How we won back the right to protest in NSW
How we won back the right to protest in NSW

The New South Wales government has quietly amended its public health restrictions, lifting the ban on protests in the state. There was no official announcement—they didn’t want to admit it—but we had won.

The victory came a week after 300 students and staff mobilised at Sydney University, once again facing down the police. Scenes of University of NSW education officer Shovan Bhattarai being thrown through the air and injured by riot police, and even a professor of law, Simon Rice, in his suit, being tripped and shoved to the ground and arrested, made headlines. Videos of the police violence and student defiance were viewed nearly 100,000 times. Outrage at the heavy-handedness was widespread, and the pressure on the government was mounting.

These incidents came after another brilliant show of defiance in early October, when 500 protesters stormed into Sydney’s Taylor Square before running past police lines to march down Oxford Street, the symbolic site of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, to oppose transphobia and homophobia. This was despite the state Supreme Court ruling the rally “unauthorised” the day before. The police shoved, kettled, arrested and fined protesters, but the overall mood was of joyous rebellion and victory as people showed they would not be cowed. The rally drew an outpouring of support.

Just a few months earlier, the situation had seemed much more dismal. Following the police’s crackdown on the Black Lives Matter rally of 28 July, we knew that the right to protest was under serious attack. That crackdown followed a week of right-wing media hysteria, the Murdoch press frothing at the mouth with a campaign of racism and lies that the protests would lead to a new wave of COVID-19 transmission. 

When subsequent education protests copped the same treatment, being broken up by the riot police with arrests and fines, it became clear that protests would be banned altogether. It was hardly news to us that the NSW government and police would find an excuse to attack our protest rights—that is why the police exist, after all: to uphold an unequal system and hold down dissent. We knew that, if we didn’t put up a fight, the ban on protests might continue indefinitely.

This came at the same time as the government was rapidly lifting restrictions on everything from football games to casinos. The hypocrisy was infuriating. The police even attacked a Sydney University student demonstration that kept to separate groups of fewer than twenty, while classes of 35 people were being held inside! From that day, we’d had enough; a group of us from Socialist Alternative started to organise the Democracy is Essential—Restore the Right to Protest in NSW campaign.

Our approach was to build as broad a coalition as possible, but one that also understood how we would win this fight politically—by protesting in defiance of the ban. The government, the police and the courts knew that banning protests was not popular. They knew it couldn’t be defended politically while other activities, such as indoor gatherings of hundreds and sports gatherings of thousands, were being allowed. 

Our campaign had to shine a spotlight on the protest ban, which would happen only if we defied it in our hundreds. This meant dozens would have to be prepared to get arrested and fined in the process. Civil liberties campaigns throughout history have had to adopt this defiant approach for the same reason.

The campaign was officially launched on 16 September with an online meeting of 170 people and speakers including NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, Greens former Senator Lee Rhiannon, Sydney University NTEU branch committee member Joel Griggs, who had been arrested at one of the university protests, and National Union of Students anti-racism officer Vinil Kumar, who had organised a Black Lives Matter protest in defiance of the Supreme Court in Wollongong, and had been arrested twice for protesting. 

It was an excellent beginning and helped to galvanise sections of the left in Sydney around the central demand: that protests should be exempted from the public health orders, and that we would need a defiant approach. Our rights were going to be won on the streets.

This argument was important, as a more accommodationist approach was taking shape among sections of the education campaign and NTEU. This approach argued that the way forward was to adapt our demonstrations to fit within the parameters of the ban—limiting our numbers, requiring people to register attendance in advance, splitting off into tiny groups, not marching etc.—and then trying to win court approval. 

Those sorts of protests are small, uninspiring and ineffective at building a movement, getting support and winning demands. It was crucial that people were instead won to a more combative approach. The Democracy is Essential campaign played an important role in this. It was only defiance that enabled the successful demonstrations of hundreds that pushed back on education cuts and transphobic attacks and won back the right to protest.

We had to face police heavy-handedness. Fines of more than $50,000 have been issued. One protester had their wrist broken by a police “stress hold” on 10 October, and others were injured, shoved and detained. One person who was filming a rally on 14 October had their phone knocked out of their hands and repeatedly stomped on by riot police. A key task of the campaign now is to demand that all the fines be dropped.

Despite the despicable actions of police, the experience of collectively fighting back in our hundreds was also incredibly galvanising, helping to build a bigger layer of committed activists prepared to stand up for democracy. This is why the right to protest is so vital, because protests are a rare chance for people to get a taste of their collective power. A good protest leaves people feeling a foot taller and unwilling to take shit from authorities. Protests can also force change, and contain the implicit threat of wider revolt. 

There is a lot further to go to win our full right to protest in NSW. We won’t accept the arbitrary 500-person limit they are trying to insist on, along with all the other powers NSW police have to use against demonstrations. Nevertheless, this is a significant victory. Already, police have allowed demonstrations that would have been attacked previously, and the space is open for all our progressive campaigns to take to the streets without the fear of arrests and fines just for exercising our democratic rights.

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