In scenes reminiscent of the police brutality against students who walked out of school against the Iraq war in 2003, hundreds of NSW police and officers from the NSW Public Order and Riot Squad (PORS) tried to stop peaceful rallies on February 22 and 23 when US vice-president and war criminal Dick Cheney arrived in Australia.
The peaceful protests were called by the Sydney Stop the War Coalition (STWC) for the evening Cheney arrived in Sydney and the following day as he addressed the Australian-American Friendship Alliance. The demonstrations focused on the demands to pull the troops out of Iraq and for David Hicks to be brought home.
Despite two notifications of the protests to the police, the organisers were informed just two hours before the first protest that the police commissioner had "disallowed" both. "The police wanted to be seen to be negotiating, but had already decided to try to prevent the protest from marching", Alex Bainbridge from STWC told Green Left Weekly. "Their plans included using us as guinea pigs for 'counter-terrorism' training."
Dale Mills, a legal observer and STWC activist who attended the negotiations, told GLW that, unlike most jurisdictions in the Western world, there is no explicit right to protest in NSW law. Mills said it was "very disturbing to see the police crack down on a peaceful protest and prevent people from marching when there was a legitimate expectation that people would want to protest the visit of Dick Cheney". He described the police actions as the worst he had seen in many years.
Citing reasons such as "traffic disruption", the police refused to let about 500 protesters leave Town Hall and march to the US consulate in Martin Place. "When protesters decided to march, they were beaten, shoved, punched and strangled by PORS officers. Twelve arrests were made, and one man had to be taken to hospital from the police lock-up because his neck was so badly bruised", Bainbridge said.
All but one arrested that evening were charged with assaulting police, resisting arrest and hindering police. They will appear in court on March 15.
Paul Garrett, assistant branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Greens NSW MLC Lee Rhiannon and Jean Parker from STWC addressed the rally at Town Hall. After discussing options, led by chair Anna Samson, people voted to take the protest to the US consulate by way of the footpath. As one older woman told GLW at the time, "I hadn't been intending to march, but hearing about the police response, I'm now determined to march".
At Martin Place, an open-air speakers' platform was held, which included Will Saunders (one of the "Opera House two"), and Marlene Obeid and Raul Bassi from the Free Hicks and Habib campaign. All urged discipline and solidarity in the face of the police intimidation. The rally dispersed peacefully at about 8pm, watched by hundreds of police.
On February 23, as protesters met at 8am three blocks from where Cheney was speaking, the police presence was less obtrusive. At 9am, 150 protesters walked up one block of Essex Street, which was blocked by a double line of PORS officers, at least two blocks from the Shangli-La Hotel where Cheney was to speak.
An open mike ensued, but before long hundreds more PORS police arrived. After surrounding the protesters at around 10am, they snatched three protesters while pushing and shoving others to the ground.
Veteran peace activist Marie McKern was knocked to the ground and, suffering shock, cuts and bruises, was taken away in an ambulance. She told a media scrum, "I just got pushed into the ground and it was terrifying — there were bodies everywhere".
Two young women, obviously dressed up satirically, were charged with "impersonating police officers" and trying to disrupt police work by "directing traffic". They were nowhere near the police lines.
"The police operation was completely out of proportion", Samson told GLW. "Some 1200 police were involved, on foot or on horses. At one stage they brought in an unarmed water cannon, and attack dogs were on standby." The NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma told a media conference in March 2006 that the state had spent $700,000 on a water cannon to deal with "rioters" and that it would never be used on ordinary protesters.
"Why is the Labor government sanctioning this heavy-handed response?", Samson asked. "And why did it pass legislation last week giving the US security services the right to bear arms in Sydney?"
"Premier Iemma made a serious mistake when he agreed to change the law so that armed US secret service agents can come into Sydney", Rhiannon said on January 22. "There was no need for the vice-president's bodyguards to bring guns. Local police and security personnel have the experience to protect all leading public figures. The Greens are concerned that this hasty change to accommodate Cheney's gun interest will set a precedent."
"The police are certainly not protecting our right to freedom of assembly", Resistance activist Simon Cunich told GLW. "It's pretty clear that the NSW and federal governments want to portray us — peace activists of all ages — as a terror threat. But they've miscalculated, and this repression is going to backfire. Most Australians want David Hicks back home and they want the war in Iraq to end. The federal government is trying to make out that we are in a minority, but in fact it's them."
"The protesters showed remarkable restraint in the face of the police provocations and assaults", Bainbridge said. "We managed to make our point peacefully on both days, and we will continue to defend our right to organise peaceful protests. We will not accept Iemma's push for a Joh Bjelke-Peterson-style approach to civil rights."
Obeid commented: "It's very disappointing that the federal opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, has joined the fray and tried to make out the protesters were the irresponsible party."
STWC organisers and other concerned citizens will be lodging a protest about the police conduct with the NSW government. STWC has heard reports that the police pressured the parents of a 16-year old protester to make him say that he harassed police.
The fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, on March 17, is the STWC's next major anti-war event. The rally has so far been endorsed by the maritime and construction unions, UnionsNSW, the NSW Greens and the Socialist Alliance.
Steve McLaren reports from Hobart that activists displayed a banner stating "Iraq for the Iraqis, Cheney not welcome" on February 24 as part of an action on Salamanca lawns to express opposition to Cheney's visit and the war in Iraq. A US citizen holidaying in Tasmania joined the speak-out to emphasise that, like in Australia, the majority of citizens in the US oppose the war. Other speakers condemned Cheney for his business ties with Haliburton, which has profited from the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure. Protesters also demanded that David Hicks be returned to Australia to receive a fair trial.
[Pip Hinman is a STWC activist and the Socialist Alliance candidate for Marrickville in the March 24 state election. STWC is asking people who have photos or video footage of the police violence at the protests to get in touch. It is also keen to hear from lawyers who can offer their services pro bono work to the arrested activists.]