Our Activist Lawyers Network is launched!

A report on the launch of the Activist Lawyers Network

Lawyers network launched

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) launched our lawyers network with Amnesty International-Victoria on the 30th May 2017.

We heard from several lawyers with combined decades of experience in supporting activists and progressive causes – Matt Wilson (MALS) Rob Stary from Stary Norton Helphan, Meghan Fitzgerald from Fitzroy Legal Service and Danya Black from Environmental Justice Australia.

Rob Stary is well known in Melbourne for providing pro bono representation for activists, but also for working with people who have little resource and need support – his work for the people who other lawyers won’t touch is written about more in this recent article.

He shared a strong perspective on the trends of policing that we have seen in the last decade – describing them as “effectively a paramilitary force”.

One recently introduced piece of legislation was highlighted, the charge of “resisting emergency services workers” which now comes with a mandatory 6 month imprisonment… like so many laws, may have been purportedly designed for one purpose – in this case, a need to protect the important work that emergency workers do, but could be used against activists. He advised lawyers who may be briefing activists to be careful about how they talk about “resisting arrest” charges.

He also talked about patterns of police intelligence gathering. Many groups suspected of terrorism, no matter how tenuous the links, are infiltrated, and of course we all know that even peaceful activist groups are regularly surveilled and infiltrated. They will position themselves as just wanting “a friendly chat” and that they are concerned about them (you are the good guys, we are concerned about the bad guys) which will on

One case study that Stary referenced was the introduction of laws around “supporting directly or indirectly” terrorism. There was a deliberate attempt in 2007 to disrupt the funding of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka… being that “one persons terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” this can be problematic and a number of organisations who work with oppressed minorities in other countries have found themselves targeted with little option for recourse.

In this instance the Sri Lankan diaspora worldwide was supporting humanitarian efforts, and because Australia has no Bill of Rights it was targeted as the best country to stop the flow of resources. People were threatened with supporting a terrorist organisation, even as they sent money to aid and hospitals, and 100 warrants were issued for members of Tamil community. Many houses were raided. 40 000 innocent civilians were slaughtered in 2009. Stary believes that the efforts to send aid were important in providing healthcare and aid during this time.

And finally he reminded us that due to funding cuts to the community legal sector that you can only get legal aid if there is a realistic prospect of imprisonment. In short, we need pro bono legal support for progressive activists now, more than ever

Meghan Fitzgerald has a long history of providing legal support for progressive causes – working with Fitzroy Legal Service, who publish the brilliant activist rights website. She spoke about some successes and some losses – this has included important legal work such as advocating for the right of freedom of speech and assembly after the evictions of Occupy Melbourne – a case that was badly lost, she wryly commented, “lost it brutally, but fought it valiantly”… noting more broadly in an analysis we agree with, that whilst many painted Occupy as a failure, that worldwide it served to shift the discourse on economic justice, as well as provide important training and learning opportunities, and a new sense of community, for a generation of activists, “If it was a failure I was happy to participate in it,” she said.

Another important campaigns was a case in support of halting the East West Link construction. They legally argued the government was acting as a corporation, and called them on failing accountability to the community.

And one of the most inspiring groups she said she was worked with were the homeless community, through the Homeless Persons Union and their supporters, at the Bendigo St stockade – a six month long occupation of houses in Collingwood – the campaign involved communication, legal education, and supporting the discourse around urgent need for more public housing – with 30 000 people on a waiting list currently.

She also talked about how allies are conscientiously exercising their privilege to support and ensure voice is given to the people impacted by the issue. (And also noted that groups like RISE – refugees with lived experiences were important to support)

She also noted the long hours of work involved and the slow process of gained community trust, needing to work to consensus models and the unusual situation of being instructed by a collective, but noted it was the most rewarding work she had done saying, “supporting people who act in civil disobedience should be core duty for lawyers.”

Danya Jacobs has been a long time forest activist, and now a lawyer representing forest activists, and environmental causes – she has participated in substantive environmental law work.

She stated, “protest and civil disobedience has a long and proud history in protecting australia’s environment,” and noted an increasing level of sophistication from grassroots activists groups, such as (our fellow FOE affiliate) GECO who are using an effective mix of on ground direct action, in the form of citizen science, with protest and public advocacy.

This has come about (and been used successfully around the country in other campaigns we have supported such as Broome’s campaign to stop a gas hub, and their community science whale watching program) from a long history of grassroots activist’s DIY approach – they have educated themselves on the issues – it’s not about deferring that work to experts and government.

They have fundraised for the tools and now bring more people to understand and know the issue by community science camps, fauna surveys and using tools such as remote sensor cameras. This can then be combined with important legal work, such as the Brown Mountain case and others – as lawyers can use this data for legal challenges.

She has worked to support activists facing criminal charges for simply trespassing to survey the areas that Forestry Victoria haven’t, as well as people who use nonviolent direct action as a last stand to protect forest areas whilst other legal and political processes are in train, noting that it is an ongoing challenge to keep up with the laws that governments keep introducing to further criminalise this work.

Overall, it was an excellent informative evening, and it was brilliant to see 20 lawyers there, interested in becoming involved in supporting human rights, and environmental and social justice issues by providing pro bono support.

If you are a lawyer with a practicising certificate in Victoria, you can sign up to the lawyers network here. MALS will be providing training and support to lawyers to understand the needs of activists, and Amnesty International is coordinating the work. You can read about some of the roles lawyers can play in the network here.

If you are a lawyer interstate, check in with us at CounterAct – we often have a need for legal collaborators around the country.

If you are interested in getting involved with MALS we need volunteers – you don’t need to be a lawyer – we provide legal observers to events, “Know your rights” education sessions, and more.

With thanks to Amnesty International- Victoria, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, and all the MALS crew.

Nicola Paris,

Counteract

CounterAct supports and works with MALS and has found our work increasingly overlapping in recent years.


 

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Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

Solicitors can play a vital role in protecting the civil, political and human rights of activists seeking positive change. They can help demystify the law and legal processes, provide concrete information and help activists make informed choices about protest action. Importantly, lawyers can reassure people engaged in civil disobedience by their presence, support and advocacy before, during and after a protest action.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) and Amnesty International (AI) Victoria are launching a specialist Activist Lawyers Network who are willing to act pro-bono for progressive activists and activist groups.

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

The network’s core roles and functions will include:

(Journal photo by Ron Agnir)
Kate Savidan of the ACLU of West Virginia, holds up a pamphlet with legal information and phone numbers for legal counseling at a training session on Wednesday in Shepherdstown.1) Training and Advice for activist groups

MALS often receives requests for legal advice and legal briefings on topics such as police powers, protest rights and common charges to expect. Sometimes this is of a generic nature but often the legal advice needed is specific to a particular type of action or location. Often activist groups will want to know what the legal consequences of an action may be whilst they are at the planning stage. These legal briefings will generally be weeks or days before an action event or as part of a pre-arranged activist training session.

They could be an hour or two long and involve answering questions such as “what will happen to me if I am arrested?”

Related image

Lawyers at Kennedy Airport during the Muslim ban protests. Credit Victor J. Blue

2) Legal Briefings at protests

Solicitors can also be called upon to provide a legal briefing at an actual protest or just before it starts. This is usually a much quicker briefing for people who are just about to engage in some sort of protest action. Usually at this point the action is already planned and people might require some up-to-date legal information about what charges they might expect or what police could do, such as their search powers in a particular area. It will be usually be outdoors and quick.

3) Legal Observer Teams

Solicitors can act as legal observers but you can be called as a witness so you would not be able to represent activists later. But being on the ground with a team of legal observers is a very valuable role. Solicitors can work with the Legal Observers to discuss police tactics, move-on or arrests, assist with police liaison on behalf of the Legal Observer Team or people who have been arrested.

4) On Call Legal advice

For large actions we sometime run a mobile phone legal advice line that activists can call if they have a legal question or if they are arrested. It would involve lawyers being On-Call and being prepared to provide specific phone advice to people who may be in or just released from police custody. It may involve advising people about their rights in custody, to silence, fingerprints and searches as well as bail and bail conditions. It could involve being on an on-call roster with other solicitors.

4) In custody support

Solicitors can also be valuable protests involving mass arrests, to provide on-site legal advice to activists in police custody. This can involve going to the police station, requesting access to those in custody and providing initial legal advice in person. It can also involve advocacy around their treatment in custody, onerous bail conditions or release times. The presence of solicitors at police stations can be a strong protection against mistreatment.

Image result for ACLU legal training

5) Assisting with complaints about police

Activists often need assistance in making formal complaints about police misconduct. This can involve taking statements, collecting evidence including CCTV footage and assisting the activist lodge the complaint with police, IBAC or Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission. Complaints about police use of force can be important to challenge police human rights abuses and help maintain civil and political rights. Torts can arise and referrals to law firms or the Police Accountability Project are important.

6) Representation in court

Lawyers who can take on activists as clients can assist them prepare for court, advise around pleas and possible defenses and provide actual representation in court. Sometimes activists will face charges in a group at the same court and test cases can be arranged.   Solicitors need to be prepared for some activists not to plead guilty but instead seek to use their court appearance to further advance the campaign. Activists may want to attempt creative defenses or legal arguments and many will want to speak for themselves in court and to media before and after.

Increasingly, activists are seeing the court appearance as part of the campaign and lawyers can help devise effective court strategies to do this.

7) Advocacy & Law Reform

From time to time MALS provides submissions, organises forums or advocacy campaigns against particular anti-protest laws or repressive police powers. We may do this in concert or alone but the assistance of solicitors is invaluable in developing and drafting powerful submissions for the protection of civil and political rights.

REQUIREMENTS:

Lawyers will need to have an up-to date practicing certificate for the State of Victoria and will need to be covered by the Professional Indemnity Insurance through their current employer or practice.

ABOUT Melbourne Activist Legal Support

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) supports activists to defend their own civil and political rights though the provision of training, resources and up to date information regarding the rights to protest at law in the State of Victoria.

MALS can provide legal direct legal support at major demonstrations, monitoring police engagement with protesters through the deployment of legal observer teams if an when capacity allows.

We can provide legal information or training and help coordinate legal support in conjunction with law firms and community legal centres.

About the Anti-Mask (Public Order) Laws

benny zable

Since our article Anti-Mask Laws proposed in Victoria, was published the Crimes Amendment (Public Order) Bill 2017 has been passed in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and is now law in Victoria.

This article has been updated on 21 June 2018.


PLEASE NOTE: Masks are NOT be banned at all protest events – but ONLY those held in a area that police have declared a ‘designated area’.  (See below for more detail.)


The CRIMES AMENDMENT (PUBLIC ORDER) BILL 2017 was introduced into parliament by the Victorian Attorney General, Martin Pakula to allow “new measures to prevent serious disturbances of public order, including outbreaks of violence at protests, demonstrations and other public events.”

The intense media and public outcry after the clashes between neo-nazi and Antifa groups in Coburg in May 2016 meant that the pressure was on to introduce laws that make it look like the government is doing something about this.

Since then, the rationale for these laws was also conflated with the various outbreaks of youth violence at public events such at the Moomba brawling in 2016.

DESIGNATED AREAS

To understand how these new laws  work you need to understand how ‘Designated Areas’ already work in Victoria

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police already has the power to declare a specific area or event to be a ‘designated area’ under the Control of Weapons Act 1990 (Section 10D or 10E) if they believe or assess that there was previous use of weapons in that area or during previous occasions of the event or that they assess that there is a ‘likelihood that violence or disorder involving the use of weapons will occur in that area’.

These ‘designated areas’ were introduced in 2009 to allow police to deal with the perceived rise in youth knife-related crime several years ago, which was disputed at the time.)  Designated areas are now increasingly being used in protest situations.

This provides police with additional powers to search people and vehicles without warrant within that defined area for up to 12 hours.

The new Act provides additional powers for police within those designated areas.

NEW POLICE POWERS

The Act provides additional police powers in designated areas to require a person wearing a face covering to either remove their face covering or leave the area immediately

A police officer who reasonably believes a person intends to use the kind of violent and antisocial behaviour that would constitute one of the new public order offences of affray or violent disorder created by this Act is able to direct a person to leave a designated area.

If the person refuses to comply with this order to leave, they will be committing an offence.

In detail, this Act amends the Control of Weapons Act 1990 with

1) new section 10KA(1) which would allow a police officer to direct a person wearing a face covering to leave a designated area if the person refuses to remove it when requested.

(the police officer must reasonably believe the person is wearing the face covering primarily to conceal his or her identity or to protect himself or herself from the effects of crowd-controlling substances such as capsicum spray)

NEW OFFENCES

The Act amends the Crimes Act 1958 to abolish the common law offences of affray, rout and riot and create new statutory offences of affray and violent disorder (new sections 195H or 195I)

Affray now captures all conduct that currently constitutes the common-law offence of affray. “uses or threatens unlawful violence and whose conduct would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to be terrified” – Maximum penalty 5 years

Violent disorder, committed when six or more persons use violence for a common purpose, and that conduct damages property or causes injury to a person – Maximum penalty 10 years

If committed wearing a face covering the maximum penalty rises to 7 years for affray and 15 years for violent disorder.

OUR CONCERNS

Any laws targeting protesting can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of speech, expression and assembly.

It is important to acknowledge that it is already a crime in Victoria to be disguised with “unlawful intent” under s 49C of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).

USE OF MASKS AS POLITICAL EXPRESSION

Police already asking people to remove masks at protests. this is likely to increase with these new laws.

The new law means Police become arbiters of expression versus intent to commit violence.

THE RIGHT TO ANONYMITY

“The right to protest should not be contingent on consent to surveillance” – Liberty Victoria.

At times, particularly in circumstances where a protest is about controversial views, maintaining our anonymity may be critical to allowing freedom of association.

If attending a protest necessarily entails intrusive surveillance from the state or the threat of violence from other groups then you cannot really say we have genuine ‘freedom’ of peaceful assembly.

Furthermore, Victoria Police use of Facial Recognition Technology is currently unregulated

MASKS AS PROTECTION

Masks are commonly used at protests to protect attendeees from OC foam (Including journalists, observers, medics etc).

The use of OC, capsicum foam at protests in Victoria has skyrocketed.

It is inevitable that many people in the vicinity including other police, can be severely affected. In some incidents up to 70 members of the public were affected by spray at any one time.

Scarves, goggles, gas masks or handkerchiefs are used by journalists, media photographers, legal observers, street medics or bystanders.

This law now criminalises that practice.

THE Act CONTAINS NO EXEMPTIONS OR PROTECTIONS

Some anti-mask laws in other countries include exemptions for wearing masks for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, sporting events, parades, civil defence drills and protection from severe weather.

Some, but not all, include exemptions for political expression. There are currently no protections or exemptions in current Act.

STATUS IN PARLIAMENT

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) examined the Bill  and referred it back to Parliament for its consideration on the question “whether or not clauses 6 and 7 (police powers in 10KA(1) etc) are suitable, necessary and proportionate limitations on the implied freedom of political communication.”

The Bill was accented to and is now law in Victoria.


The new Act can be read online here: http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/num_act/claoa201732o2017432/

Some more detailed critique of the law here:  https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/2017/03/14/anti-mask-laws-proposed-in-victoria/

and http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/new-laws-to-stamp-out-violence-at-public-events/

Last year the Human Rights Law Centre launched a report, Safeguarding Democracy, that documents the unmistakable trend of governments at national and state level steadily chipping away at free speech, a free press, peaceful assembly, open government and the rule of law – some of the foundations of our democracy.

Inquiry into Drug Law Reform: Submission

Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues

Submission to the Inquiry into Drug Law Reform

Parliament House, Spring St
EAST MELBOURNE VIC 3002

 

Dear Committee Secretary,

Endorsement of the Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre’s (ATJC) submission

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) welcomes the opportunity to endorse the Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre’s submission to the Committee’s Inquiry into Drug Law Reform.

MALS observes, documents and reports on police and civilian engagement and harmful policing practices through its work supporting activists to defend their own civil and political rights to protest in the State of Victoria.

This endorsement focuses on the section of ATJC’s submission detailing how harmful police practices may increase the likelihood of drug-related harm in the community.

ATJC’s submission recommends:

That there be recognition of the harmful effects of policing on community-based harm reduction methods.

That police participate in meaningful harm reduction that guarantees safety for drug users, safeguarded by law and not just reliant on policy.

MALS makes a further submission that “meaningful harm reduction” extends to include banning the use of drug detection dogs and strip searches at music and arts festivals.

Research has shown that 30% of people when seeing drug detection dogs at an event consumed all of their drugs at once to avoid detection, leading to a higher risk of overdose. [1] The same study also found that searches had a very low success rate and research participants commented that police interactions left them feeling anxious and humiliated.[2]

Based on the research undertaken by advocates working with criminalised people subjected to strip searches, MALS submits that strip searches are particularly invasive and troubling for women and gender diverse people and have proved not to be successful at preventing drug related harm.[3]

If you have any questions in relation this endorsement or seek further advice from MALS please contact Katia Lallo, Collective Member,by email melbactivistlegal@gmail.com.

Yours faithfully,

Melbourne Activist Legal Support

16 March 2017

 

 


[1] Purple Hazelwood, Stan Winford, Dr. Jennifer Johnson, Rebecca Jenkinson, Damon Brogan, Sniffer Dogs: Their role in the reduction of drug-related harm? Presented at Club Health June 2008, Ibiza, Spain.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, McCulloch, Jude and George, Amanda, ‘Naked Power: Strip Searching in Women’s Prisons’, in J. McCulloch and P. Scraton (eds), Violence of Incarceration, Routledge (2008).

 

Anti-mask laws proposed in Victoria

benny zablePerformance artist and activist: Benny Zable. Photo: Wanagi Zable-Andrews

Artist and activist Benny Zable (pictured above) has been wearing a mask at protests throughout Australia for over 30 years. His distinctive skull-like gas mask and painted death-bringer costume, atop large black radioactive drums has become an icon of the peace, anti-nuclear and environmental movements throughout the country. He is a performance artist who uses his art form to depict a chilling prophesy of nuclear and environmental catastrophe.

But proposed Victorian anti-mask legislation could put at risk this and countless other forms of peaceful political expression and potentially undermine the freedom we have to assemble and associate.

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula will introduce a bill into parliament next week (March 2017) that will contain a new offence of “violent disorder”, with a 10 year maximum and a 15 year maximum if you commit that offence whilst wearing a face covering. The proposed laws will also give police specific powers to order people to remove a face mask and an another new offence if people do not comply.

Aside from the totally unnecessary move to create a new protest related offence when plenty of others (such as ‘riot’, ‘affray’, assault etc) already exist, any laws targeting protesting can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of speech, expression and assembly.

Image result for protest masks

According to the Attorney General, “It will be clear in the legislation that we’re only talking about face coverings where the police believe you’re wearing it for the purpose of concealing your identity, or for the purpose of protecting yourself against the impact of capsicum spray and the like.” (ABC Online 13/3/17)

It was only a matter of time before some Victorian Government put up some anti-masks laws.   The intense media and public outcry after the clashes between neo-nazi and Antifa groups in Coburg in May 2016 meant that the pressure was on to look like they were doing something. The state opposition, police command and the Police Association and Victoria’s police minister Lisa Neville all stridently called for face masks at protests to be banned after Coburg as a way of dealing with the media outrage.  There should be no doubt that these laws are political. They will do nothing to stem the rise of the far-right in Victoria.  Rather than actually confront the growing surge of active street politics by dangerous neo-nazi groups, the Victorian Government seem like they will respond with a blanket increase in penalties and the banning of bandannas.

“The wearing of masks at protests, I think, simply indicates that people have come with the intent of committing some sort of violence and want to evade the law. That is totally unacceptable”  said Liberal Party mp and Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Inga Peulich in Parliament this month- (8 March 2017).   This simplistic view has driven the introduction of this Bill. It is wrong and its adoption into law could undermine some vital civil and political rights.

It is already a crime in Victoria to be disguised with “unlawful intent” under s 49C of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic). If a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that a masked protester is going to commit a violent act, he or she can arrest and unmask the protester.

Spain, Russia, France, Canada and many other countries have introduced various anti-mask laws over recent decades. Canada passed laws banning the wearing of masks during a riot or unlawful assembly after 2012 Quebec student protests at which only a tiny  proportion of participants wore any face coverings.  In response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, local legislators have been preparing laws which would bar people from wearing “a mask or hood that covers part or all of the face when in a public area, ban use of coverings for a person’s face while at a demonstration or rally on private property without written permission.”  Incidentally, anti-mask legislation was first introduced in the United States as a measure to restrict the Klu Klux Clan.

Some anti-mask laws in other countries include exemptions for wearing masks for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, sporting events, parades, civil defense drills and protection from severe weather. Some, but not all, include exemptions for political expression. It is not known what exemptions, if any, the Victorian Bill will include.

On the information we have so far, the bill poses a threat to the freedom of assembly and association and to freedom of political expression for the following reasons.

Masks as political expression

Image result for protest masks history

Masks of all sorts have a very long association with protest and political expression.  We wear them to mock and ridicule public figures and politicians, to symbolize an act of oppression, to express dissent and disdain and as an act of political street theatre.  Masks in some form are common at rallies, marches and political demonstrations and they have been throughout human history.

Liberty Victoria points out that “Protests are public spectacles, often designed to attract media attention. A costume, including a mask, is a visual way to express a political viewpoint. That is why Anti-Iraq protesters constructed paper mache masks to ridicule Bush, Howard, and Blair; why supporters of the band pussy- riot, imprisoned in Putin’s Russia, donned balaclavas to protest the band’s sentence; and why occupy wall street activists adopted the Guy Fawkes mask recently popularized by the film V for Vendetta. These protesters were not violent. They used masks to ridicule politicians, express solidarity, or communicate an idea.”

What this proposed law does is make police the arbiter of this form of political expression.

Ordinary, regular and very non-artistic police members will suddenly have the power to go up to a person at a political demonstration and demand that they remove their face covering.

If a political artist like the renown Benny Zable does not comply then he risks being arrested.

There is also a blurry line when it comes to face coverings and where the limits of this law will lie.  Religious headscarfs? Funny hats that cover the eyes? Groucho Marx glasses? Paper-mache politician heads?  If the proposed laws contain exemptions how will police determine what is acceptable or unacceptable? Vague but punitive laws and arbitrary policing has a chilling effect and deters people from attending protests or choosing to express themselves due to fear of repercussions, even if what they are intending to do is not actually unlawful.

The right to anonymity

“The right to protest should not be contingent on consent to surveillance” says Liberty Victoria.
 At times, particularly in circumstances where a protest is about controversial views, maintaining our anonymity may be critical to allowing freedom of association.  If attending a protest necessarily entails intrusive surveillance from the state or the threat of violence from other groups then you cannot really say we have genuine ‘freedom’ of peaceful assembly.    This very point was once affirmed by an important US civil rights case brought before the United StatesImage result for protest masks

Supreme Court (NAACP vs. Alabama 1958)  which stated that ‘Inviolability of privacy in group association may in circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

Protesters have legitimate reasons for wanting to conceal their identity.  We may not wish to be subject to police surveillance, and scrutiny In an era of ubiquitous CCTV and street cameras, police filming units and the use of facial recognition technology, any facial image obtained by Victoria Police can be utilised in numerous unregulated and intrusive ways and can be stored indefinitely. The Victorian Parliament is yet to legislate or provide any restrictions or regulatory guidance about the police use of facial recognition technology despite it being in use for several years now.
Fear of retaliatory violence is also very real for protest groups confronting far-right or neo-nazi groups on the streets.   Far-right groups have used social media to identify counter- protesters, naming them in blogs and Facebook pages and attracting comments making threats of violence.  Several assaults of activists who had been identified by nazis have occurred since the first Reclaim Australia rally in early 2015.   In these circumstances it is understandable that some people might want to protect their identity at rallies without having any intention of engaging in criminality.

In this political climate, many activists face a difficult decision. If they take to the streets and protest on a controversial campaign (especially a campaign that has involved both legal and illegal tactics), they risk this surveillance, harassment and intimidation.  If they don’t take to the streets, they are compromising their beliefs and remaining silent about the things that matter.

For many, a solution has been to continue protesting on these campaigns, but with masks covering their faces. It clearly isn’t always the best solution. But wearing a mask doesn’t mean activists are guilty, or that they are ‘terrorists.’  For many activists, it simply means they don’t trust police, ASIO or others intent on doing them harm.

Masks as protection

Many commentators have already pointed out that faces at modern protests are often covered with scarves, goggles, gas masks or handkerchiefs in response to police use of chemical-based weapons such as pepper (OC) spray and tear gas. 

Image result for street medicThe use of OC, capsicum foam at protests in Victoria has skyrocketed in recent years, and has correlated with the rise in people wearing some form of face covering.  Even professional journalists covering protests now wear some sort of face protection to make sure the spray doesn’t get into their nose, eyes and mouths whilst taking photos. Medics and legal support teams wear face protection.  When police deploy OC spray or foam at a protest event, it is inevitable that many people in the vicinity including other police, can be severely affected.  In some OC spray incidents at Melbourne rallies up to 70 people were affected by spray at any one time. The need for some sort of mouth and nose covering is very real.

The Attorney General has stated that the legislation will only target face coverings where the police “believe you’re wearing it for the purpose of concealing your identity, or for the purpose of protecting yourself against the impact of capsicum spray and the like.” (ABC Online 13/3/17).  If the wearing of protective face coverings becomes unlawful under this new legislation it will be yet another infringement upon our right to assemble without the risk of state violence.

“Masked, I advance”  ― The opposition to this Bill

This Bill is only about to be introduced and opposition to it is likely to grow. It will take several months before it becomes law.

Liberty Victoria has already come out strongly against any laws banning masks, stating:

“Simply banning all masks at protests would be a broad brush “one size fits all” approach that undermines our civil liberties when the case has not been made as to why such laws are necessary and proportionate. To the same end, to introduce a mandatory or prescriptive sentencing model for those who commit disorder offences while wearing masks would cause injustice and represent a further erosion of judicial discretion in sentencing. Any bill that proposes such measures should be opposed.”

Liberty Victoria’s full statement came be read here (PDF).

Fiona Patton (MP) from the Australian Sex Party has spoken out in parliament about any proposed anti-mask legislation. “Such a decision could have negative flow-on effects for the very groups targeted. Mask or no mask, if you are behaving in ways that are not consistent with acceptable behaviour, police already have the power to act in such circumstances.” She said back in June last year.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support will be watching this Bill closely and providing further commentary.  There will likely be an opportunity for community, legal and human rights groups to make submissions at some point and we will keep people up to date as things change or progress.

Watch this space.

What is this thing called Legal Observing?

And why do you wear those pink vests?

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Legal Observers, or Human Rights Monitors as they are sometimes called, have become a common sight at large scale protest events throughout the western world over the past decade or so and the chances are you have seem MALS Legal Observers in the pink hi-vis vests at a protest in Melbourne.

Working in organised teams in hi-visibility vests, arm-bands or special caps and armed with clipboards and cameras, Legal Observers are becoming more common at protests as governments increase police powers, restrict protest activity and roll-back basic democratic freedoms in ways once unimaginable.

The independent citizen monitoring or police at protests has a long history. In the United States the Black Panthers was perhaps the earliest group to deploy community legal observers to patrol and monitor the policing of Black communities in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In Australia, priests were called upon to act as observers and to provide a moral deterrence to police violence.during the large anti-Vietnam War moratorium marches.  The Legal Observer Team formed in Melbourne for the S11 protests against the World Economic Forum were the first in Australia since that time. Observer teams have been used for many decades in places like Northern Ireland, where independent civilian groups formed ongoing human rights monitoring teams with the aim of documenting and deterring the brutality of the occupying military and police force.

Image result for legal observers More recently, legal observer teams were deployed at many large scale anti-globalisation demonstrations around the world – including the protests held in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Washington, London, Torronto, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Internationally, citizen initiated, third party observer and monitoring projects are becoming more common. Amnesty International US recently fielded Legal Observers during protests in Ferguson, Missouri and sent teams of Human Rights Observers to the Dakota Access #NoDAPL Pipeline protests.  The US National Lawyers Guild (NLG) routinely field Legal Observers throughout the United States.

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The goal of a Legal Observer Team is to ensure and enhance the political ‘space’ within which people protest. The highly visible presence of independent citizens helps to ensure that abuses of the civil, legal or human rights of citizens at the hands of police do not go unnoticed. The presence of Legal Observers should reduce the probability of police abuses or may assist in ensuring that arrests are carried out in a less violent way. Legal Observers therefore act as a viable form of deterrence of police violence.

Legal Observers often act for as the eyes and ears of a larger legal team — to observe and record incidents and the activities of law enforcement in relation to the demonstrators.

This includes documenting any arrest, use of force, intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and footpaths, and any other behavior on the part of police that appears to restrict activist’s ability to express their political views.

This documentation is done in a thorough and professional manner, so that lawyers representing arrestees or bringing an action against the police will be able to objectively evaluate the lawfulness of police conduct.  Information gathered by Legal Observers  has contributed to defending and advancing the rights of activists in many scenarios. Documentation has also been critical for detailed analysis and reporting on the police actions at protests.  See some of those Legal Observer reports see our Resources page here.

Legal Observers don’t give legal, tactical, or political advice, negotiate with the police for demonstrators, or speak to the media or public on behalf of the protest.   We will however speak publicly about police action and about human rights abuses we witness and report afterwards.  Legal Observers are trained not to interfere in arrests but instead take in as much information as possible.

Third-party presence

Image result for legal observersAs public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary –by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people –so the need for independent Legal Observing and counter-surveillance of police actions becomes more acute.

Legal (or third-party) Observer Teams aim to provide a level of independent and impartial scrutiny at community protests and political events that serves to deter police from using violence against citizens. The deterrence effect of a Legal Observer Team can include the simple effect of being observed, the threat of future civil legal sanctions against police, the reinforcement of existing police accountability mechanisms or the possible application of domestic civil rights or international human rights mechanisms. Legal Observers act as on-the-ground witness’s so that our notes, our photos and out testimony can be used in follow up court action or for complaints against police.  Being a third-party (ie. not one one of the protesters) means that our testimony has more credibility in a court.

Legal Observers wear vests or some form of clear visible identification in order to stand out and to ensure that the police and public notice us. Being visible and being seen is crucial. Legal Observers will often stand so that police will notice our presence.

Image result for legal observersSignificantly, third-party observation or ‘presence’ can also serve to reduce the level of fear experienced by activists when faced with violent or coercive police responses. The presence of Legal Observers can be reassuring for activists when isolated or fearful of what the police may do.

This reassurance function is less tangible but and important impact of a legal observer presence. In contexts where the legislative and police response to protest is intimidation and overwhelming show of force, the presence of independent third parties dedicated to civil and political rights can be critical.   Both the deterrence effect and the reduction of fear are important objectives of the Legal Observer teams.

Most people are alienated from the law, by obscure legal language, and by the decisions that are made in courts and parliaments. At the same time, protestors are disproportionately targeted by the state and police authorities and disproportionately entangled in the law and criminal justice system.

By providing clear legal information, assisting protestors to give statements and making complaints against police abuses, Legal Observers help people to use the law to assert their civil and political rights, and -in so doing –help give people more control over what happens to them.

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The deterrence impact of Legal Observers is very limited however and can never be relied upon. Horrific abuses and infringements of rights occurs despite the presence of observers.

But the presence of dedicated, trained and identified observers adds to and reinforces, both practically and symbolically, the range of legal, ethical and political constraints on police behaviour which already exist. These constraints, which include international human rights covenants, public and media scrutiny and public opinion, the threat of legal sanctions and civil litigation against individual police, and current Police ethical standards, protocols and standing orders, will not prevent the police nor private agents abuse power nor will they prevent gross violations of people’s rights occurring.

But Legal Observers, by being on the ground and accurately witnessing and documenting abuses, can serve to strengthen the limited effectiveness of these constraints on police behaviour.

For more information about the roles, scope, mandate and skills involved in Legal Observing have a read of our 20 page Legal Observer Handbook(PDF)

NETPOL: Network for Police Monitoring in the United Kingdom have this great guide How to Be a Legal Observer.

Huffington Post ran this article Legal Observers Help Monitor Police which is worth a read too.

Want to try it out?

You don’t have to be a lawyer or legally trained to be a Legal Observer but training in the relevant laws, police powers and observer skills and protocols is important. If you’d like to become a legal observer and you are based in Melbourne then keep an eye out for our next training on our training page. or join our email list.

Anthony Kelly

Lawful or Unlawful?

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law…”

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law”. How many times have you heard this statement from police, from politicians, from passers by, or even friends and family?

legal-illegalA Victorian Premier, when questioned about protesters picketing a company building said that while he respected the right of people to protest peacefully, “they have no right to break the law.”[1]

“The Government supports peoples’ right to protest lawfully. These amendments will preserve that right, so long as the protest activities do not put anyone’s safety at risk or break the law” states another government media release a few years back.

This supposed support for the right to protest, as long as it is “lawful”, assumes a great number of things. It assumes that in Australia we have ample and sufficient political space for us to protest. However, the criminal law throughout Australia encompasses a huge range of offenses that can be and are used against activists if the police or the government of the day choose. How much political space we actually have depends on a complex range of factors.

It also assumes a level of legal clarity that simply does not exist. When it comes to public protests or political actions, what is lawful and unlawful is often very confusing and is always changing as new laws are introduced and old laws re-applied or changed. Police will often use a legal construct called ‘Breach of the Peace‘ as the reason to arrest, to move-on or use force against protesters – yet that legal term is extraordinarily vague and open almost entirely to the police member’s interpretation and ‘reasonable belief’.

Image result for student protest arrest melbourneAlthough lawyers can provide advice about what the current law says and what charges are possible, the way in which police and government apply and use the law is always changing and hard to pin down.

Police have a fair degree of discretion about how they apply a particular law, what arrest power they use and what charges to lay at a particular time. They decide whether they arrest or charge at all. Police may simply stand by when activists chalk on the road during one protest, or they may arrest people at a different protest for doing exactly the same thing.

Seemingly innocuous activities such as honking your horn as you drive past a picket or weaving ribbon through a wire fence have been interpreted as offenses in Australia. Mostly they are ignored – but police could charge you with a traffic offense if they choose to.

When activists camp on public land at or near the site of a protest, local council powers may be used by police even when no issue of trespass arises. Decades old and archaic council by-laws can be revived for an anti-protest purpose. Activists handing out leaflets in Melbourne were once fined using a by-law that hadn’t been enforced since the 1960s.[2]

When existing laws are not adequate to restrict activists or stifle our ability to protest, a new law can be created, sometimes specifically to deal with a particular protest.

The famous Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra is a classic example of this. On 26th January 1972, when four Aboriginal men, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey, set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra overnight it was lawful to camp on the lawns opposite the then Parliament House.

However, after the Embassy had grown in size and had become a powerful international symbol of Aboriginal land rights, the government made a minor amendment to the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance in a midnight sitting which banned camping on unleased Commonwealth land within Canberra. Suddenly, the Tent Embassy was unlawful.

On July 20, just hours after the new law came into effect, police moved in forcibly evicting the tents and arresting activists.

People who say that they support protest as long as it doesn’t break the law’, are also saying that they believe  activist do not really need to break the law in order to be effective. Well, history says otherwise.

Sometimes breaking the law is the whole point

Civil disobedience is the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust.

The deliberate violation of laws has played a crucial part in Australian political history. The Aboriginal land rights and civil rights movement, union struggles for wages and the eight hour day, women’s campaigns for the vote, and the modern peace, social justice and environmental movements have all been effective. Hundreds of people have been arrested in large civil disobedience actions throughout Australia at many protests against US bases, uranium mines, asylum seeker detention centres and blockades of old growth logging operations.

A famous and influential theorist of civil disobedience in the western world was Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau’s essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless other activists.

He said,

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much for the right Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law.”

The argument that the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law is central to all civil disobedience.

To break or not to break the law…

Although some activists may knowingly break laws, or engage in deliberate civil disobedience, not all activists deliberately seek to break the law.

Those who do so often consider and weigh up the costs and consequences of unlawful action carefully and make clear choices.

Even activists who go to great lengths to stay within the law can inadvertently break laws and find themselves arrested. Laws can be used against activists in order to control or stifle protest and dissent even when there is no intention by activists to break the law.

It is not the case that activists are criminals. It is more often the case of the legal system working to criminalise activists.

So why is this important?

This so called distinction, between ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ forms of protest is an artificial and deliberate one.

The distinction is used politically to restrict protest action to what is perceived to be less threatening; protest that is easier to police and contain.

The distinction is also used in an attempt to divide  protest movements into those engaged in ‘lawful’ protests from those who may used ‘unlawful’ forms of protest of resistance – a divisive tactic aimed at deterring more conservative groups or members of the public from working with groups involved with civil disobedience.

The ‘lawful / unlawful’ distinction attempts to generate an arbitrary boundary around forms of protest available to the movement – a boundary that at all times should remain within the control of the movement itself.

Anthony Kelly

Anthony is a member of Melbourne Activist Legal Support and the organiser of multiple Legal and Human Rights Observer teams since the World Economic Forum protests in 2001.

This article originally appeared in an earlier form on activistrights.org.au, published by the Fitzroy Legal Service. These views are his own. 

[1] ‘Police union calls for East West Link protesters to be charged’ by Matt Johnston, Herald Sun, 6 November 2013.

[2] ‘Mounted Police attached peaceful Nike picket’, by James Grafti, Green Left Weekly, 9 May 2001

Who’s who in Victoria Police

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Public Order Response Team (PORT)

Identifying police at protests can be tricky business.

There are often different units with different uniforms and gear, different ranks and then police come to protests with specialist roles.

The identification of individual officers goes to the heart of accountability. It is useful for Legal Observers, journalists, street medics and activists to have an idea who is who. With accurate identification we can get a sense of how different police units might act and more accurately identify police in the case of an incident or for an eventual complaint or legal action.

The Victorian State Government has been investing a significant amount in specialist teams since 2009 when the large Operations Response Unit was established,  including protective armor, new equipment and specialist training. The latest increase in police numbers announced by Premier Andrews in December 2016 included as least 40 new Public Order Response Team (PORT) officers to increase capacity to rapidly respond to incidents involving “hostile crowds”.

The use of specialist, paramilitary style police units has been the subject of much research, analysis and commentary, in particular since the high toll of police shootings in Victoria, many by the Special Operations Group (see below) in the late 80’s and early 90’s and has been driven in part by internal police union agitation to lower police injuries with protective gear and equipment that reduces physical contact (such as tasers and OC spray) for occupational health and safety reasons. But the global policing trend toward military-like tactics, training, uniforms and equipment has undoubtedly been driven by the enormous growth in the highly lucrative international trade in repressive technologies. The rapid investment in counter-terrorism since September 11, 2001 has also resulted in a massive transfer of tactics, knowledge and equipment between police and militaries. Professor Jude McCulloch’s Blue Army, Paramiltary Policing in Australia is a great place to start if you want to delve into this more.

As David Vakallis and Jude McCulloch argue, since 2001 the trend towards more militarised policing at Victorian protests has “escalated such that the clatter of riot shields and the acrid sting of capsicum spray have become something to expect from police at protests.”

A more general discussion on why police choose certain tactics at protests can be found here.

This article, however, is focusing upon identifying the name, rank of individual police and distinguishing between the various police units at protest events in Victoria.

Name Tags

By their own regulations, VicPol members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank. (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016)
Despite calls by legal and human rights groups for many years, Legal Observers still note that the wearing visible name tags at protest events is inconsistent and that the ease of obscuring or removing a name tag poses serious problems for accountability.
If police officers cannot be identified then they can act with a high degree of impunity; research suggests that police officers who wear nametags are more conscious of the needs of the general public they are interacting with. Nametags, therefore, are an important safeguard that can help ensure individual police are held responsible for their actions.
By foregoing a nametag, police are able to assume the power of a collective identity without exposing their individuality. This is a process known as de-individuation, and can lead to higher instances of negative or socially irresponsible behaviour.
‘I tried to avoid the police without name badges, it seemed clear to me that they
were more prepared to be aggressive. I witnessed one police officer without a
badge punching a protester in the face.’ Jing, 27. Occupy Melbourne protester 2011

Identifying Police by Rank

Firstly – there are 13 different ranks in Victoria Police – from Constable to Chief Commissioner. The main ones you will see at a protest event are pictured below.

When you are liaising with police take note of their rank.  You should be speaking with someone who is a Sergeant or above and if you want to speak with a senior officer then look for the three pips. Often Inspectors are the Forward Commanders for any large protest but you can always ask for the senior officer or OIC – Officer In Charge –  when you want to speak with the most senior police officer present.

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At large protests police will be drawn from other duties and also from specialist units, depending upon the size, scale and the police’s assessment of the nature of the protest.

OPERATIONS RESPONSE UNIT (ORU)
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The Operations Response Unit (ORU) is a highly visible and trained response team tasked to tackle high-priority public safety, road policing and crime issues across the state.

Operations Response Unit, which was set up around 2009 employs 250-300 staff, has an intelligence cell and has access to about 68 vehicles. It is designed to provide rapid and ready response to major incidents and disasters at short notice.

The ORU members are trained to tackle issues such as CBD violence, rural traffic issues, weapons searches and crime or drug operations.

The massive investment in this new unit was authorised by former Chief Commissioner Simon Overland and boosted by his successor Ken Lay as part of a push to reintroduce ‘low-tolerance and pro-active’ policing across the state. The idea is that if police can deploy in large numbers as early as possible their presence will deter violence. The sheer scale of policing we have seen at recent Melbourne protests have reflected this ‘force of numbers’ approach.

 

PUBLIC ORDER RESPONSE TEAMS (PORT)

The Public Order Response Team (PORT) pictured above and below, are part of the ORU and includes 200 or so police members drawn from general duties who have been provided with specialist crowd control training. PORT is designed to provide a rapid and ‘force of numbers’ response to public order incidents and has dedicated vehicles and riot control equipment.

It was formed in June 2011 partly in response to a spate of ‘out of control’ suburban teenage parties and also in the wake of the London riots of that year. The primary objective of PORT is to “restore and maintain public order in volatile and/or hostile crowd environments and certain emergency management situations.”

They are often sent out to back local police targeting anti-social behaviour and public drunkenness but are also regularly deployed at protest events.   Not all PORT members wear the helmets and protective gear but are most often deployed in formations, lines or units at protests. Depending upon the weather and conditions PORT will have standard yellow vests, clear goggles and look like general duties police.

The several hundred PORT members are trained in specific tactics to deal with public order and “riot” situations.

What is defined as a ‘riot’ and who defines it is extraordinarily problematic.  We know that they have trained with tear gas and full length riot shields that we have not yet seen on Melbourne’s streets.  You can see some of this training on YouTube here.

A note on training. Police training in relation to protests tends to influence the approach taken to protesters.  If police training implies that protesters are akin to insurgents or terrorists and that crowds are inherently dangerous, and concentrates or tactical issues related to riot control, then the attitude of individual police to protesters is likely to be harsh. As we can see in this Victoria police YouTube video, out of uniform police members playing the part of protesters in the training exercise are violent, abusive and throwing objects. Undoubtedly this sort of training would colour the attitudes of police and their approaches to protesters.

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PORT in the Carlton Gardens. Picture: Stuart McEvoy

 

CRITICAL INCIDENT RESPONSE TEAMS (CIRT)

Launched in 2004, Critical Incident Response Teams, (pictured below) provide 24 hours a day, 7 days a week response, which includes a negotiator capability, to incidents  involving firearms, suicide, consular threats or forced entry searches that not meet the criteria of the Special Operations Group (SOG).

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CIRT members at a protest (2016)

They have access to tasers, beanbag (extendable baton) rounds, and machine guns, body armour and helmets as well as armoured vehicles.  CIRT were the first in Victoria to be provided with OC spray / foam and are only rarely present at large protest events where police anticipate violence, (or large assertive crowds that they fear that they wont be able to control without sub-lethal weaponry.)  If deployed, CIRT will usually be kept in the background at protests. They are also likely to have a different chain of command than PORT.

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CIRT at a Melbourne protest, December 2016

SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP

The elite paramilitary Special Operations Group (SOG) respond to incidents that are beyond the scope, experience and skill level of (CIRT) at any time.  SOG will be rarely, if ever, deployed to protest events. The SOG are highly trained in anti-terrorism tactics, building entry skills, and conducting high risk searches. Formed in 1977 its main function was, and remains, to provide a response to politically motivated and criminal terrorist activity. They have been known to refer to themselves as the “Sons Of God”.

MOUNTED BRANCH

The Mounted Branch are hard to miss at protests in Victoria and remain one of the more dangerous and controversial units in Victoria Police having been responsible for a huge number of protester injuries over the past decade or more.  Police horses are used to provide support to police at events “requiring crowd control, protests or marches needing public order management”.

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Source: Wikipedia

The Mounted Branch members train with other specialist police units, including the Public Order Response Team (PORT) and are most commonly deployed into crowds when police perceive that police on the ground are loosing control or at risk.   Lines of police horses are used as cordons when stationary, or as moving cordons behind marches, but can also be run directly into crowds, sometimes quite rapidly, to disperse or move people away from buildings or away from police lines. The use of police horses is always problematic in that the risk of serious and life threatening injury to people in crowd situations is extraordinarily high.  When horses are run directly into or near large crowds of people who can not move back it  is too easy for people to be violently pushed by the horses, to fall under, and be trampled.

The Victorian Parliament have not had any regulatory oversight on how police horses are used for many decades and their use arguably impinges upon the right to peaceful assembly.

SEARCH AND RESCUE

The Victoria Police Search and Rescue squad (SAR) conduct land and water search and rescue operations including people missing in remote and difficult areas.  They are equipped with climbing and cutting equipment.  Search and Rescue are commonly called out to protest events when activists chain, lock, U-bolt or otherwise physically attach themselves to buildings or equipment or are required to be removed from tripods, tree-sits or high-location banner-drop actions.   Generally, Search & Rescue members are professional and courteous with activists and many of them have experience with various activist lock-on devices and high location protests.

 

References and further reading:

Vakalis, D., McCulloch, J., 2012, Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Militarized Policing and Occupy Melbourne http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-occupy/feature-jude-mcculloch-and-david-vakalis/

McCulloch, J., 2001, Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South Vic Australia.

Specialist Roles with Victoria Police http://www.policecareer.vic.gov.au/police/about-the-role/specialist-roles1

An Tien Hsieh and Shu-Hui Hsieh, ‘Dangerous Work and Name Disclosure’ (2010) 38
W. Heck, ‘Police who Snitch: Deviant Actors in a Secret Society’ (1992) 13

Calls for ban on police horses at public protests Peta Carlyon 26 Oct 2011, ABC http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-10-26/calls-for-ban-on-police-horses-at-public-protests/3600874

OCCUPY POLICING A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square, Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team October 2012.

Do Not Resist” and the Crisis of Police Militarization, Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, 13 May, 2016,

Police Miltarisation, ABC Radio National Sunday Extra (Audio), Sunday 24 August 2014

Are you a human rights defender? The statement from the United Nations special rapporteur is worth a read

In early October, members of Melbourne Activist Legal Support met with the United Nations special rapporteur Michel Forst, who has since released his report on the situation of human rights defenders in Australia.*

It is a powerful and important statement and has largely backed up what Australian activist, legal and human rights organisations have been saying for many years – that the Australian Government is dangerously impeding and repressing those of us in Australia trying to defend and stand up for basic civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights.

“I reminded the Government that human rights defenders have a legitimate right to promote and protect all human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, regardless of whether their peaceful activities are seen by some as frustrating development projects. I therefore recommend that the laws criminalizing peaceful protests are urgently reviewed and rescinded.”  – Michel Forst

In the parlance of the global human rights community, a ‘human rights defender’ can be anyone, anywhere, who is taking action that seeks to defend, promote or strengthen a right recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any of the subsequent UN conventions or covenants. It has been well documented that around the world, human rights defenders are often targeted, threatened, abducted, abused, tortured or killed due to their activism – most often by their own governments. Hence the need for a clear Declaration documenting the rights and protections available to them and stating the obligations of governments to observe them.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The Declaration on human rights defenders, from which Michel Forst, the current Special rapporteur gets his mandate to investigate and report on countries who have signed it,  was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998. The position of Rapporteur is an independent expert, able to exercise professional and impartial judgement and report directly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

This particular Declaration on HRDs is particularly useful for activists in Australia to know about as it is designed, in part, to speak directly to us – activists who defend or promote human rights.  It as a strong, very useful and pragmatic text. It tells us that we all have a role to fulfill as human rights defenders and emphasizes that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all. It outlines concretely each of the obligations that the state has to protect and ensure that we have access to protection, information and safety.

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This Declaration is very important to the work of the Melbourne Activist Legal Support and is something that we refer to in our training.  If you act as a Legal Observer or are a part of MALS, then you are acting as a Human Rights Defender  and have all the rights articulated in the Declaration on HRD’s whilst you are doing that work.

Likewise – if you are an Indigenous activist standing up for the rights entailed in the The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) then you can also call yourself a human right defender if you so choose. As can people protesting for rights in The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or any other UN article or convention that spells out our civil, political, economic or cultural rights.

If you want to have a read of it see here>And this Fact Sheet is also very useful.

In other words, every one of us has the right to defend all human rights for all. The Australian State is therefore under the obligation to take steps to create necessary conditions, including in the political and legal domains, in order to ensure that everyone in the country can enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.  Well, wouldn’t that be good.

Concerns raised by MALS

During his two-week visit, at the invitation of the Government, the expert met with vast range of federal and state officials, members of the parliament and judiciary, statutory bodies, as well as human rights defenders and representatives of civil society, media and business.

In our meeting with Mr Forst, MALS members raised specific and general concerns about policing and anti-protest laws according to our observations of many protest events over several years. We referred to assaults on peaceful protestors, the growing use of OC (pepper) spray by police, corporate spy infiltration of movements and anti protest laws proliferating around the country. We referred to the spraying of street medics and injured people in Melbourne at the Counter Reclaim Australia protests (18/7/2015) and Jafri Katagar being sprayed at close range outside Flinders Street (23/9/2016). We also raised the rights of Legal Observers to be free from police harassment and interference whilst observing public protest events. See this  Statement of Concern (July 2015). We spoke about how Legal Observers had been restricted from accessing certain areas were activists had been taken for questioning.

We raised the issue of over-policing and how the deployment of so many police units including, mounted and teams of riot police, often deters people from attending or joining in at a protest and leads to a ‘closing down’ of political space.
We raised the issue of the police bias often noticeable at protest events and gave the example of the police officer that was captured high-fiving a Reclaim Australia protestor (18/7/15).

End Of Mission Statement

In his end-of-mission statement on Australia Michel Forst said he was “astonished” by numerous measures heaping “enormous pressure” on public servants, whistleblowers and ordinary citizens that restrict and curtail their rights.

The official statement stated that he found a growing body of laws, both at the federal and state levels, constraining the rights of human rights defenders.

“They have ranged from intensifying secrecy laws to proliferating anti-protest laws, from the stifling Border Force Act to the ‘Standing’ bill shrinking environmental access to courts,” Mr. Forst specified.

The statement says:

“it is alarming to observe the increasing trend by State governments to constrain the exercise of this fundamental freedom through what essentially is anti-protest legislation. Jointly with other fellow UN experts, I have conveyed repeated concerns to the Australian Government that such laws would contravene Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression as well as peaceful assembly. The proposed laws would criminalize a wide range of legitimate conduct by determining them as “disrupting” business operations, physically preventing a lawful activity or possessing an object for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity. Peaceful civil disobedience and any non-violent direct action could be characterized as disruption and “physically preventing a lawful activity”, and thus become criminalized.”

On the new national security laws, dealing with a data-retention scheme to retain metadata for two years, the statement said that these have:

“serious implications for journalists and whistleblowers. They have mandated the stockpiling of huge rafts of metadata of individuals, reportedly giv­ing law enforcement agencies the means to identify jour­nalists’ confidential sources.”

Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the Special Rapporteur’s statement highlights what many Australians already know.
“This a wake-up call to Australia: despite our strong track record as a vibrant and diverse
democracy, the reality is that more and more people here feel silenced by government and fearful of speaking out. This trend has widespread impact, including on environmental organisations, journalists, trade unions, landholders, community lawyers, doctors working with refugees, philanthropists and more,”

Forst makes a set of recommendations to the Australian Government including one to ensure prompt and impartial investigations into alleged threats and violence against human rights defenders and trade unionists and bring to justice direct perpetrators, and also to review and revoke laws that restrictive of the right to freely and peacefully assemble.

He also makes a set of recommendations directly to human rights defenders  (as in ‘us’) to:

  • Develop and strengthen federal and state networks aimed at empowering defenders and facilitating coordination;
  • Become more familiar with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and publicise it broadly in society.
  • Make full use of United Nations human rights mechanisms, when reporting on human rights violations.

These are all good ideas and things that we have been doing already.  MALS will continue to support groups and communities exercising their civil and political rights by fielding legal observer training, providing free resources and up to date information regarding the right to protest at law in Victoria.

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So what now?

So will things change now with this searing indictment on Australia? No. Not at all really.

The Turnbull government has said it “will consider the special rapporteur’s recommendations in the same way as it considers recommendations from all United Nations mechanisms” – which is another way of saying it will totally ignore them.

Like all international rights it takes years of struggle and a lot of hard work to see them realised and all rights need constant defending.  But this Special Rapporteur’s statement is yet another tool we can use in our advocacy and to inform our ongoing work. It will be referred to by NGO representatives and delegates at the UN and  raised in meetings, forums and by delegations to do with Australia.  It provides a great deal of authority to our existing work and backs up our local campaigning against anti-protest laws and against repressive police powers. Campaigners in Tasmania and Western Australia will be able to use this statement in their ongoing work against their respective anti-protest legislation.

Forst’s visit is also a reminder that we are part of an international struggle and human rights are under threat everywhere, that our struggle is international and that we win rights, often step by little step.  International attention, condemnation and outrage can, at certain times, be a deciding factor in a movements ability to win – particularly when domestic governments refuse to listen or engage.  Groups in the global south suffering under authoritarian regimes often called this transnational human rights advocacy the ‘boomerang’ strategy. Australian activists could always improve how we mobilise and utilise international pressure on our own domestic issues.

Mr. Forst will present a final report with his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in 2017.

In February 2016, the Human Rights Law Centre published Safeguarding Democracy, a report that addressed many of the concerns now raised by the UN. It is also worth a read.

 

(*) Read the Special Rapporteurs full end-of-mission statement here:
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Policing the Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne

The police presence at the Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally on Sunday 17 July, 2016 was notable for its sheer size and scale.*

Everyone at the event would have noticed the long lines of police arrayed around the initial rally gathering point at the State Library forecourt and the various PORT – Public Order Response Team units, manoeuvring through and around the crowd in tight formations, anticipating threats.

People on the march and every shopper passing by would have noted the long police cordons across each intersection along the march down Swanston Street all the way to the Flinders St intersection. They would have noticed the police horses (mounted branch) at the front and rear of the march and several large police broiler vans spaced along the route.  They might have seen the dark blue units of special riot police, with helmets, visors and body armour that were ready and waiting.  It was perhaps one of the largest – if not the largest single turn out of Victoria Police members for a peaceful protest march we had seen so far. Many of us had been to many far larger marches with only a fraction of the police presence.

Why the large police presence?

IMG_4635So why?  Why was the level of police presence at this event, a peaceful protest rally and march, involving somewhere between three to four thousand people so notably large?

Almost all rallies and marches held in Melbourne’s CBD, and there may be several each week, have some level of police presence. Most often, police are present to observe, to ensure safety  and facilitate movement through streets.  Police tend to state that they are present only to ‘prevent a breach of the peace’ – which is an old but still very much utlised legal construct which is most often used as the justification for police interventions in public protest events and the use of force to contain or disperse a protest.

Regular observers of demonstrations and rallies would notice that the size and scale of the police presence differs, sometimes quite considerably. A small event might attract 3 or 4 police members standing by.  Larger marches might have several hundred and the mounted branch is an unfortunate but regular feature at Melbourne protests.

Police make decisions about public order event planning based upon multiple factors. The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities for instance, protects rights to peaceful assembly and police in Victoria are obligated to uphold that. They will also make preparations based upon anticipated crowd numbers, the type of protest and the group organising the protest event.  Overall, police aim to prepare for protest in such a way that they are able to maintain control whatever occurs at the rally. Having said that, police often make mistakes, misinterpret the situation and choose highly ineffective tactics.  Their assessment of risk can be incorrect and the size and scale of their presence can therefore infringe upon the right to peaceful assembly in a variety of ways.  There is a discussion of why police choose particular approaches at Activistrights.org.au

Context Assessment

So what factors played into the Victoria Police assessment of this particular Black Lives Matter rally?

The shooting death of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, both at the hands of US police officers, triggered the recent wave of protests in the United States over racialised policing.  The Melbourne protest  was called to “remember these lives lost, as well as to remember the Black victims of police brutality and state sanctioned violence in Australia.”   Furthermore the killing of five white police officers during a protest in Dallas has raised tensions at Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US and that tension undoubtedly fed into both the media coverage and police assessment of the Melbourne protest event.   Despite being overwhelmingly nonviolent, the policing of Black Lives Matter protests in the US has been brutal and violent in many occasions over the past few years.  Police assessment would have been very conscious of this current political context.

IMG_4619Related to this was the threats from various new but increasingly visible far right groupings in and around Melbourne.  The United Patriots Fronts and the True Blue Crew had both threatened the BLM rally on their respective social media feeds.  The Facebook event page of the BLM Melbourne rally was inundated with racist and threatening posts, most quickly deleted but at a volume to suggest that counter protests, ether from individuals or groups were a distinct possibility.  Police were monitoring these feeds and these would have played a key part of their assessment.  Furthermore, police publicly referred to and referenced several other recent protest events over the past 12 months where physical clashes between far right and Antifa (anti-fascist) groups occurred.

“It is possible that some people may attend with the intent to disrupt the protest, urge violence or be confrontational. Given the history of violence that has occurred at a range of previous rallies, there will be a strong police presence in order to maintain public safety.” – Acting Assistant Commissioner Russell Barrett (Herald Sun)

Police often plan in reaction to previous events – in a similar way that activist groups do.  As it happened, a very small contingent of far-right counter protesters did establish themselves at the State Library an hour or so before the main rally began. They were surrounded by a police cordon to separate them from the BLM rally participants and were shepherded away up Little Lonsdale Street by a phalanx of police just before the midday starting point of the main rally.    This is consistent with policing at recent anti-racist and counter rallies which has aimed to keep opposing grouping physically apart using barriers and cordons. This dynamic, of police reacting to the threat of counter-protests with higher levels of controlling tactics, including weapon searches and the rise in the use of pepper-spray,  is something that threatens to reduce our political protest ‘space’ even further.

Also prominent in the police assessment and planning, was the fact that the United States Vice Present Joe Biden happened to be in Melbourne on the same day as the BLM rally.  At the time of the rally he would have been at or near the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a fairly long but plausible march from the CBD. Both police and Biden’s security would have been concerned, rightly or wrongly, that the Black Lives Matter march may have decided to target his visit. It is likely that the unusual police cordons along the east side of march route down Swanston Street were designed to prevent the rally turning east closer to the MCG.  Likewise at the sit down occupation of the Flinders St intersection, two large police cordons also seemed designed to prevent a march east along Flinders Street in the direction of the MCG.  As it was there were no plans to target Biden.

Lastly, numerous activists and observers have noted over many years that protests are policed differently along class and racial lines.  Protests by or about indigenous rights, black deaths in custody or land rights in Australia have historically attracted a more interventionist and controlling level of policing than an equivalently sized non-indigenous protest.  Political protests organized by Indigenous people or people of colour are more likely to face a high police presence than those organised by white or more mainstream organisations.

MALS has observed this over the IMG_4621past few years where peaceful, well organized and even solemn events such as the 2016 Invasion Day rally are very heavily policed despite there clearly being no plans for disruptive or violent action.  Protests by Indigenous people or those perceived to be ‘radical’ are more likely to be treated as less predictable or more prone to violence by police.  This dynamic mirrors the racialised and over-policing experienced on a day to day basis by Indigenous communities and by newly arrived Asian, Arabic, African and Islander communities.  It has been well established that law enforcement globally is susceptible to unconscious or implicit bias when it comes to responding to people of colour, LGBTI or other radical communities of difference.  Protest movements that embrace and embody diversity and that look and feel ‘different’ from the mainstream in terms of class, race and sexuality are more likely to be viewed with suspicion and hostility by police. It is likely that these bias come into play when police are assessing and planning for their public order operations. Police are more likely to hem in and seek to  ‘control’ a protest they perceive to be radical, but tend to stand back and ‘allow’ or ‘facilitate’ a protest event by more mainstream, white or middle class groupings.

As stated by the rally organisors:

“BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society. Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.” #BlackLivesMatter is a movement to create a society where Black peoples lives aren’t systematically and deliberately stopped short just because we are Black. #BlackLivesMatter is a rallying call for ALL Black peoples who seek liberation and justice.” 

Even without the particular contextual factors mentioned above, (threat of counter protests, Joe Biden) it is possible that the radical political nature of this Black Lives Matter event, with its focus on racial justice and radical transformation of the criminal justice system and the nature of policing in society, may well have contributed to the sheer scale of the policing of the event.

So whats the problem?

So – what is the problem with a large police presence?  It arguably deterred the United Patriots Front from openly attacking the rally.  At one point at the Bourke St Mall police and IMG_4634riot police quickly surrounded and moved-on a couple of neo-nazis (yes, one had swastika tattoos) abusing the march from the sidelines.  Police didn’t prevent the rally from marching.  They stopped trams and traffic and tolerated the occupation of a major city intersection for several hours.  So what’s the problem?

Well, the concerns are both practical and symbolic.  At several points along the march lines of police effectively blocked people coming from those side streets entering the main march – thereby infringing upon their right of peaceful assembly. Although that wasn’t the intention of the cordons, most people are fearful of crossing a police line and an unknown number of people may have been prevented from entering the march from side streets.

For cordons and barriers that prevent access or egress to be lawful they need to be justified under law and reasonable under the circumstances.  Whilst it may be justified (even if we don’t agree with it) for a police line to prevent protestors storming a building or opposing groups fighting – a line that prevents people joining a peaceful march is not.

Secondly, the presence of police makes people fearful.  Protests that are led by rows of police horses and surrounded by police lines are less likely to be seen as safe or friendly by citizens observing them as they pass by or watching them on the news.  It projects a view that this protest is dangerous or ‘could turn violent’. This is often deliberately telegraphed via and reinforced by the media.  Indeed police made public pronouncements in the media in the days leading up to the rally suggesting parents not bringing children to this protest.  “Victoria Police warn of Black Lives Matter protest violence” said one headline, all of which serves to deter participation, and makes protests smaller and more manageable.

Police presence connotes danger and criminality.  When police assess a protest as  ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous’ and surround it with horses and uniforms they project the idea that this protest cannot be trusted and needs to be controlled.

For popular movements to grow they must tap into widely shared societal values and draw greater numbers of ordinary people into their sphere. Popular support is a social movement’s greatest source of power to change and influence.

Police deter and alienate by their presence. When police surround a protest they effectively cut it off from one of its primary sources of support and sustainability; people.    Protests, rallies and marches can and should feel like festivals, popular, grassroots people’s events that bring people together and draw people in.  People who are sympathetic should be able to freely join in. Celebratory, angry or solemn they should express power and feel powerful.

It is a credit to the organisors and everyone who attended on Sunday that, despite the relentless conservative backlash against the #BLM movement, threats from the racist far right and the hundreds of police at every point,  the rally and march remained large, powerful and successful.

Anthony Kelly

Anthony is a member of Melbourne Activist Legal Support and the organiser of multiple Legal and Human Rights Observer teams since the World Economic Forum protests in 2001. These views are his own. 

* Upon request from the organisers, MALS fielded a team of seven Legal Observers who were present at the BLM protest from 12pm to 3.00pm.

 

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