Radio show hosts, politicians and government bureaucrats have been competing to be the most vehement to condemn the September 5 student walkout against US President George Bush's visit to Australia.
Their comments about violent protests, feral activists and brainwashed high school students all sound very familiar. They are the same arguments been rolled out whenever young people have entered the political stage, including when thousands of students walked out of school to protest the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and when hundreds rallied against the Howard government's Work Choices legislation last year.
NSW education minister John Della Bosca took the lead on August 21 by sending a memo to school principals stating that attending the protest should not be considered a legitimate reason for students to miss school. He was joined by Premier Morris Iemma, who told the Daily Telegraph that high school students were being "exploited" by "feral" activists and should not join the protest. On August 23, 2GB's Alan Jones predictably told listeners: "School kids [are being] co-opted out of high schools."
Daniel Kofler, a high school student helping to organise the walkout in Sydney, told Green Left Weekly: "Della Bosca and Iemma are clearly out of touch. High school students have made our own conclusions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threat of global warming. And those conclusions are shared by majorities around the world."
A common allegation made by those urging students not to join the walkout is that the protest will be violent. Assistant police commissioner Dave Owens told the Daily Telegraph that "These kids might get caught up in a violent protest but, as police, we cannot guarantee their safety if they do", he said. Resistance member and walkout organiser Lauren Carroll Harris responded by pointing out that the only threats of violence are coming from the NSW police.
"Why is it that Iemma's government cannot guarantee students' safety?", asked Carroll Harris. "This appears to be a threat against a protest that has been explicitly organised as a peaceful rally. It is not the organisers of the protest who have just purchased a water cannon. It is not us who will be armed with stun guns at the protest.
"Iemma is concealing his real message behind concern for student safety. This hype about violence is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate students against publicly demonstrating their outrage at injustices like the Iraq war. Students have the right to protest and it is critical that our voices aren't silenced."
According to Resistance activist and UTS student Amber Pike, "the NSW government's attempt to intimidate students will backfire. It will only get more students to walkout. Protesting to end the war on Iraq and for sustainable solutions to climate change is the only way to guarantee that there is a future. The education department should be supporting students' right to make this statement."
Another walkout organiser, Raffaele Fantasia, pointed out that "If high school students are old enough to work and old enough to pay tax then they should have the right to protest".
On August 22, NSW Liberal Party leader Barry O'Farrell paid lip service to the "right to protest" while proposing a ban on street marches during APEC. "History reveals that CBD protest marches are incredibly disruptive", he said. Alan Jones did not even pretend to support the right to protest, stating, "There is no reason why these people should be allowed to march".
Jones called on the state government to take a more hard-lined approach to protesters. "If there's a $600,000 water cannon which we've purchased, use it", he argued. "If it can knock protesters off their feet, if they defy the law in numbers, use it."
These attacks on the student walkout and the September 8 rally are the latest in a systematic campaign to discredit and intimidate protest.
"The government and media hype serves to distort who is really responsible for violence in the world today. While they would like to portray students who protest as violent, our message is clear: we are taking action when the world's biggest war criminal visits Sydney to help build a movement that can end a war that has killed almost a million people in Iraq", said Carroll Harris.
"We will not be intimidated. Young people need a voice and we will protest on September 5 to make it heard."
Students at high schools in cities across Australia are involved in organising the walkout. To find out how you can get involved, phone Simon on 0438 297 552 or visit <http://www.walkout2stopbush.org.au>. Students concerned about schools taking disciplinary action against walkout participants can also download a permission slip from the website and find out more about your rights at school.