Right to protest and pandemics discussed

Photo: Melbourne Activist Legal Support / Facebook

An online forum on the need to uphold the right to protest was organised on September 26 by the Melbourne Activist Legal Support in conjunction with the Refugee Action Collective, the Justice for David Dungay campaign and the RMIT University National Tertiary Education Union branch.

Paul Silva, the nephew of Aboriginal man David Dungay Jr who died of positional asphyxia while held down by prison officers in December 2015, said that NSW police had used the pandemic as a pretext to suppress protests demanding justice for Dungay's murder.

At a protest in July, organisers had set up a stall with sanitiser and masks but it was shut down by the police, and participants were fined. Meanwhile, in NSW, large sporting events are allowed.

Silva said that open-air rallies can be done safely. He argued that protests should be given exemptions from laws restricting gatherings.

Sam Gabbard, president of the National Tertiary Education Union branch at RMIT, discussed his union’s experiences organising protests for secure jobs and against pay cuts during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the NTEU organised a car and bike cavalcade.

During Victoria’s second lockdown this was not possible, but the union held large online meetings and rallies. When conditions change, they will again organise in-person rallies.

Maria O’Sullivan, a senior lecturer in law at Monash University, said that protest should be considered as an essential activity under the emergency regulations. However, she said the form of protest could be subject to conditions based on medical evidence, such as the requirement to wear a mask and physical distancing.

Chris Breen, from the Refugee Action Collective, criticised state governments and police for using COVID-19 as an excuse to shut down safe protests.

Breen was arrested and charged with incitement for a Facebook post advertising a car cavalcade to pass by the Mantra Hotel where 65 refugees are detained. Thirty other refugee supporters have been fined a total of $50,000 for participating in the event.

Breen said the cavalcade was safe and that there had been no danger of spreading the virus. He criticised the government's use of repressive measures, such as fines, and its instruction that the police lock down of Melbourne's public housing towers in July.

He called for the expansion of testing and contact tracing, for more PPE to be distributed in workplaces, for paid pandemic leave to allow workers to stay at home when sick and for an end casualisation which forces people to work at multiple sites.

Breen warned that the Victorian government had plans for preventive detention and said winning union support for protests and pandemic leave was important.

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