At first, I had mixed feelings about police attacks on organisers and attendees of right-wing, anti-lockdown demonstration in Victoria.
The protesters were clearly nutjobs indifferent to the serious health risks posed by COVID-19. Many of the organisers were small-business owners who cannot appreciate that some things are worth sacrificing to protect the lives of thousands of people—yes, even pedicures and tapas bars.
Despite holding signs declaring their love of freedom, these people would not be seen dead at a rally demanding freedom for refugees, for Indigenous women and men trapped behind bars, or anyone else. They simply want the right to make profits. “Fuck them”, was my first thought.
But it was hard not to feel uneasy when faced with footage of police smashing up peaceful demonstrators, most of whom were wearing masks. After all, it would usually be the political left on the receiving end of this kind of crackdown. In fact, every other time I’ve seen the police and the far right in the same space, they’ve been collaborating—usually against anti-fascist activists.
This reversal is a product of the police being strong backers of the lockdown measures, which give them substantial new powers to harass, arrest, detain and charge those who step out of line. The police will be hoping that at least some of their new powers will be made permanent. But in the meantime, they’re as happy as pigs in shit.
While most of us on the left are happy to comply with quite severe restrictions for the sake of the greater good, abolishing the right to freedom of speech and assembly is another thing altogether. It is a massive overreach for a state or federal government to use the pandemic as an excuse to criminalise public protests. It is appalling that people have been arrested and charged with “incitement” merely for setting up and circulating a Facebook event for a rally.
As long as we live in a society characterised by inequality and injustice, we cannot abandon our right to demand change. The accusations that public protests are a health hazard has no basis in fact. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States and Australia have had no measurable impact on the spread of the virus. Indeed, in Australia, not one new case of COVID-19 was caused by protests that happened across the country.
This doesn’t stop the right from making accusations. On 7 September, Deputy PM Michael McCormack, from the so-called moderate wing of the National Party, claimed on the ABC’s Q+A that the Black Lives Matter rally contributed to the second wave in Victoria. Others in the party have stood by his comments and repeated his demonstrably false claim.
We should be extremely hostile to this line of argument not just because it is dishonest, but because it is an attack on basic democratic freedoms. Figures such as McCormack are not against dangerous public gatherings; indeed, they’ve championed the loosening of restrictions on sports arenas, pubs, nightclubs and more. They’re against the left.
So when it came to the BLM rallies, the left agreed that the government was out of line and the protests were important. Yet with these recent right-wing actions, many on the left have wavered, torn between their long-standing concern for political freedom and a legitimate hostility to the slogans of the demonstrators.
My view is that we should be firm and consistent in our opposition to the repression of protests and the use of charges such as “incitement” against organisers. The same week that right-wing protesters were interviewed and discussed on every TV station in the country, one of the organisers of last year’s protests against a mining conference in Melbourne was charged with “incitement” for using a megaphone to communicate with the crowd at the rally. Predictably, the media were much less interested in the violation of the civil liberties of environmental activists than they were with right-wing conspiracy freaks. But it will be the left that suffers if the use of this charge becomes more widespread.
Beyond the issue of incitement, the Victorian government and the police have tried to ban a range of demonstrations over the years, including during the bushfire crisis last summer. That time, we had tens of thousands prepared to defy them and mobilise for the cause. But we won’t always be swimming with the tide of public opinion. And as we’ve seen in New South Wales, bans on public gatherings can continue even when lockdowns end, under the guise of the health emergency.
If we cede our right to demonstrate during the pandemic, we risk losing it indefinitely.