Victoria Police used non-lethal weapons for the first time against anti-lockdown protesters on August 21 in the CBD. Video footage shows police deploying rounds of pepper spray projectiles and canisters into the crowd.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) said on August 22 that photo and video evidence indicated that the weapon used was most likely the VKS Pepper Ball firearm (or similar), which the police bought as part of the state government’s 2016 Public Safety Package.
These semi-automatic rifles can fire capsicum rounds, blunt force pellets the size of marbles, or dye markers that “brand people for arrest later”.
MALS said that the video evidence showed that baton round launchers were fired around Queen Victoria Market.
These weapons fire different kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), including rubber or plastic bullets. MALS has not yet ascertained what ammunition was used on protesters.
These pellets, and other types of KIPs, can blind, maim and leave permanent injuries depending on where they hit the body. “The inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse, and the significant associated injuries of these types of weaponry make them inappropriate for use in public order policing and crowd control settings”, MALS said.
Socialist Alliance spokesperson Sue Bolton told Green Left that the party opposes police use of such weapons at any rally. “While we support public health measures to contain and eliminate transmission of COVID-19, and we do not support anti-lockdown protests, the use of these new weapons represents a dangerous escalation of police powers.”
Bolton, who is a Moreland councillor, is also the party’s candidate in the federal seat of Wills.
“Victoria Police have a track record of taking advantage of unpopular protests, or protests they can get away with vilifying, to justify the need for greater powers and more dangerous weapons”, Bolton said.
She said Victoria Police have been advised by United States and British forces, where the trend is towards greater militarisation. “There is a danger of Victoria Police normalising the use of these ‘non-lethal’, but very dangerous, weapons”, Bolton said.
Police do not have unrestrained power to use weapons against the public. Any force must be “reasonable, necessary and proportionate” to the threat faced, according to the Human Rights Law Centre’s 2011 report Upholding Our Rights: Towards Best Practice in Police Use of Force.
State Liberal and Labor governments have delivered police more powers and more lethal weapons, including the Daniel Andrews government bringing in the 2016 Public Safety Package.
The Labor government supported police violence against unarmed protesters at the Blockade IMARC (International Mining and Resources Conference) protest in Melbourne in 2019, where major mining and resources companies were meeting federal government ministers.
Bolton said progressives and unions “must condemn the use of these weapons”, otherwise “police will get away with normalising their use” against picket lines and other protests. “Even the presence of such weapons will intimidate and deter people from attending protest rallies.
“The militarisation of police is a disturbing new development. It is yet another way in which governments can deter people from exercising their democratic rights to assemble and exercise free speech.”
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