In NSW, groups of 500 protesters can now gather outdoors, in a victory for the right to protest. The change is the result of consistent efforts by unions, students and anti-racist activists to defy police repression. For months, the NSW government had retained COVID-19 health orders banning outdoor gatherings of more than 20 people, even as thousands were allowed to gather at sports stadiums and in shopping malls.

But in Melbourne, which has just survived a 112-day lockdown, the right to protest is still heavily restricted to groups of only ten people.

Since the start of the pandemic, activists have organised creative, safe, socially distanced protests over the economic and health issues raised by the crisis.

As tens of thousands lost their jobs due to the lockdowns, many casual workers were excluded from the government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy, and temporary migrant workers, international students and refugees faced destitution with no income support whatsoever.

In Sydney, the May 1 Movement, set up to organise a stop work rally to mark May Day, defied police to organise a series of car convoys with union backing under the slogan “No Worker Left Behind”. On 1 May, a 150-strong car and bike convoy circled the Liberal Party headquarters.

But in Melbourne, participants at a car convoy calling for refugees to be released from the Mantra Hotel in Preston, organised by the Refugee Action Collective, received almost $50,000 in fines. Organiser Chris Breen was arrested and charged with incitement.

Black Lives Matter rallies

The biggest challenge to the restrictions on protest were the Black Lives Matter protests in June. Tens of thousands marched nationwide. In Sydney, the NSW Supreme Court initially banned the demonstration. But a last-minute appeal overturned this decision, when more than 20,000 people were already on the streets, in a spectacular show of defiance.

There was not a single case of COVID-19 infection at the BLM demonstrations. Outdoor protests, with participants overwhelmingly wearing masks, are far safer than the efforts to reopen restaurants and shopping centres.

Despite this, in a disgraceful campaign of lies and fear-mongering, conservative leaders like Liberal Health Minister Greg Hunt and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller blamed BLM rallies for Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19. This was an attempt to break public support for BLM and drive protest off the streets again.

Police repression in Sydney stepped up a gear when BLM protesters calling for justice for David Dungay Jnr, an Aboriginal man killed by prison guards, defied a court order to press ahead with a socially distanced protest on July 28. Before the rally had even started, police arrested and fined six people.

Recent months have seen drastic cuts at universities, with 12,500 staff sacked so far. Students at the University of Sydney organised a series of defiant protests, where police imposed an appalling $56,500 in fines.

In September, students gathered in groups of 19 or less around the campus to comply with health orders. But over 100 police descended on the campus claiming that the protesters were there for a common purpose and therefore in breach of the law. Nearly $10,000 in fines were issued, while activist Adam Adelpour was arrested and charged. Students kept defying the ban, turning up a week later with another 21 people fined by police.

Eleven people at a rally against a transphobic bill moved by One Nation MP Mark Latham also received fines.

The ban on protests, while many other large gatherings continued, was never about public health concerns but rather the police grabbing the chance for more powers.

NSW Police have consistently taken protest organisers to the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop safe protests going ahead. But for a protest on 13 October, the National Tertiary Education Union won court authorisation to demonstrate against job cuts. Eminent infectious diseases expert Dr David Isaacs told the court that the rally plans were safe and argued NSW Health advice against protest was due to political pressure.

Even NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant was forced to acknowledge the hypocrisy over protests, admitting at a NSW parliamentary hearing, “We have allowed people on beaches to be there provided social distance in the big groups at the beach or another environment.”

Faced with plans for another BLM rally, and continuing defiance on campuses, police abandoned court action and the NSW government changed regulations to allow 500 to gather.

But protesters in Melbourne continue to face repression, with over 50 recently arrested at a rally to save the Djap Wurrung trees. Civil liberties group Liberty Victoria has said the ongoing restrictions are not “justified or proportionate”, demanding recent fines be withdrawn.

In NSW up to 40,000 are allowed at sports stadiums, but the right to protest remains limited. We can’t wait until the pandemic is over to fight racism and for workers’ rights—we must continue to organise and protest.

By Ruby Wawn

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