Stand up for the right to protest

Friday, February 16, 2007

The following article was submitted by members of the Ongoing G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network: Last November 18, approximately 40 men met at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne. The discussions of the G20 finance ministers took place behind barricades and high fences to, as Treasurer Peter Costello argued, create a space conducive to free and frank dialogue.

The media was refused access and the specifics of what was discussed remains unknown. Some journalists were granted media passes to report on carefully staged media conferences held on the other side of the city.

The G20 groups the financial ministers from 19 countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Britain and the US) as well as the European Union and representatives from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They claim to represent two-thirds of the world's population and 80% of world trade.

Outside the meeting around 3000 people took to the streets calling for an ecologically sustainable and socially just future. People were not calling for the G20 to make "better" decisions; they were rejecting the fact that 40 men had the power to make decisions that would effect the lives of billions.

In a world where poverty, starvation, war and environmental destruction are systemic, and where our dreams and desires are repacked and sold back to us as commodities, it is no surprise that institutional power is rejected. And that includes the corporate mass media, whose script was pre-written. Before the meeting had even started, the Herald Sun published pictures of a Christian group undertaking a prayer vigil and hunger strike outside the Hyatt, watched by some constables. The caption was "Police brace for violent protests".

"Thugs" existed only in the imagination of the corporate media, but the discourse about "thuggery" allowed the state to increase policing and surveillance. It became clear that claims of violent protest tactics were vastly inflated. To date, the only damage reported was one police officer's broken wrist (the specific cause of which has never been described), a bite on an officer's hand and the smashed window of a police van used to "protect" the summit.

But it is well documented (footage of the incident is available on YouTube) that, on November 19, dozens of police in full riot gear attacked a group of non-violent musical protesters outside the Melbourne Museum.

The police baton charge struck non-resisting protesters, sending some to hospital with severe bruising and concussion. This brutality is now subject to an Office of Police Integrity investigation. A Federation of Community Legal Centres report asserts that, "[o]verhead baton blows like this carry a serious risk of injury and, according to police documentation, 'should only be used when lethal force is justified'".

In the aftermath of the protests, police have allocated vast resources to Taskforce Salver to identify and prosecute people allegedly involved in demonstrations. Five police have been employed on a full time basis to examine more than 1000 hours of video footage from the November 18 demonstration. They anticipate this will take several months.

Straight after the protest, undercover police in unmarked cars snatched several people, suspected of being protesters, off the street.

The day after the protests, Drasko Boljevic was snatched off the streets, forced into an unmarked van where officers sat on his head, handcuffed him and refused to answer questions concerning their identity. He was taken to St Kilda Road police complex, questioned and released two hours later when it was verified that he had been in Malmsbury about 100km away from Melbourne the previous day.

Houses have been raided by groups of up to 10 fully-armed undercover police officers. To date, almost 30 arrests have been made; the majority of these have been charged with riot and affray.

These are serious charges requiring trial by jury and with maximum sentences of up to 10 years. Some arrestees have been charged with conduct endangering persons, theft and criminal damage. Some arrestees were held in custody over a weekend, and one for almost two months.

Upon release people against whom charges have been laid have been given draconian bail conditions. In most cases, those charged are unable to leave the state and have been forced to surrender their passport. Many have to report to the police, either once, twice or three times a week. People have also had to put up bail sureties of up to $5000.

Taskforce Salver has released the photos of 28 people dubbed "persons of interest", and appealed to the public to "dob them in". The photos were published on the Herald Sun and Age websites and on Crime Stoppers.

Publicly releasing photos of people against whom no specific allegations have been made breaches long-standing conventions of our criminal justice system. It was condemned by Liberty Victoria as a fundamental breach of civil liberties.

People have different views about the strategies and tactics used at the G20 mobilisations, but whatever these are, it is vital that we all give ongoing support to those now facing police harassment and charges.

As Victoria Stead from the Ongoing G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network argued: "A healthy democracy relies on people's right to stand up for what they believe in. What we are seeing is politicised policing, designed to silence public opposition, that is excessive, indiscriminate and illegitimate, therefore we're calling on all charges to be dropped."

[The Ongoing G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network can be contacted at <afterg20@gmail.com>. To follow the debate about the protests and the aftermath visit <http://arushandapush.blogsome.com> and <http://www.melbourne.indymedia.org>.]

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