STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Treatment of Legal Observer 11/2/2017

‘Block the Bill’ rally 11 February 2017, Melbourne, Australia

 

On Saturday the 11th of February 2017 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of three (3) trained Legal Observers at the ‘Block the Bill’ rally that took place on Swanston Street, near the intersection with Latrobe Street, at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 3 hour event. The following area of concern was recorded at 15:06.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted that three police members acted in an intimidating manner toward a Legal Observer and obscured their uniform name badges in contravention of Victoria Police regulations. The Legal Observer had approached the members to take down their name and unit details from their visible name badges. The police members surrounded the Legal Observer and questioned the content of the Legal Observers notes. One police member moved to within 15-20 centimeters of the Legal Observer and attempted to read what she was writing on her clipboard. The Legal Observer asked for their names, but all three declined. One (1) of the police members then removed his name badge from his uniform while another clutched his collar of his vest as to obscure his name badge.
MALS expressed concern of the intimidating treatment toward a Legal Observer to the officer in charge (OIC) Senior Sergeant John Mason, at the event.

MALS notes that all Victoria Police 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)

MALS also notes that Victoria police are obligated under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility (the Charter) to protect the freedom of peaceful assembly and efforts to maintain a space where the public can attend the ‘Block the Bill’ rally.

We also remind the public and Victoria Police that civilian Legal Observers are human right defenders and under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfill their role unhindered and without obstruction. www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/Declaration.aspx

Contact email: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

www.melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org

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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.

cropped-megaphones.jpg

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:
2016-10-18_australia_sr-hrd-statement-final

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.

 

IMG_4656

Wired for sound: Australian police force purchases of LRADs

Caution urged regarding Australian police force purchases of LRADs (Long-Range Acoustic Device)

LRADs — ‘sonic weapons’ or ‘sound cannons’ — can project sound up to 3.5km, look a little like a satellite dish, and can be either hand held or mounted on cars, trucks, armoured vehicles or utes. They’ve been purchased by the Victorian, QLD, SA and WA state police services, and by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). They’re built by LRAD Corporation (lradx.com); are promoted as ‘communication devices’, although they have military origins; and the first civilian deployment was at Pittsburgh’s G20 protest in 2009. According to Future Tense (slate.com):

The LRAD’s maximum continuous sound projection [alert function] can reach 162 decibels… such tones cause immediate headaches and pain. Since LRADs can blast above a person’s 120-decibel discomfort mark and the 130-decibel threshold for potential hearing loss, there’s no telling what the consequences of encountering a LRAD may be.

LRAD’s are a further step in the process of the miltarisation of policing, defined by criminal justice professor Peter Kraska as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.”(The Intercept)

LRADs came to light in Australia leading into Brisbane’s G20 meeting (2014), when QLD police (QPS) invited protest groups to view the hardware to be used ‘to ensure protesters followed the routes set down for them’ (The Guardian). Classified as ‘acoustic hailing devices’, QPS said LRADs were not a ‘use of force option’, but would be engaged to ‘direct large crowds.’ (brisbanetimes.com.au). However, the LRAD alert function has been used to disperse crowds in Toronto, Canada (2010); Chicago (2012), NYC and Ferguson in the US (2014); and in Latin America and China. When used as sound cannons LRADs are classified as ‘non-lethal weapons’.

Such civilian deployments extend to the heart of this subject. Speaking on RN’s ‘Law Report’, Dr James Parker, from the Institute for International Law & the Humanities at Melbourne University, explains:

[LRADs] expand the nature of police state military authority… It’s an issue of sonic dominance… an assertion of acoustic authority by the state over protest.

This isn’t simply a new take on old ideas: ‘Classical music’ at train stations to move on ‘loitering teenagers’; loudspeakers blasting music to drown out chants and songs (anti-APEC protests, Philippines 2015); helicopters hovering above protesters for hours (anti-WEF demonstration, Melbourne 2000); or the mosquito — a box that emits pulses of sound to stop people (usually teenagers or the homeless) congregating in certain areas.

No matter who you are or why you’re in an place, if you’re in the path of a LRAD you’re impacted exactly the same as anyone else. Imagine sitting in a park reading, when a demonstration passes by. Then a LRAD is deployed to ensure the march follows the route set down by the police. What happens if you’re in line of that LRAD?

First you’d hear a high-frequency piercing noise; you may feel dizzy, nauseous and disoriented. You would feel extreme discomfort. Depending on how long the LRAD is deployed (maximum limit is 30 seconds on the lowest volume setting, but there are cases where the duration lasts three minutes on higher settings), you may feel ill; there may be a drilling pain in your ears; you could be incapacitated; or your ear drums may rupture. You may suffer tinnitus and hearing loss for anywhere up to a year. Worst case, you suffer permanent nerve damage and your hearing never recovers. English professor Karen Piper suffered injuries from a LRAD and won damages from the City of Pittsburgh (aclupa.org).

A St. Charles County USA SWAT vehicle equipped with an LRAD 500X-RE. Photo by Jamelle Bouie.

LRADs have been used in search-and-rescue operations, to keep large birds off runways, to deter pirates and to frighten wildlife from around power generators. But in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan they’re used to clear buildings. When the people run outside to escape the noise, snipers shoot them. LRAD effects have been likened to standing in front of a jet engine (rferl.org), and anyone within range is equally affected.

It’s clear, given the short- and long-term damage LRADs can do to individuals, that their use is a ‘use of force option’. Police have a duty of care to the public when managing crowds, so any use, let alone misuse, of LRADs could engage several bodies of law.

Purchased as ‘communication devices’, LRADs aren’t regulated as weapons, and to date, no Australian police force has been able to provide concerned community groups with copies of their ‘guidelines’, ‘operations policies’ or ‘standards of practice’ governing LRAD use.

In 2014, attorneys associated with the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (http://www.nlgnyc.org) representing several people injured when NYPD officers deployed a Long Range Acoustic Device in Midtown Manhattan delivered a letter to New York Police Commissioner William Bratton today demanding that the NYPD refrain from using the LRAD for crowd control purposes without first conducting thorough, independent testing, and developing appropriate written and public guidelines for training, use, reporting, and oversight requirements.

Lawyers for the National Lawyers Guild contend that the NTPD “utilised the LRAD unconstitutionally and dangerously, without having first conducted appropriate studies, created appropriate policies and oversight mechanisms relating to safety and appropriate use of force, and trained officers in them”.

Such secrecy is concerning. LRADs aren’t just a way to direct crowds. They distort sound precisely to exploit our hearing range; they are indiscriminate; and their use can’t be seen.

The nature of sound means that when it’s used as a weapon it leaves limited material evidence; like a virus, once it’s out there, no one can control where it goes or who’s affected; and for those in its path, they can’t protect themselves or move away when it comes at them.

Weaponising sound via sonic cannons could see Australian police forces indiscriminately inflicting large numbers of people with harmful and significant long-term injuries. Even if they are never used, the existence of such weapons in Australia serves to generate unnecessary fear and this can have a dampening affect upon the willingness of people to take part in public protest.

However, like all repressive technologies and force tactics available to police, the actual use of these weapons is not guaranteed.  Their deployment depends upon the context of the protests, the social and political climate and whether or not these weapons would be seen by media and the wider community as ‘acceptable’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘appropriate’ under the circumstances.  If Australian police forces anticipate a risk of public, media and political condemnation after a using a certain tactic it will deter them. Likewise, if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may face costly litigation for damages after these weapons are deployed then that may also serve to restrict their use.  The role of legal observers, human rights advocates and activist lawyers will be critical if these weapons are ever deployed against members of the public in Australia.

Craig Garret, Human Rights  / Legal Observer
BA Comm; Grad Dip Prof Comm; Diploma Prof Writing & Editing; MA (Research) Brisbane, Australia

 

See also:

The New Sound of Crowd Control by Alex Pasternack, Motherboard, December 17, 2014

 

Statement of Concern: Treatment of Legal Observer 18/7/15

Wednesday 22nd July 2015
Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

On Saturday, 18th of July, 2015, at approximately 12:43PM on the corner of little Bourke and Spring streets, in Melbourne, Australia a MALS Legal Observer had their mobile phone snatched out of their hands by a Victorian Police member from the Operations Response Unit (ORU) during counter-protests to the Reclaim Australia rally.

The Legal Observer was pushed and yelled at aggressively by the police member. The mobile phone was not returned when requested and was later found smashed a short distance away. When asked by a senior officer, the police member in question denied he had taken the phone.

Legal Observers play a critical and well recognised role in the protection of human rights. Legal Observers monitor, investigate, gather information regarding and report on human rights violations. Volunteer Legal Observers are recognised as Human Rights Defenders by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights(1) and as such fall under the protection of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.(2)

This forced confiscation of the phone by police is unlawful and represents a concerning violation of the right to independently monitor police action. Any infringement on the ability to monitor or record the actions of public authorities during public protest events is of serious concern.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support will be submitting a formal complaint to Victoria Police regarding this incident and seeking assurances from Victoria Police regarding the police behaviour toward Legal Observers at future events.

Members of the public or journalists with information are asked to contact the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre on fklegal@fkclc.org.au or 03 9376 4355.

The series of images below capture the incident.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 11.48.29 pm

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) is a volunteer organisation that provides legal assistance to groups and communities exercising their right to undertake grassroots political action. MALS provides direct protest support services at major demonstrations: monitoring police engagement with protesters, providing basic legal information to persons at risk of being arrested, and coordinating litigation support in conjunction with law firms and community legal centres.

1 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org)

2 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet29en.pdf)

Public Statement: Reclaim Australia and Counter Rallies 18/7/2015

18 July 2015, Melbourne, Australia

On Saturday the 18th of July 2015 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of eight (8) trained Legal Observers at the Reclaim Australia and counter rallies that took place near the intersection of Spring and Bourke Streets in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 5 hour event.

We note that Victoria Police had a large presence and cordoned off the entire intersection in front of Parliament House. MALS acknowledges that Victoria Police efforts were directed at maintaining space between two opposing political groupings on the day in order to avoid physical confrontation.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted several incidents of use of OC foam/spray by a specialist unit of Victoria Police at the event. According to the Melbourne Street Medics upwards of 100 people had to be treated because of the use of this spray. OC spray/foam causes severe burning for several hours, incapacitation and can affect the respiratory system causing breathing difficulties.

A particular area of concern was an incident that occurred at the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets at approximately 12:43 PM.  An ad-hoc medic triage station had been set up on Little Bourke Street near the corner. One patient was semi-conscious on the ground and under the care of the Street Medics and waiting for the ambulance. A physical altercation between rival protestors began directly in front of the medic station when Police rushed around the corner and immediately and without warning sprayed into the crowd of 60-80 people present. Street Medics and other volunteers who were trying to keep the medic triage area clear were severely affected by the OC foam as were most people in the area (including journalists and bystanders). The injured person receiving care was again affected by the OC spray.

According to Legal Observers present the OC foam was not directed towards individuals who were threatening police or engaged in violence but instead was directed over and onto the entire crowd of people present. For this reason the MALS Legal Observer Team identifies the use of OC foam in this circumstance as indiscriminate and therefore unlawful.

MALS condemns the use of OC Foam against members of the public who were already injured and medical staff whose presence was made clear to police on a number of occasions before this incident occurred.

In the future as our group increases in capacity we hope to be able to provide more comprehensive assistance in such instances, however we would like to share the following information in the meantime:

We encourage people who want to take further action to immediately record all details from the event, including as much factual detail as possible, and to make duplicates of any footage of incidents depicting inappropriate use of force.

If any individuals or groups wish to submit a formal complaint about police conduct during the event please contact:

Police Complaints Advice Clinic

Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre
Phone: (03) 9376 4355
Email: fklegal@fkclc.org.au

& Website

If you would like to make a complaint directly without checking in with Flemington Kensington:

Police Conduct Unit

GPO Box 913
Melbourne VIC 3001
Telephone: 1300 363 101
Email: PSC-POLICECONDUCTUNITCOMPLAINTSANDCOMPLIMENTS@police.vic.gov.au

Check this page on the activist rights website for more information about making a complaint about police conduct.

NEW RESOURCE: Legal Handbook for the Coal and Gas Movement

A new resource for climate activists was launched in May 2015 by Melbourne Activist Legal Support member, Nicola Paris, who runs CounterAct.

The launch was attended by environmentalists, farmers and people involved in the progressive legal community, as well as members of MALS.

CounterAct collaborated with Environmental Justice Australia and the document was intended to strike a chord between accurate legal information, and a real sense of how interactions with police can sometimes play out – whilst giving a realistic perspective of the overstated, but often relatively minor consequences for participating in peaceful civil disobedience protest. It was designed to be approachable for new activists, trying to minimise cliquey activist language.

The resource can be found here, and hard copies are available by donation at Friends of the Earth and Environmental Justice Australia.

We also took a register of interest at the launch for MALS’ lawyer network – a project will be working on in coming months to coordinate and collate a list of lawyers willing to act for activists and civil disobedience protest. If you are keen, get in touch.