French philosopher Guy Debord's The society of the spectacle plays out on newer, modern terms at a Moreland Says No To Racism rally in May.
Protesters march from trains with banners, flags and masks straight into a containment web of fences, barriers, police lines and the steam of horses breathing out wet air. The tactical police wave us into lines.
We update our social media — and are flooded with accounts of intimidation from the police, racist groups and small business owners.
When questioned about search powers, police officers are tour guide-like — they quietly negotiate and give directives, commands, orders, threats, bluffs and even laconic jokes. I am wistfully handed an official police leaflet that reads in Kafkaesque tones that a historical Federation Law allows for “searches without cause” inside a 30 block-zone in the north of Melbourne.
I am electronically scanned and searched. I feel like a performer on a set, struggling to believe in the realness when I find 500 riot squad police officers using batons and shields to pen us in.
A group of protesters backtrack and march off to face racists; and the police impose a tested method of accommodation — standing by and watching, allowing the two opposing groups to attack one another. Blood, screams, batons, pepper spray clouds, handheld camera confusion, shaky arrests — and a city is on lock down.
And the inevitable: protesters become villains, heroes gain new masks: on the evening news, white-toothed Hollywood reporters glam up and glorify the ultra violence.
Minutes later, the protest quickly becomes a pretext for media calls of "cowards", "thugs" and toughness to increase police powers. Sue Bolton, a socialist councillor known in the community as a peaceful official, is assigned the role of mastermind by the media.
Bolton felt the response “was dishonest and denied the existence of peaceful rallies, while police abused our rally to call for more police powers.”
Indeed, days later in an extraordinary emergency response, high-level police and state Labor politicians suggested the creation of a blueprint that increases penalties, including 14-year jail terms. The opposition Liberals called for an old move-on law to be re-enacted. A permit system was flagged. Masks were to be banned.
Since the media blitz, rumours are abuzz that police have continued to meet in secret with the state government. Flemington Legal Centre Director Anthony Kelly said, “high-level politicians and police have met to discuss the introduction of legislation to the parliament, mainly to increase penalties. There's been no direct consultation as far as we know. It's my belief however that the permit system is not in the bill.”
As the state is usually sneaky, the bill might not matter that much. Bolton explains that the state government and police have suggested bypassing parliament and simply updating local council laws to enforce a permit system.
How a permit system, like the one already in place in New South Wales, would be enforced, is anyone's guess.
Each week, protests in Melbourne bring all the angst, grievances and police reactions of our hyper times out on the street. Protesters and their police overseers often intersect with dairy farmers or animal rights activists; Save Live Music rally goers might bump into the dreaded “pro-life” protesters — or far right groups.
As Bolton highlights, “groups will challenge laws, there will be a protest against permits and most groups will not apply for permits as an act of civil disobedience.”
What if Melbourne City Council approves a respectable rally but not another? What if a spontaneous rally occurs, such as the rally following the murder of Jill Meagher or the various anti-deportation protests that have taken place?
Selective policing, where respectable groups are provided with permits, could occur, says Bolton.
Outlawing masks is likewise problematic. The legal model will be no doubt be challenged by Koala suits, Anonymous masks and masks of Donald Trump or zombies in the yearly Zombie walk against consumerism.
The ambiguity of just what constitutes a mask already has government and police touting an exemption for religious coverings. But for Muslim women, who already face confrontations in public life, “they are terrified that the laws will extend to them,” says Bolton.
Jailing protesters for up to 14 years with harsh penalties for simply fighting on the streets seems a lot like the United States' Patriot Act or creeping into anti-terrorism law territory. Flemington Legal Centre points out that laws already exist concerning criminal intent as well as criminal laws for violence. Old laws can be just as repressive as new ones it seems.
While clearly an act of civil disobedience, protests in Melbourne also rise above to be part art form, part presentation, part freedom of expression and equal measure Dada surrealism.
Take the recent Don Dale rally where iron cages were used to block Flinders Street. Props, costumes, vehicles, speakers, flags, all lined the road. Well into the night protesters were hauled from the street and cages — creating the spectre of police forcing Indigenous activists from jail cells.
Under the new protest laws, activists would face jail time not only for blocking a road, wearing a traditional mask or resisting arrest, but for simply not obtaining a permit to protest.
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