Within hours of its announcement, protesters forced Victoria Police to cancel a multi-agency stop-and-question operation dubbed Operation Fortitude.
The Abbott government’s newly militarised immigration department – now named Australian Border Force – was to take part in a street crackdown, scheduled to start in Melbourne’s CBD on 28 August.
“ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with”, said regional commander Don Smith. “You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out”, he warned.
In response to the prospect of spot visa checks being conducted throughout the city, anti-racist activists called a snap protest for the steps of Flinders Street Station. A press conference to launch the operation had been scheduled to take place there. Before media could set up, protesters took over the steps.
After the launch appeared scuttled, the protest blocked traffic in the busy city intersection in front of the station. Catherine Strong told Red Flag why she was there: “I’m getting very alarmed at the way this country is going in terms of certain democratic rights being eroded and in terms of people being encouraged to be afraid of what’s going on all the time.
“I think the Border Force people being in Melbourne this weekend is a symptom of those things and needs to be challenged – we need to be coming out and showing that this is not OK.”
Another in the crowd, Omar, 21, hadn’t heard about Operation Fortitude. “Honestly, I was just strolling past. I’m Muslim myself and I saw you guys were supporting us so I thought ‘Why not join in?’ – it’s fantastic.”
Craig McGregor, secretary of the Victorian Allied Health Professional Association, was there with union flags. “Unions absolutely have a role to play in terms of civil liberties and human rights”, he told Red Flag. The VHPA is one of a number of unions to have condemned new laws that will punish health and welfare workers for reporting abuse and mistreatment in Australia’s offshore refugee detention camps.
“We’re disgusted by what’s going on with this Border Force Act and, particularly, preventing people from speaking”, he said. “But this issue of stopping people on the street – we’re concerned about racial profiling – this is an outrage.”
As numbers grew to around 200, the rally moved into the train station, where agency representatives had attempted to shift their press conference.
After disrupting the media event, protesters surrounded the police station located inside. Within minutes, police released a statement, which was read to the jubilant crowd. “Victoria Police has made a decision not to go ahead with this weekend’s Operation Fortitude”, it said.
“We understand that there has been a high level of community interest and concern, which has been taken into consideration when making this decision.”
A victory march through the train station ended the successful action.