At a rally against the detention of refugees in Melbourne’s Park Hotel on 8 May, organised by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), Victoria Police once again attempted to stop protesters marching.
The rally began like many others. A crowd of 200-300 gathered outside the State Library of Victoria. After a series of chants and speeches from activists including CARF’s Nahui Ludekens, local artist Maddie Haa and Tasnim Sammak, co-founder of Free Palestine Melbourne, the crowd gathered on Swanston Street and began to march north towards the Park Hotel, where 35 refugees are being detained. Students and young workers took up megaphones, and a cacophony of angry voices echoed off the canyon walls of city towers. “Free, free the refugees!” was followed by “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”
At first, the police response was reserved—officers walked in single file on either side of the march, while vans and horses tailed the crowd. But when the march neared Lincoln Square, a block from the hotel, the police tactics changed.
Without warning, a police line formed in front of the march. They refused to allow marchers to move forward. Protesters began to chant “Let us march! Let us march!”, while being shoved back by officers. Video of the moment, posted online by Box4, shows officers throwing multiple people to the ground, and tussling with those who came to their aid.
But their attempt to stop protesters from reaching the hotel failed. The back half of the march surged into the open space of Lincoln Square, around the police line and onward to the hotel. The police tried in vain to fan out and hold the line but were soon outflanked and thrown into disarray.
It was a small moment of victory. Under the windows of the Park Hotel, protesters revelled in the moment, remembered what they were fighting for, waved to the refugees looking down from the windows and chanted for their freedom in hoarse but spirited voices.
Indefinite detention of refugees at hotels in major cities across Australia has illuminated the hypocrisy of local authorities who claim it is solely a federal government issue. The actions of Victoria Police and the City of Melbourne in particular have demonstrated a preference for challenging the right to protest rather than challenging the government’s torturous detention regime.
Police used the cover of COVID-19 restrictions to lay heavy fines on the organisers of a car convoy protesting refugee detention in the Mantra Hotel in Preston last year. When the refugees were forcibly moved to the Park Hotel in Carlton in December, police clashed with protesters and arrested several, including an Indigenous activist who was left handcuffed in the back of a hot police car for hours.
City of Melbourne compliance officers have gotten in on the act, too. As protests began outside the Park Hotel in January, council officers came out to enforce a local bylaw against the unauthorised use of amplified sound. Backed up by a swarm of police, council officers issued fines of $500 each to protest organisers for the use of megaphones. The following week, Victoria Police attempted to snatch megaphones from activists, then gave move on orders to the leaders of a march.
Clamorous disapproval from activists as well as the Melbourne Activist Legal Service helped put an end to this misuse of local laws. Subsequently, Greens city councillors, led by Rohan Leppert, put forward a motion to condemn refugee detention in Melbourne and demand the release of the refugees in accordance with international law on human rights. Lord Mayor Sally Capp and her allies amended the motion, however, removing the demand for the refugees to be released and replacing it with a request merely for the federal government to provide an “explanation for the continued detention of those people”.
Leppert responded, “We’re not speculating on whether there ‘might’ be human rights abuses here. We have incontrovertible evidence that the Commonwealth government is committing human rights abuses right smack bang in our municipality”.
Attempts to stymie protests are nothing new in Melbourne, but the actions of police and council officers remind us about their role in a deeply unequal and oppressive society. They demonstrate yet again that appealing to state authorities on issues of state violence is a dead end. They also call into question threats by certain activists to leverage police forces in political disputes with other activists.
As the rally moved back into the park, a final set of speakers took aim at every level of government in Australia. Lavanya Thavaraja of the Migrant Workers Centre and Tamil Refugee Council criticised the inherently violent nature of hard borders and the capitalist system that demands them. Ellen Sandell, Victorian Greens MP for Melbourne, questioned whether the heavy police presence was an “appropriate use of state resources”.
To wrap up the rally, Omar Hassan of Socialist Alternative pointed out that, more important than the police repression, the defiant resistance of the refugees themselves and the refusal of their supporters to be shut down was the real story of the day. Hassan went on to say, “The amount of time and money and energy spent on punishing innocent people is something to reflect upon ... Why does our society do this? It does this because the people who run it know that as long as they can get away with treating some people like that, they can get away with treating all of us like that one day. They want to normalise that level of brutalisation. They want to normalise that level of barbarity. And they want to keep it up their sleeve”.
As we enter a time of imperialist conflict, compounding crises of climate and disease and economic recession, it becomes increasingly important that we defend the right to protest and dissent, and keep fighting for refugees enduring the torture of detention, whether in the Park Hotel, on Christmas Island or anywhere else.