Victoria Police have used anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne as an opportunity to normalise the deployment of riot police and the use of new weapons.
A new report issued by Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) details the events between 18 and 26 September.
It acknowledges that many protesters were motivated by conspiracy theories or far-right ideas but correctly argues: “Notwithstanding this, MALS is concerned about the encouragement of police violence or even calls for greater force to be used against protesters from some sections of the media and community.
“This creates a very dangerous trajectory and assists in this sort of policing becoming more normalised. Any excessive, unlawful policing, or policing that potentially infringes on human rights should be resoundingly condemned.”
The report describes how police deployed the heavily armoured Public Order Response Team (PORT), the Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) and projectile weapons as a front-line response.
It lists the range of weapons used:
• 12 gauge shot-gun style weapons firing baton rounds, and single and multi gas round launchers
• capsicum canisters that detonate to release a cloud of capsicum
• 40-millimetre rubber bullet launchers
• the VKS Pepperball firearm, a 175 shot semi-automatic rifle that fires blunt force capsicum pellets the size of marbles or dye markers
• stinger grenades that release nine 32-calibre rubber pellets to waist height with a range of five metres
• stun grenades, which are routinely used in Israel/Palestine and other conflict zones.
MALS points out that such weapons can cause serious damage or death.
Stun grenades “have maimed children, can burst ear drums, dismembered fingers and hands if reached for prior to exploding and generate dangerous fear and panic in crowds”.
Capsicum canisters “can lead to deaths if people are struck by the canisters or if gas gets trapped in a confined area”.
The report also notes Victoria Police used an armoured personnel carrier to control a protest for the first time (pictured above).
“The Lenco BearCat is a US-made armoured personnel carrier designed for military and law enforcement use … and is designed to provide protection from a variety of small arms, explosives and IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threats.”
MALS added that its use “is another concerning example of the militarisation of protest policing”.
Right to protest
Importantly, the report also takes up the right to COVID-safe protest.
Talking about the Black Lives Matter rally that took place in June 2020, MALS quotes the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission finding that “organisers encouraged protesters not to breach the restrictions and asked people to wear masks, bring hand sanitiser and remain 1.5 metres apart, ensuring distance between each group of 20 people”.
The report also notes: “Directions not to gather in public in groups have formed a key plank in COVID laws and policing. This has intensified the power of police to define legitimate protest as well as criminal consequences for participation and organisation.”
Refugee supporters have run up against the arbitrary use of police powers throughout the pandemic.
Helen Panopoulos, an activist with the Refugee Action Collective, told Solidarity: “The treatment of refugees is an ongoing issue and still requires activists to shine a torch on the cruel and criminal mistreatment of innocent people.
“Even with a pandemic, we continue to bear witness to this insane refugee policy inflicted on refugees and people seeking asylum and we protest to show that they are not forgotten.”
In relation to policing of protests, Panopoulos said: “There is no real consistency and it depends on the precinct and the individual officer in charge on the day.
“Overall, we are tolerated but there have been many incidents at protests where the police have attempted to ‘strangle’ our advocacy by placing unreasonable demands on us.
“For example, we have had conditions placed on us regarding where we can physically assemble or what side of the footpath we can stand on or march down.”
The MALS report rightly calls for the militarised police and their weapons to be withdrawn from frontline protest policing and for the Victorian Government to completely ban explosive devices such as stinger grenades and flash-bangs.
In the spirit of the demand raised by many in the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, we should argue for the police budget for paramilitary weapons to be defunded and the money spent on mental health care, public housing and domestic violence support.
Activists need to fight any moves to increase police powers and cannot allow police to determine the right to protest.
As the mobilisations for Black Lives Matter, Invasion Day and for freedom for refugees show, the best way to fight for rights is to use them.
We need to take back those rights by returning to the streets in growing numbers.
By David Glanz