speech are those who already practice their vile attacks on others who do not meet their standards based entirely on difference. John Howard coined the term “elites” for those he continually targetted for different and special treatment.

Muslims are also too easily targeted by the federal government and opposition, the mainstream media and the police forces of this country.

Those Muslims who gathered had every right to rally at the Sydney Town Hall square. They were denied that access on the feeble excuse that they did not give enough notice for their event.

Each religious group has strong fundamentalists among their groups and Muslims are no exception.

Those who gathered merely wanted to peacefully protest their anger and disgust at the hate crime that was thrust their way.

The film was produced by a fundamentalist Christian group that had as its main intent to denigrate and pillory Muslims in the US and around the world, including Australia.

Protests in other Muslim dominated countries were indeed violent, but the fact that our group of Australian Muslims applied for a legal authorisation to hold the rally shows a more legal and peaceful intent.

When the decision to march was made, including women and children, the hundreds of police in reserve were informed to get ready to disperse the marchers.

The TV and print media went over the top reporting on the violence and ferocity of the marchers in their attacks on the ranks of the police. Estimates of marchers ranged from 1000 to 100. Estimates of the police numbers ranged from 800 to 300.

Marchers were said to be throwing bottles and stones. All the TV reports I saw did not show any such action, but I assume that is how the police reported it. All I saw was police continually pepper spraying the marchers who to me appeared to be offering little if any resistance.

One channel reported that police moved into the marchers with batons whilst they removed “one of their own”.

Police were seen to be dragging individuals along the ground. The only violence I saw came from the police involved in the melee. That the marchers attempted to defend themselves from the pepper spray and the police use of force is surely their right.

Eyewitnesses that I have spoken to, who were not part of the march, reported that the police certainly outnumbered the marchers and were armed with pepper spray and batons.

The facts, if reported accurately by the media, were that only eight of the marchers were arrested. Only eight from what has been described as a riotous mass that formed in Hyde Park. The police claimed that they had to use the pepper spray and the police dogs to better protect themselves.

That is not what I saw in the TV news reports. I saw the police charging into the crowd with clouds of pepper spray. I saw police dragging people along the ground. I saw well-trained police in crowd control mode using every tactic that they are taught to use in such events. I saw a police force in action.

Both NSW premier Barry O'Farrell and Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke out strongly against the alleged violence by the marchers but not against the brutal actions of the police.

NSW police minister Mike Gallacher made the following statement as reported by news.com.au: "The violence we have seen is unacceptable. What we saw was a complete disrespect of our peaceful way of life. I praise the NSW police force for their swift and poised action. They are trained for situations like this and they did an excellent job in containing what was a very aggressive and violent crowd".

The boy with the infamous placard, who was reported as being four years old, was flashed around the world. Tabloid newspapers ran headlines like, "sweet face of hatred", as if the young boy was absolutely evil and as a Muslim child he would hate all those who were not. This is just so wrong.

I have been in many, many marches and rallies and in every one parents give their children placards to carry to make them a part of the rally. I have given placards to my own children and grand-children over the years but certainly nothing as offensive and wrong as the one given to him by an adult who wanted to photograph him.

The Daily Telegraph and the radio kept it up day after day, each attempting to outdo the latest piece of racist garbage by others of their ilk.

It is this, and the attendant violence of the police, that must be seriously questioned.

I do not want a police force that serves only their political masters and not those who pay the bills; we the people.

During the week many representatives from the Muslim faith and community went to the NSW parliament to call for peace and to not condone the violence of September 15. This much was made public.

What was not made public is whether any voices were raised against the violence of the police in pepper spraying women and children and threatening with dogs trained to viciously bite? Were questions asked as to whether a more peaceful way could have been initiated before the march began.

With a greater emphasis on service rather than force, perhaps it could have been.

[Ray Jackson is a Redfern-based Aboriginal activist and is president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association.]

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