Extinction Rebellion debates stance on police: friend or foe?

Police arrest an Extinction Rebellion protester in Melbourne.

On September 8, Extinction Rebellion Victoria (XR VIC) posted footage of one of its organisers being arrested at a protest in Melbourne and the reactions of activists to the arrest. The Facebook post tagged Victoria Police and apologised for negative behaviour directed towards police.

Activists at the rally had booed police and calling them “pigs” after they deliberately targeted the XR organiser for arrest.

The post read: “The reaction from people to Victoria Police arresting Violet was not consistent with XR. We don’t treat people like that.

“Unfortunately, due to the decentralised nature of the movement, we need to constantly remind new people of this who may have come from other more aggressive groups.

“We actually want to be arrested, that is our aim.

“XR VIC apologises to Victoria Police, and thank you for helping us achieve our goals.”

The post quickly drew criticism: Extinction Rebellion South East Queensland publicly criticised XR VIC, as did many activists commenting on the original Facebook post (before being banned by XR VIC Facebook administrators).

XR VIC’s comments also led to a loss of confidence in the group, with many activists, particularly from the First Nations and Palestinian community, saying they would not get involved or support the group due to its stance towards Victoria Police.

Victoria Police, and police in general, have a long history of repression against activists and political oppression of marginalised groups.

Some recent examples of this have been raised as part of the discussion, such as members of Victoria Police being photographed high fiving fascists at a Melbourne protest, using capsicum spray on medic teams and charging horses into unionists protesting over safety concerns, among others.

Just days after the post, the role of Victoria Police was on display at an XR VIC blockade of Princes Bridge on September 14.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) observers issued a report on the policing of the protest two days later.

It noted the presence of several hundred police, including members of Public Order Response Team units, arrest teams, the Mounted Branch, plain clothes police, and an Evidence Gathering Team. MALS witnessed up to 44 arrests by police.

The report stated that a police cordon had prevented hundreds of supporters from joining the protest, thereby limiting the right to peaceful assembly. Police cited reasons of “public safety”, but MALS observers said there was no apparent threat to safety.

The report also stated police had restricted the media’s ability to film, interview or cover the event by ordering media to leave the cordoned off “protest area”. Several MALS observers were also directed by police to leave the area.

MALS observers noted the use of handcuffs and zip-ties during arrests, as well as multiple police members carrying long side-handled batons and holstered capsicum spray canisters.

These actions, combined with the public backlash to the Facebook post, have seemingly led to a shift in XR VIC’s stance towards Victoria Police.

On September 17, XR VIC released an extensive statement apologising for previous comments about the police and committed the group to improvement in this area. It also called for ongoing feedback on how XR VIC should relate to Victoria Police.

The statement was generally well received by those who had criticised XR VIC.

As a movement, XR is quite new. It is made up of, and led by, people with a mix of political backgrounds and views, and is attracting people who are new to the concept of activism.

It is therefore important that experienced activists get involved in XR and continue to provide advice and constructive criticism as the movement continues to grow.

After all, we have a planet to save.

[Sarah Hathway is a member of the Socialist Alliance and an Extinction Rebellion Geelong organiser.]

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