Last year, shortly after we participated in a protest against the Australian government’s cruel refugee policy, we were snatched off the street by police and taken to Newtown Police Station. Once inside we were separated and strip searched. We were not charged with any offence.
We are both long-term activists and, it would be fair to say, we are both reasonably used to confronting situations at protests. But this was something else entirely: it was abuse.
What happened to us happens to marginalised people all the time and it needs to stop.
Arrested for protesting
In November 2017, at the height of the crisis on Manus Island, 600 men were taking part in daily protests against the shutdown of the Lombrum Naval Base. The men were literally being starved out, denied fresh drinking water and electricity.
Refugee rights activists in Sydney jumped at an opportunity to protest at an election fundraiser for Warringah MP Tony Abbott on November 10, to which Peter Dutton, then the Minister for Home Affairs, had been invited to speak. Hundreds of refugee rights supporters turned out to demand that Dutton and Abbott bring the men on Manus to safety in Australia.
Towards the end, as we drifted away down the streets of Redfern, police officers snatched us and threw us into a van. We were taken to Newtown Police Station, strip-searched and later released without charge.
Activists who went to the police station were told by police inside that they could neither confirm nor deny that we were inside a police cell. They refused to leave.
When we were released, we were still in shock from the strip search. It could only have been designed to intimidate us.
We were directed into separate cells and told to take off our clothes. Only women officers were present, but there was no privacy as the doors were left open to busy corridors.
It is possible that the searches were filmed, but we cannot be sure because the police have, so far, refused our Freedom of Information request for footage, records and notes related to our arrests.
Amanda George, who works with the Essendon Community Legal Centre in Victoria, considers strip searches to be a form of sexual assault.
It sure felt like it.
According to NSW law, police can strip search someone if they have a reasonable belief their victim is “concealing important evidence of a crime; concealing something dangerous; or hiding weapons or drugs”.
The police who searched us had no grounds for any such belief: we were activists (probably already known to the police) who had joined a refugee protest and were carrying a megaphone and a cardboard placard.
Rachel told police she did not consent to be searched, partly because she had her period.
Common practice of abuse
We are now becoming aware just how common strip searching is and not just in this state.
Peaceful protesters were strip searched in 2014 after occupying then-foreign minister Julie Bishop’s office. Also in 2014, eight anti-war activists were hooded and stripped after conducting a peaceful anti-war action against a military base in Swan Island.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers said the number of strip searches rose by 50% between 2016 and 2017. In 2016, police carried out about 590 strip searches; the number skyrocketed to 1124 the next year.
In 64% of the searches there were no illicit substances found. This means that in 2016-17, 718 people were “ordered to take off their clothes and squat in front of police for no reason”.
A legal fig leaf that allows this questionable practice to continue is the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002. Strip searches are legal where they are deemed “necessary and urgent”.
Targeting the marginalised
Overwhelmingly, the victims of strip searches are prisoners. Strip searches are conducted when prisoners enter or leave prison for processing, or when they go to court or to visit a doctor.
It also happens after family and friends visit. Sometimes, visiting family and friends can be strip searched. George said visitors who “refuse the strip when asked do not get to visit at all”.
Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre Ruth Barson said “routine strip searches are archaic and humiliating”, yet they are also an “everyday practice for thousands of women behind bars in Australia”.
“When a mother wants to hug her visiting child; when a pregnant woman has a check-up with her doctor; when a woman has to attend court — she is subjected to a damaging strip search.
“There are far less intrusive scanning technologies that governments could choose to use right now to spare women this harm,” Barson said.
Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass conducted a report into strip searches in that state in 2015. Its key recommendation — to stop strip-searching women prisoners — has been ignored by the “tough-on-crime” state Labor government.
Refugees in detention centres are also regularly subjected to strip searches — designed to further humiliate them. And as part of their “law and order” push, state governments are increasingly strip-searching young people at music festivals and marginalised people on the streets.
A video emerged recently that shows plain-clothed police strip-searching an Aboriginal man on January 8 on a busy inner-city Sydney street. Passers-by were shocked to see a male police officer push a handcuffed Indigenous elder up against a wall, grab his shirt and run his fingers around the inside of the man’s underwear.
The law expressly forbids any strip search to include “an examination of the body by touch”.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers said such a roadside search further contravened the law by having a female officer present as well as the fact that they carried out the action “in the presence or view of anyone not needed for the purposes of the search”.
We know from NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge’s work that we are just one of the many people who have been forced to undergo a strip search.
He has found out through a Freedom of Information request that police carried out 5328 strip searches in NSW in 2018.
This has to stop.
[Susan Price and Rachel Evans are for Socialist Alliance in the seat of Parramatta and the Legislative Council, respectively, in the March NSW elections.]