Heavy-handed policing in Sydney over the past few months may indicate a heightened, anti-protester attitude of NSW police.
States and territories across Australia have either a “permit” or “notice” procedure for holding protests.
NSW law has the “notice” procedure, which is very favourable for those organising protests. The completion of a simple form, given to the police with seven days’ notice, protects activists from arrest for offences like obstructing traffic.
This favourable legal situation no doubt frustrates police, who are using more aggressive means to curb protests.
NSW police do not issue “permits” for protests and have no powers to demand “conditions”.
Yet their repeated use of such language — in letters and in conversations with protest organisers — is used to sow confusion and intimidate.
If the police truly disagree with a protest going ahead, they may seek a “prohibition” order from the Supreme Court.
The court option is rarely used. It is expensive and politically embarrassing if they lose in court (as they usually do). Often, they just can’t get the paperwork together in time.
The police’s extra-legal campaign against protests started about two years ago when police started issuing routine letters imposing “conditions”. They have no such powers to impose conditions, but they pretend they do.
Such “conditions” have included limits on the number of people present, the insistence on marshals and that protesters are “to use footpaths only to move between locations”.
Unfortunately, some protest groups have been intimidated and signed these “condition” letters.
This anti-protester campaign has intensified in the past few months.
A December protest against the jailing of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange assembled at Sydney Town Hall and planned to march down George Street to Martin Place.
The protest was notable for the number of new faces and homemade signs. The Australian government’s apparent support for the persecution of Assange energised the protest.
Police refused to allow a street march, but the protesters had other ideas and marched towards police lines.
The senior officer gave a command “authorising” the already-existing march down the footpath. A direction to turn off at King Street was ignored, and several protesters were arrested and later fined.
Burqa mural protest
A mural on the side of a private building in the inner-city suburb of Newtown has attracted a lot of attention in recent months.
The mural calls for Australia to “say no” to the wearing of the burqa — the all body covering worn by some Islamic women.
On January 16, police watched a small anti-racist protest where it was alleged that one man threw paint at the mural.
The police called for reinforcements (fast vans — flashing blue lights), seemingly to arrest the alleged paint thrower.
But instead of arresting the man, police charged the crowd, leading to the arrest of eight other protesters.
Of those arrested, seven were charged with “assaulting police” and similar offences.
Although future court hearings will identify the guilt or otherwise of the seven people charged, no “assault police” charges would have been possible if the police had kept their distance.
Additionally, any penalty ultimately imposed by the court has been overshadowed by the inconvenience already incurred by the activists.
All seven were issued with police bail conditions forbidding them to return to within one kilometre of Newtown train station.
All of those who later challenged the one kilometre exclusion area easily convinced the court to change the police-imposed bail condition to a 50 metre exclusion zone from the mural. But why was the one kilometre zone imposed in the first place?
International Women’s Day
The January 17 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the International Women’s Day Collective, which has marched for women’s rights in Sydney once a year for the past 40 years, would no longer be allowed to assemble at Sydney Town Hall square.
This year police said the protest could go ahead on March 12. But this will be the last time if NSW police and St. Andrew’s Church (which owns most of the square) has its way.
Police have “demanded” protest organisers get permission from the Church to assemble at Town Hall — a waste of time as the church always refuses.
The police have warned the collective that it will not “permit” the protest to assemble at Town Hall after this year.
Reclaim the Night
A group of about 400 people, mainly women, assembled at Sydney Town Hall for a march to Martin Place on October 29.
The police present forced people to march down the footpath — even though such marches have occupied the streets in past years.
The police presence was overwhelming and unwelcome. The chants of the protesters were continually interrupted by police aggressively yelling “get over to the side!” in an effort to keep half the foothpath free for the non-existent pedestrian traffic.
An attempt by the Sydney Stop the War Coalition to have a shoe-throwing contest outside the US Consulate on November 13 was met with a series of bizarre “conditions” from NSW Police.
The shoe-throwing protest, attended by a few dozen people, took place outside the US Consulate to protest the Australian visit of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The plan was to throw shoes at cardboard cutouts of Gates, Clinton and others.
Although the correct notice for the protest had been submitted, police tried to impose a “condition” banning the throwing of items in the air.
Police warned organisers that anyone who did so would be arrested. (This led to speculation that any attending jugglers would be subject to arrest for multiple “offences”.)
In response, Stop the War issued a press release decrying the police attitude. The resulting media attention forced the police to back down.
The protest went ahead peacefully, but more police attended than protesters.
An earlier Stop the War rally and march on October 8 was physically stopped by police, even though a notice had been submitted correctly.
A formal complaint about the police actions at the protest was lodged. But under the existing “complaints system”, the police themselves “investigate” about 95% of the complaints made against them.
Some three months later, there has been no response to the complaint, even though the NSW Ombudsman’s office has urged the police to reply.
The focus on attacking protesters will no doubt reach a new dimension in late October when a national protest is planned for a meeting in Perth of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Western Australia already has one of the most extreme “law and order” regimes in Australia. The state Liberal government wants to give police draconian "stop and search" powers during the meeting.
CHOGM protesters travelling from Sydney might find themselves curiously at home when they arrive in Perth this year.
[Dale Mills is a Sydney-based lawyer.]