I have just been arrested, along with one other, and fined $1,000 for attending a small protest organised by the University of Sydney Education Action Group against looming job cuts. Sydney Uni, like many other universities, has already cut significant numbers of casual staff, and is now set to announce cuts to its permanent workforce. The University’s Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has refused to give up a cent of his $1.5 million salary, yet for staff it’s the scrap heap.
What’s the real crime here? According to the NSW government and police, it’s not people’s jobs being threatened in the midst of a devastating health and economic crisis, but rather the fact that 21 people, wearing masks and standing several metres away from each other in a large outdoor area, gathered to defend them.
Protesting, the government and police claim, poses a threat to public health. This, however, has no basis in science. Evidence shows that outdoor activities, where participants wear masks, are among the safest things you can do. The coronavirus is overwhelmingly being spread indoors – in workplaces, restaurants, bars and the like.
As I wrote in Red Flag just a few days ago in relation to a Black Lives Matter protest that was broken up by police on Tuesday: “Not a single case of coronavirus spread has been linked to protests. Meanwhile, the virus is spreading in NSW, through restaurants, pubs and churches – and the government is doing nothing to stop it. Three hundred people are allowed to pack into a pub, a restaurant or a casino in NSW, while no workplaces or schools are closed, and thousands can go to shopping malls or the footy.”
When it comes to activities that benefit business, and which pose a much higher risk than protesting, the government is ignoring health advice and refusing to re-introduce any serious social distancing measures. In an interview on the ABC in mid-July, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian went so far as to declare that “what we need to do is find a way in which we can coexist with the virus.”
I argued then that “the less they do to actually combat the coronavirus, the more they need to whip up lies, blame the actions of individuals, and crack down hard on protests, to divert blame for their deliberate policies of death, and to appear as though they are taking action.”
Today’s arrests show the police intend to use their powers to ban all protests in NSW for the foreseeable future. Without any public announcement or warning to the protest organisers, they apparently decided to interpret the NSW government’s health orders to mean that a gathering of just 21 people, even if they are standing metres apart in an outdoor area, is illegal if those people are there for the “common purpose” of protesting.
This, we should be clear, has nothing to do with health advice or concern about the virus, and everything to do with suppressing protest. A hundred people sitting in separate groups in a park for the “common purpose” of having a picnic will not be fined. On weekends I gather with more than 21 people for the “common purpose” of playing football. No social distancing or masks are required. Currently, in NSW, up to 500 people are allowed to gather for such purposes.
The officer who arrested me today was Sergeant Strawbridge. He has long been a member of the NSW public order and riot squad – the squad that exists to pick fights with drunk people, harass people of colour, and rough up people who protest for workers’ rights, against racism or for the environment. They seem to love their work, and are notorious for being very friendly with the far-right, while hating anyone to the left of Genghis Khan. Strawbridge and his fellow plods love acknowledging protest organisers by name and dropping in details of your personal life, just to let you know they really are that creepy, and are watching you. With cops like these in charge of policing coronavirus restrictions, it’s no wonder all kinds of abuses are taking place.
What do you call a country where anyone who protests receives a $1,000 fine? In the US, where, due to the criminal inaction of the authorities, over 150,000 people have died in the coronavirus pandemic to date, a mass Black Lives Matter rebellion has mobilised thousands on the streets almost continuously for over 2 months. The protesters have faced severe police violence and repression of course, but not even the violent, racist authorities of the US have tried to ban protests altogether. NSW, and all the media outlets that have been pushing the anti-protest line, apparently have less democratic principles than Trump’s America, let alone Putin’s Russia.
Of course, the police will say they are only doing this for the exceptional and time-limited duration of the pandemic. But the coronavirus danger is likely to persist for months if not years. There is no guarantee that a vaccine will be available in the next year, if one can be developed at all. Are we willing to accept a ban on protests for 6 months? 18 months? Indefinitely?
The left needs to stand firmly against this. And one question we have to pose in this moment is: where are our trade unions? Why have the union leaders stood by and done nothing as the Black Lives Matter movement here has been crushed by right-wing hysteria and police repression, and along with it the right to protest at all? Unions have the muscle to blow apart these attacks on our rights, while defending workers’ rights during this crisis and demanding a proper response to the pandemic, yet the officials are sitting on their hands.
Capitalism is lurching from crisis to crisis, with the disaster of the pandemic now “co-existing” with the disasters of economic collapse and climate chaos. Governments and big business have made clear on issue after issue that profits will continue to rule, and be damned with the livelihoods and health of the working class. Defending our right to protest matters now more than ever.