The emergency on Manus Island has sparked a renewal in the refugee rights movement, with large numbers of new activists coming to their first demonstrations. It has also inspired a range of creative direct actions, including acts of civil disobedience, which have complemented the large protests in the major cities and significant protest actions across regional towns and centres.
The response by police to refugee rights protests is also escalating. This is not surprising, given the bipartisan law and order, “anti-terror” agenda of the federal Coalition government and Labor “opposition”.
Successive Coalition and Labor governments have granted police increased powers to move on activists and to undermine freedom of speech.
This narrowing of democratic rights means that civil disobedience sometimes becomes necessary to assert our right to protest.
When several hundred refugee activists rallied outside Tony Abbott’s “Warringah Dinner” election fundraiser in Redfern on November 10, the atmosphere was electric. Those of us outside were angry that just a few hundred metres away, well-heeled Liberal Party supporters were wining and dining and listening to guest of honour Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, while an insane act of cruelty was being carried out by his own department on 600 men imprisoned on Manus Island.
These men, occupying the former Regional Processing Centre (RPC) compound in Lobrum, are being starved out by the Australian government, with no protection, food, water or medical aid.
The government’s aim is to force them to relocate to one of the three “transit centres” on the island, or to the island prison of Nauru or to return to the danger from which they fled.
Back in Redfern, protesters chanted “Shame on you!” and “Dutton, Turnbull — blood on your hands!” as guests attempted to push past the protest rather than simply go around the back to enter the venue.
Among the notables who chose to run the protest gauntlet were Jim Molan, architect of Operation Sovereign Borders under the Abbott government and, of course, Christine Forster, Abbott’s sister (and her now famous plaid jacket).
The Riff Raff Marching Band sustained a festival-like atmosphere for the protest, switching tunes to the Star Wars Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme) as Abbott’s guests arrived.
A speaker’s platform was set up and the crowd cheered as NSW Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union state secretary Rita Mallia spoke. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, the only politician invited onto the platform, spoke to great applause. A member of NSW Young Labor Left also spoke — after her group had publicly called on Labor MPs Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese to support the call to evacuate the men to safety. A former worker on Nauru with Save The Children also spoke.
A big cheer was given to Lily Matchett, an activist in the Stop Adani campaign and member of Whistleblowers Activists and Citizens Alliance (WACA), the group that had organised a number of spectacular protests for the men on Manus Island days earlier, including a banner drop from the Sydney Opera House and from a crane high above the Melbourne Cup. There was overwhelming support for these brave and bold acts of civil disobedience.
When protesters moved onto the streets and decided to march to Redfern railway station, police had clearly had enough and moved in to block off streets and then violently disperse the rally. I was caught up in this and wound up being shoved into the back of a police van, while trying to protect another refugee activist, Rachel Evans, who had been grabbed by police without warning.
We were taken to the police station, where we were both subjected to strip search — which was extreme treatment, given we were political activists at a peaceful protest — and then released without charge.
According to a Buzzfeed report, the matter is now subject to an investigation and Greens MP David Shoebridge has labelled our treatment as “offensive, unreasonable and designed to intimidate”.
Our treatment pales into insignificance compared with what the men on Manus Island are being subjected to every day and only strengthens our resolve to keep protesting until all the men on Manus Island and all the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru are evacuated to safety on the Australian mainland.
[Susan Price and Rachel Evans are members of the Socialist Alliance.]