What is ‘Strategic Incapacitation’?

What is ‘Strategic Incapacitation’ and why is it important for activists to understand it?

Photo: MALS – Police cordoning an Extinction Rebellion protest on Princess Bridge. September 2019

This is an excerpt from our recent Legal Observer Report: The Policing of the IMARC Protests

A PDF copy of the full 45 page report is available here.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support has tracked the rise in coercive and excessive crowd control tactics by Victoria Police over several years at protest events throughout Victoria.[i]

Victoria Police’s approach to protests has been characterised by a lack of willingness to tolerate community disruption when unfamiliar forms of protest are used, indicated by unnecessarily aggressive arrests, the unlawful use of police powers, an unnecessarily antagonistic attitude toward people engaged in protest combined with a disregard for their dignity and welfare.[ii]

The continued misuse of OC aerosols, dangerous use of police horses, weaponry and excessive use of force is taking place in the context of a near total lack of any clear, effective accountability processes when allegations are raised.

The repertoire of public order tactics employed by Victoria Police reflect the rapid expansion of the Public Order Response Team (PORT) as the primary riot control capacity in Victoria, and the intelligence and strategic planning centered within the Operations Response Unit (ORU).

See: Who’s who in Victoria Police

Over years we have seen Victoria Police move away from a ‘negotiated management’ approach to protest policing to adopt more of an approach scholars have labeledstrategic incapacitation’, reflecting a global trend in public order policing since 2001.

Strategic Incapacitation is described as a multidimensional policing strategy characterized by the deployment of massive police presence, the use of barriers, ‘preventative’ arrests, selective use of force with an array of less-lethal weapons, combined with efforts to control both the production and dissemination of information, media management and unprecedented levels of monitoring and surveillance.[iii]

This report will argue that this tactical repertoire is dangerous and harmful when applied against defiant, disruptive but peaceful protest events and is certainly not fit for purpose in an era when Victoria Police is presenting itself as working within a ‘human rights compliant’ model of protest policing. It suggests that Victoria Police’s commitment to a human rights approach to protest facilitation is contingent upon the focus and form of that protest and varies accordingly.

‘Strategic incapacitation’ serves policing imperatives by deliberately containing and hampering and even neutralising protest movements, limiting their growth, size and political effectiveness. The sheer number of police at events and ever-present threat of violence deters new and a broader range of people becoming involved in protest groups, intimidates and scares people from public participation and serves to further the often conflictual and antagonistic attitude toward social movements from some sections of the wider public.

By applying levels of force designed for riots against peaceful protests, police, in alignment with conservative and simplistic media reporting, can successfully reframe a peaceful protest as ‘violent’ thereby adding to the existing demonisation of protest groups by some sections of the media and government. We saw this in the Victoria Police media management during the IMARC protest event.

From a policing perspective this approach serves to keep disruptive or potentially disruptive protest movements smaller and easier to control. It is very apparent that this operational imperative outweighs human rights considerations.

Victoria Police command invests a great deal of energy in ensuring that government and key public agencies sanction their tactical repertoire. This investment acts to shield parliamentarians, human rights bodies, journalists and the wider public from awareness of the substantial danger in this sort of policing. By permitting, encouraging or tolerating policing which undermines the civil and political rights enshrined in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (the Charter) we risk reducing the vital political space we need to maintain and enhance an effective democracy.

 

This is an excerpt from the Legal Observer Report: The Policing of the IMARC Protests. (published 7 December 2019). Download a PDF copy of the full 45 page report here.

Photo: MALS – cordoning the Extinction Rebellion protest on Princess Bridge, September 2019

 

 

 

 


[i] We note that numerous activists involved in the much smaller protests against the International Mining And Resources Conference (IMARC) in 2018 had their homes raided and searched by members of Victoria Police Operational Response Unit in the months following that event; they were arrested, detained and interrogated and had phones, computers and other belongings seized. Some of the charges resulting from this event are still before the court.

[ii] Melbourne Activist Legal Support: Statements of concern and protest reports can be found at: https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/news-issues/

[iii] Gillham, Patrick F. 2011. “Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks.” Sociology Compass 5(7):633-652.

LEGAL OBSERVER REPORT: The Policing of the IMARC Protests

Download a PDF copy of this 45 page report here.

Media: Legal observers find police ‘set tone of violence’ at anti-mining protests. Benjamin Miller, The Age, December 7, 2019.

 

Executive Summary

The police tactics, approaches and the behavior of individual police members during the IMARC protest events from Tuesday 29th to Thursday 31st October demonstrated that Victoria Police do not have the tactical or operational ability to manage peaceful but defiant protests of this nature without resort to excessive levels of coercive force that exceed their lawful powers and obligations under the Charter.

A Legal Observer stated; “From the moment we arrived at 6.30 on Tuesday, even with relatively small number of activists present the police were using violence and aggression. They were clearly not responding to ‘escalating tensions’ or ‘risks’ posed by protesters. Police set a tone of violence from the outset. Even before delegates or larger numbers of protesters arrived I witnessed police pushing people to the ground and reacting in a violent and aggressive manner.”

The protest activities that took place in the conference vicinity over the four days took various forms, including a ‘First Nations smoking ceremony, marches, a ‘die-in’, mock dinners, public speeches, musical performances, meditation, and a picket-line-style human blockade of several key entrances.

Most protest activities included or were accompanied by activists chanting, singing, or holding banners. Other blockade protests included people using superglue to attach their hands to roads or to surfaces to slow or prevent removal by police. One person was observed who had locked on to a handrail by a bicycle D-lock.

Prior to any police action, the picket involved activists linking arms and standing in lines in order to block venue entrances. A critical point to make here is that despite this configuration being disruptive and aimed at preventing access to an area or an entrance the actions of people standing in a line, linking arms were not physically threatening or violent in and of themselves (See Figure 1 above). It was the response by authorities to this protest activity that warrants attention.

We noted and were deeply concerned by the targeted arrests of protest organisers – some at the very moment they were addressing the crowd with a megaphone. The deliberate confiscating of megaphones, either during an arrest or by taking them off the ground when left unattended early on the Tuesday 29th was also concerning. This clearly limited protester’s ability to communicate political messages effectively to the large crowd and was specifically mentioned by police liaison and protest organiser’s as hampering their ability to prevent unnecessary escalations. It pointed to an antagonistic and stifling approach to the protest. More than anything it indicated police willingness to flagrantly ignore Charter rights to political expression, not to mention the freedom of political communication protected by the Constitution.

Legal observers witnessed, recorded and documented multiple incidents of excessive, unnecessary and potentially unlawful uses of force, either as a coordinated crowd control tactic or by individual police members using excessive force within a police maneuver or tactic. This policing had a series of obviously harmful physical, emotional and psychological effects on the individuals affected.

Inappropriate and mis-applied tactics

The use of force and crowd control techniques we observed being applied at the IMARC protest event were designed and developed for circumstances where police face direct physical threat.

At the IMARC protest event these same techniques were directed in most cases at people who were offering no direct physical threat to police. The police actions over those three days shocked many protestors, journalists and observers present. That people were scared, injured, and placed in excruciating levels of pain for what was an act of peaceful protest is greatly disturbing.

Victoria Police do not appear to have developed tactics and approaches that can be lawfully applied when a person is defiant or refusing to cooperate with their directives. As discussed in detail below, the law, and Victoria Police’s own internal Regulations and Guidelines clearly stipulate that OC foam cannot be used against a person who is “passively resisting,”[i] yet OC foam was sprayed in precisely these circumstances.

That stipulation is a critical human rights protection for citizens. It means that police cannot threaten or apply force solely to make a person comply with their directions unless there is a clear and proportionate rationale to do so.

Victoria Police appear not to have considered developing tactical options and approaches to managing protest events like this in the 13 years since Victoria enacted the Human Rights Charter.

This report asserts that Victoria Police cannot use the tactics we observed at IMARC and maintain their obligations under the Human Rights Charter.

It is the actions of police where use of force has been applied against protesters who were not physically threatening that will be the focus of this report.

Victoria Police Commander Libby Murphy was reported in the media as stating: “We are doing things lawfully and we are doing things in line with policy and anything that is of a concern to anyone we will review and make our own assessment.[ii]

“Everything the police are doing are [sic] predicated by the behaviour of the protesters,” declared Murphy.[iii]

Justifying or rationalising abuses by pointing to the poor conduct of some protesters is a common response by police during and after protest events such as these, and no doubt police were disturbed by the level of defiance and determination of protesters to physically blockade entrances to the conference venue, however it contradicts a basic principle of human rights protection: that the rights and dignity of a person must be observed despite the behaviour or criminality of that person or other people.

Even the most exceptional circumstances such as a state of emergency do not justify a departure from basic human rights standards for law enforcement.

 

‘Disruption’ is not a justification for unlawful assault

‘Disruptions’ occur every day throughout metropolitan Melbourne. Road works, traffic accidents, street parades, despite their potential inconvenience to ambulances, people using public roads or amenities, or getting to and from work—are accepted by the public and policed in ways which reflect that acceptance and safely facilitate their existence.

When it comes to political protest the rhetoric of ‘balancing rights’ quickly becomes a useful justification to intervene and limit protest rights rather than a genuine attempt to uphold them. We see this in the arbitrary time limits police place upon protesters standing on a road. We also see it when levels of force are used to move protesters standing outside a building that are totally disproportionate to any harms caused by the protest itself.

This claim by Victoria Police of ‘balancing rights’ also creates the misconception that police must be acting impartially. The documented tactics, behaviour, and demeanour of police observed at the IMARC event were far from impartial.[iv]

International human rights jurisprudence clearly recognises that peaceful assembly, by its very nature, is disruptive, can inconvenience, and be perceived as a nuisance by some people, but that “rights worth having are unruly things.[v]

As discussed below, even if the actions of some or a minority of people involved in an event are unlawful, this does not remove the right of peaceful assembly for others collectively. Individual actions that are unlawful committed in the course of a demonstration cannot be used to justify the removal or limitation of the collective rights to peaceful assembly and expression.[vi]

The rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression are explicitly recognised and protected within Victorian legislation and international human rights law precisely due to their importance to the establishment and maintenance of a free, equal and democratic society. The freedom of political communication is likewise protected by Australia’s Constitution.

In essence, the bar to determine whether ‘disruption’ becomes a threat to ‘public order or safety or morality’ needs to be set quite high by police, courts and authorities.  Particularly in light of the extent of disruption caused regularly by other public events mentioned above.

Any policing of civil society actions or events that limits these Charter rights must be lawful; necessary, reasonable and proportionate as set our in et Charter itself.

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials is also clear that police use of force must be strictly necessary and proportionate.[vii]

By refusing to move upon the direction of police, IMARC protesters were committing, at worst, very minor (Summary Act) offences. These offenses do not justify the use of batons, punches, kicks, the dangerous use of horses, or pepper spray. People should not suffer bruising, scratches, soft tissue, ligament damage and intense pain from chemical sprays for engaging in civil disobedience.

In many cases noted by legal observers, police failed to give directions, commands or orders prior to police use of force. In effect, protesters were engaged in civil disobedience in order to maintain a picket line or blockade of the conference. Despite chanting and yelling at times, the actions of the protesters, although they included periods of rapid movement and outright defiance of police directions, did not include physical violence.

Police will often use a legal construct called ‘Breach of the Peace[viii] 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.’ It is not an offence found in the Summary Offences Act, but rather a so-called ‘common law offence’ that permits police to arrest the individual to prevent further breaches of the peace.

Figure 2: Use of police horses was particularly dangerous; Photo, Liam Petterson, Farago

 

The common law does, however, provide some guidance on what may be considered a breach of the peace. Common law courts (in Australia and the United Kingdom) have held that the following do not, in themselves, constitute breaches of the peace:

  • ‘Mere refusal of a trespasser to leave [a] premises’;[ix]
  • ‘Mere disobedience of a police direction’;[x] and
  • ‘Peaceful and non-violent’ protest, even if an activist is ‘loud and  assertive.’ [xi]

In the Max Brenner Case the court held that what constituted a ‘threat to public order’ needed to take the rights of protesters to express their political beliefs into consideration.[xii]

A colourful, loud, active protest that attracts public interest and generates robust discussion may be lawful and legitimate even if it causes inconvenience to the public.

The lawfulness of protesters’ conduct is contested. The various charges laid by police will be heard in court and are outside the scope of this report. A great many, if not most, of the charges laid by police were for an offence that would not have occurred if it were not for the police crowd control tactics employed—i.e. the offence would not have occurred were it not for the police action.

Generating chaos and confusion

Police tactics such as crowd pushes and manoeuvres directly into crowds by the Mounted Branch turned static and peaceful picket lines into dangerous commotions, and generated high degrees of distress and chaos.  The policing tactics understandably caused confusion and alarm amongst protesters.

Legal observers present at the IMARC protest stated that police “set the tone for the protest from the outset,” and that police surges into the crowd, and their hostility and aggression, was “clearly not responding to any ‘escalating tensions’ or ‘risks’ posed by the protesters.” In fact, observers noted that prior to many police manoeuvres, protesters were standing in lines, listening to speakers, singing and chanting like many protests.

The angry, surging, chaotic scenes covered in the television news footage were often the direct aftermath of a crowd surge by a phalanx of police, injurious use of force or a push by police horses into a crowd.

Much has been made in the media commentary of the chaotic, seemingly aggressive nature of the crowd behaviour.

We note that many commentators, including the Police Minister, the Premier of Victoria and the Deputy Prime Minister, would have only seen footage provided by news channels, most of which captured this chaotic, angry aftermath of a police use of force tactic. We advise commentators and external parties to consider the context of news footage prior to making broad public statements about the nature of a complex event such as this. (See Recommendation 9).

This dynamic of police actions generating chaotic and uncontrolled crowd reactions is well documented in the literature of public order policing.[xiii] Even unintentionally, police crowd control tactics can cause panic, distress, generate anger, confusion and create enormous harms far worse than the supposed offence or ‘breach of the peace’ that the tactic is intended to mitigate.   These tactics therefore affect people arbitrarily including the media, legal observers, first aiders, the elderly, the disabled, the young and the less physically robust people present. This is what we saw at IMARC.

 

Tactical options & alternative approaches

Police have a range of non-force tactical options available to them at public order events that present far less risk to everyone. As an example to illustrate this, had the disruption to the conference been a gas leak rather than a protest, police would have facilitated foot and vehicular traffic safely around the disruption, planned alternative access measures with conference organisers and sought to minimise risks to the public and maintain safety. In some circumstances this may have involved finding an alternative venue. The principles of safety and minimising risks to the public would have guided a policing response to many other significant disruptions to an event, building or public thoroughfare such as a traffic accident or medical emergency. As the protest completed soon after midday each day, police had the option to leave a protest in place for periods of time and direct conference attendees well away from the protest area.

As illustrated below (See 1. Police Negotiators) police did not take a Negotiated Management approach to this event.

Notably, the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre has approximately 39 different access points including the car park. As part of their operations, police, undoubtedly in collaboration with building security, locked multiple entrances and left only a few open and accessible to conference attendees. Although there may have been several operational reasons for this decision, it had the effect of most conference attendees having to make their way inside the building via one of the few entrances where protesters were concentrated.   In some cases, police and private security were seen directing or shepherding attendees toward entrances already blocked by the protest picket line. Police were specifically requested not to do this by protesters engaged in police liaison roles. Whether intentional or not, this had the effect of maximising the contact between conference attendees and protesters, which in-turn meant police using the levels of force as described below in order to make a gap in the picket line.

We noted that on the Tuesday police created an entry point for delegates at the Clarendon Street entrance and protesters responded by stretching their blockade line further to prevent that entrance being used as well.

We acknowledge that the protest groups were mobile and determined to block all access to the conference if possible and that police would have been concerned about protesters entering and disrupting the conference from inside had more entrances been available.

It was noted however that by the final day of the conference, venue staff were directing attendees to other building access points, which significantly reduced police and protester contact. It remains unclear why this was not done earlier.

Overall it appears that police did not plan for or did not take up numerous opportunities for a negotiated management approach to this protest event. This is discussed further in 1. Police Negotiators below.

It remains concerning that police chose to apply coercive tactics that maximised the risks to members and the public. Police tactics shifted static, managed, and relatively well–behaved crowds into chaotic scenarios; and, utterly failed to take into account the safety, well-being, or rights of people who were protesting.

Police were obviously concerned about potential ‘breaches of the peace’ and had publically stated their concern over some protester behaviour toward conference attendees. Legal observers present did not directly observe any physical interactions between protesters and conference attendees, although we noted some reported in the media.[xiv]

In general we observed the police response to the public was plainly excessive and generated more harm than that which the police were supposedly attempting to prevent. Police teams would run out of the police line, push, shove, and in some cases arrest people who were simply holding banners or making a speech through a megaphone. Observers noted that police were often confused, reactive and often appeared unsure as to the purpose of a particular tactic.

Police use of force that falls outside police guidelines and regulations is serious and could be determined to constitute unlawful assault by a court.

This report highlights multiple incidents which, if brought before a court, or if were independently investigated, we believe would likely found to be unlawful.

Policy Rules contained in the Victorian Police Manual (VPM) cited below are mandatory and provide the minimum standards that employees must apply. Non-compliance with or a departure from a Policy Rule may be subject to management or disciplinary action.

Amongst other findings, we argue below that it is not possible for Victoria Police to deploy horses as a use of force technique and still abide by its own Use of Force policy, practices and procedures. (see Recommendation 2)

Complaints and accountability

We understand that numerous formal complaints have been submitted to either Victoria Police or IBAC since the IMARC protests. We also understand that many people have decided not to submit complaints due to lack of confidence in the current system of internally handled complaint investigation. It is of deep concern that the vast majority of the many allegations of potentially unlawful police behaviour documented in this report are unlikely to ever by adjudicated independently. To date the current police oversight body IBAC have not scrutinised the varied controversial issues with public order policing in Victoria in any systemic way.

We have included a recommendation for the Victorian Government to enact and resource a Police Misconduct and Corruption Division within IBAC that can independently investigate allegations of serious police misconduct.

A PDF copy of the full 45 page report is available here.


[i] Victoria Police Manual (VPMG Crowd Control)

[ii] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-30/climate-rally-police-pepper-spray-protesters-imarc-melbourne/11652182

[iii] https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/police-insist-actions-showed-fine-restraint-despite-violent-clashes-with-protesters-20191030-p535wk.html

[iv] The two most prominent cases of a police demeanour could be exemplified through the reports of one police officer having been disciplined for posting a sticker on his police-issued Body Worn Camera that said, “EAD hippy,” where ‘EAD’ is slang “Eat A Dick.” Another officer was observed to have been making racist comments and was later reprimanded for flashing a white-power hand gesture, to which the media revealed a context of his apparent affiliation with white-supremacist groups on social media. In both cases, Victoria Police at first vehemently denied the reports, and even questioned the credibility of those making the claims, only to admit a short time later that they were accurate, and that they were “extremely disappointed by the situation.” These were the most publicised cases, but can reflect the general attitude and demeanour of the police presence observed throughout the IMARC event.

[v] In considering the need for tolerance of disruptive protest (whether intentional or collateral) the words of Laws LJ in Tabernacle v Secretary of State for Defence [2009] EWCA Civ 23 are insightful:
“Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance. They are liable to be inconvenient and tiresome, or at least perceived as such by others who are out of sympathy with them.” (at [43]).

[vi] Strasbourg case law which emphasises that a protester does not lose the right to assemble/protest peacefully unless they themselves are violent:
“an individual does not cease to enjoy the right to peaceful assembly as a result of sporadic violence or other punishable acts committed by others in the course of the demonstration if the individual remains peaceful in his or her own intentions or behaviour”. (Ziliberberg v Moldova, App no 61821/00 Admissibility decision of 4 May 2004).

[vii] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/LawEnforcementOfficials.aspx

[viii] https://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/4539/what-is-breach-of-the-peace.aspx

[ix] Jordan v Gibbon (1863) 8 LT 391, cited in White v South Australia (2010) 106 SASR 521 [399].

[x] R v Reid (No 2); Forbutt v Blake (1981) 2 A Crim R 28, cited in White v South Australia (2010) 106 SASR 521 [399].

[xi] Percy v Director of Public Prosecutions [1995] 1 WLR 1382.

[xii] Max Brenner (Unreported, Magistrates Court of Victoria, 23 July 2012). As a Magistrates Court case, it has limited precedential value, but it is significant as it is the first case to examine trespass laws in public places in light of the Charter.

[xiii] See for example: della Porta, D. and Reiter, H., eds., 1998. Policing protest: the control of mass demonstrations in contemporary democracies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[xiv] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/police-clash-with-climate-activists-outside-mining-conference-in-melbourne/news-story/3426da4225b27a15848edbeb1019193c (Mining conference delegates tell of abuse by climate change protesters, The Australian, Nick Evans, Tessa Akerman and Scott Henry)

PRELIMINARY STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Policing of IMARC Protests

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of Legal Observers at this mornings protest events at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) that took place at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre
South Wharf in Melbourne, Victoria.

The protest involved activists chanting, singing, holding banners, speaking and linking arms at the entrance of the Conference centre to block the entrance in a peaceful manner.

Image may contain: one or more people and people standing

Legal Observers were present at the site from 6.30am-12.00pm, observing, monitoring and recording police conduct and interactions with protesters. Over that time the team recorded behaviour and noted several areas of concern:

Excessive use of force.

Legal observers have recorded multiple instances of police shoving and pulling protesters with such force that they were propelled to the ground. Police have been observed pushing protesters down concrete stairs and kicking protesters without giving prior warning to move on. Police were observed grabbing and pulling protesters around the neck.  Multiple injuries of protesters have been reported including one protester who was thrown into a cement wall and hit the back of his head.

Use of mounted horses for crowd control.

Police mounted branch have been recorded moving directly into crowds to push back protesters. Multiple injuries have been reported including one activist at 8.00am who received medical attention by emergency service workers with a suspected broken arm and leg. It is well recognised that horses can cause severe, bone breaking injuries.

Legal Observers noticed that the horses were visibly ‘spooked’ by the presence of a large inflatable ‘Earth’ ball. (8:15am). In light of the above, MALS calls upon Victoria Police to immediately withdraw the mounted unit from crowded areas and prohibit their use on future days of the protest event.

Use of capsicum spray and police batons.

Legal Observers recorded police officers using police batons to strike and push back protesters. Several overhead baton strikes were recorded which contravene VicPol’s baton use guidelines.  OC foam and OC spray was also used multiple times by police officers on the crowd of protesters. Despite the crowds being loud and non-compliant, it appears the use of OC spray and police batons was a measure to force compliance with a direction to move on, rather than in response to violence or serious physical threat to police or bystanders, that would warrant such use of force under common law requirements or 462A Crimes Act.

Our observations were that in numerous instances the use of force was excessive, harmful, unnecessary and was well outside of Victoria Police’s Use of Force guidelines.

Removal by police officers of identification name tags and refusal to give identification when asked.

Legal Observers have observed police officers purposely removing their name badges and turning them around to obscure their identification.

Commentary:

By refusing to move IMARC protestors are committing, at worst very minor (Summary Act) offences. These offenses do not justify the use of batons, punches, kicks, dangerous use of horses. Police have a range of tactical options available to them that do not use force (ie. leave a protest in place for periods of time – the protest completed at approximately midday) and present far less risk to everyone. Police tactics such as crowd pushes and maneuvers directly into crowds by the mounted unit turned static and peaceful picket lines into dangerous commotions and generated high degrees of distress and chaos.   Many of the charges laid by police during the event were in direct relation to the actual actions of police. (ie the offense would not have occurred were it not for the police crowd control tactic itself).

At the time of writing, there were an estimated 200+ police officers present and approximately 40+ arrests. Melbourne Activist Legal Support will be attending the blockade each morning  until Thursday 31st to continue our observations.

This is a public document and can be quoted by media.

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To support Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s work in protecting your space to protest please donate now to our crowdfunding page:https://support-activists.raisely.com/

Help us protect your rights to protest : Donate to MALS now!

Melbourne Activist Legal Support has launched our first-ever crowdfunding campaign, and here’s why.

When people protest in Melbourne, MALS is often there behind the scenes. Our Legal Observer Teams in pink vests and cameras are now a pretty familiar sight on the streets of Melbourne.

MALS is an all-volunteer group of lawyers, law-students, and human rights activists who monitor police, train activists; provide legal support, information and resources to Melbourne’s diverse social change groups and movements. We stand up for your civil & political rights.

This is why we have launched our first major fundraising appeal. We are seeking $10,000 by the start of October to prepare for the busy spring and summer months of action as more and more people take to the streets.

We are asking people to donate at https://support-activists.raisely.com/

Since we formed in 2011, MALS has fielded over 50 Legal Observer Teams, run dozens of legal trainings and worked hard to build the skills, training, capacity, links and credibility needed for this sort of human rights defence.

In this time we have seen powerful movements grow amidst increasingly brutal and para-military style policing.

We’ve seen an inspiring proliferation of grassroots activism over the last year. People have raced to support the Djab Wurrung community and their plight to protect sacred trees. We’ve seen outpourings of love on the streets for Priya, Nades, Kopica and Tharunika who want to return home to Bilo. Hundreds have participated in direct action for the first time to protect our planet with Extinction Rebellion and the #climatestrike.

This means we’ve had a lot on our plate. Our training sessions have been maxed out to capacity, and we’re getting more requests for legal support than we can handle. Amidst all of this, we’re seeing police using more repressive measures to scare people off the street. With activists stepping up across Melbourne and Victoria, we need to step up too. We have a mandate to increase our capacity and meet the needs of the day.

We have been there for 8 years. Now we are asking for your help.

Make an impact. Make a donation now and reach out to your networks tomorrow morning so that together, we can make this campaign for civil rights a successful one. 

Melbourne has a proud history of civil resistance. From winning the vote for women, the 8-hour day, the huge Vietnam War Moratorium, the Anti-Uranium Movement, the Anti-Iraq War movement, massive Invasion Day protests, to the campaign for equal marriage Melbourne has led Australia and has often led the world in mobilising for large-scale, radical social change.

But across the country our rights are under threat.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s report, Safeguarding Democracy, documented 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. Grassroots human rights defenders like Legal Observers are critical to protect our democratic rights.

Good activist legal support builds movement resilience and makes it more likely people will come out of protest and civil disobedience stronger.

Movements are made stronger when people know their rights and can respond collectively and assertively when they are violated.  Legal support in the streets, in police custody and in the courts is vital.

Importantly we need people to actively share the link https://support-activists.raisely.com/ with their professional networks.

We are planning to grow our collective and hire our first staff member.  We are seeking $2,000 per month in regular donations to fund a Coordinator position as the group grows and expands. If you are in a position to support this critical human rights initiative grow with a small monthly direct debit then we want you on board!

What will we do with these funds?

These funds will allow us to train more volunteer Legal Observers for more teams at more protests. It will equip our Legal Observers with HD sports cameras, hi-vis vests, long-life battery packs and radios.

It will allow us to provide Know-Your Rights Training to hundreds of new activists taking the streets for first time and provide more activist groups with more legal training, more legal information and more resources.

Importantly these funds will help us to better support activists who are targeted because of their race, gender, sexuality, or political stance or those who are targeted by intelligence agencies from their home countries.

These funds will make sure our reports get to human rights bodies, media, government and police accountability agencies more quickly and with more impact. With increased capacity we will be able to hold more police to account for excessive force and misconduct, assaulting, abusing, or harassing activists.

We know things are getting hotter and we also we know social movements in Australia are growing rapidly. We need to be ready.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support is a team of volunteers who stand up for your civil and political rights. Now, help us protect your space to protest.   Donate now and share our crowdfunding page

In solidarity,

MALS (Melbourne Activist Legal Support)

What is this thing called Activist Legal Support?

Activist Legal Support is not just Legal Observing

Many people these days equate Legal Observing with “legal support” partly due to the relatively high visibility and profile of Legal Observing, particularly in Victoria – Legal Observers stand out whilst back-end legal support training / arrest support / court support is far less visible to anyone and therefore less understood.
In reality however- Legal Observing is one of the least important legal support roles in mass arrest scenarios – far less critical than arrest support roles, liaison with lawyers and the months of court support if and when people are charged.
In many ways activist groups, with limited resources,  should focus on building their own dedicated legal teams, forming relationships with friendly lawyers,  arranging legal briefings for activists and organising people to take on arrest support roles – long before they even think about organising their own Legal Observer Team.

So, what is Activist Legal Support?

A good legal support structure for groups engaging in protests that could be arrestable includes:
1) A Legal Support Team: 
 A dedicated team within the activist group who plan, organise and coordinate legal support. This includes speaking with / advising and seeking regular confidential advice from lawyers about actions that are planned, what are the potential charges, whose jurisdiction a particular site is and what are the possible penalties.  The team should be planning logistics, a network of lawyer contacts, organising police liaison, and coordinating a potentially large team of activists providing various legal support roles.   In some mass civil disobedience actions, the legal support team has an office, its own roster, comms system and budget.  Read about the S11 Legal Support Team here.

The Occupy Boston Legal Team Image: National Lawyers Guild US

2) Legal Information:
Arranging for clear, accurate, practical and realistic legal information to be provided to everyone who may be part of an action or campaign.  Information should be drafted and verified by a solicitor, written in ‘plain’ language – (avoiding legal jargon) and always couched in terms of what is potential or possible.  Police have discretion about when and what charges they lay, and courts have a lot of discretion in what penalties they provide so nothing is definite when providing activist legal information.   The aim is to provide information so that people can make fully informed decisions about whether to place themselves in an potentially arrestable scenario but not to scare people from taking action.

Two fabulous lawyers providing activist legal training. Image: MALS

This information can be provided in pamphlets, handbooks, blog posts or during activist trainings or in briefings before and during actions.  Legal briefings can happen anywhere, anytime but they need to be planned as part of the action and people need to be prepped to provide them.  They are best written or provided by lawyers or very well briefed para-legals.
3) Arrest Support: 
Arrest support roles are people who commit themselves to looking after the needs of people who are facing arrest or who get arrested at an action.  They need to monitor who is arrested, find our where they might be taken,  make sure  personal belongings are safe, friends contacted and ensure that someone is there to collect them when they get out of police custody.   Arrest support is a critical role. It might mean liaising assertively with police or watchhouse staff regarding the welfare of people inside, making sure people are not isolated or targeted, arranging lawyers, ensuring people in and have water and medical treatment – are safe and being treated properly.  Arrest supporters can also observe, record and make note of police behavior and monitor arrests for later legal defense – particularly if there are no Legal Observers present.   You dont have to have any legal training to do arrest support.

An Extinction Rebellion activist and their arrest support person at Oxford Circus in London. Image: BBC

It is easy to loose track of arrestees at mass actions. Good arrest support can make the difference between someone having a traumatic experience and someone coming out of custody inspired to get to the next action.
4) Court Support: 
Court cases can go for many months, sometimes years.  The activist campaigns should plan to support ALL those who face charges resulting for the action for the entirety of their court case.  This means helping them find legal representation / plan a legal strategy, support them if they plead guilty or not-guilty, fund-raise for fines,  organise for people to turn up at court appearances, assist with media throughout the case, be there for a victory celebration at the end, support the activists physically, emotionally, financially throughout.     You don’t have to have any legal training to do court support.

Three activists with their legal team. Image: Geco.org.au

Why is Legal Support Important?

We stress that a plan for on-going, hands-on legal support for protestors (such as during arrests and for court support) is essential, and is normally the most important aspect of legal support for activists.  It is even more important as public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary – by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people.
We strongly encourage activist groups to look into and organise these forms of on-going legal support as a core part of your campaign planning.
The website www.activistrights.org.au has resources and downloadable PDF arrest support templates – https://www.activistrights.org.au/support_team_resources – which were originally designed for mass-arrest scenarios . – See below:
People in social movements are in it together, and we all have different roles to play.  Facing the full might of the police and the criminal justice system is frightening but something people have done throughout history. Planning good activist legal support builds movement resilience and make it more likely we will come out of it stronger
Our rights are routinely violated but movements are made stronger when people know their rights, vocalise them, and we respond collectively and assertively when they are.  Solidarity, in the streets, in police custody and in the courts is our most powerful tool.

There are three core aspects of Activist Legal Support: information, support and solidarity.

Legal information is best provided by lawyers or legal practitioners. Support is best provided by a well-organised legal support team. Other activists can only really provide solidarity. All three of these are crucial in good activist legal support.

What is the difference between Legal Observing and other forms of legal support?

Legal Observing is most effectively done by external / independent groups who can focus on civil and political rights rather than on the action itself.
Legal Observers (LOs) act as an independent, third party who monitoring police behaviour at protests and actions. This is known as ‘legal observing’.
Legal Observing takes activists away from these other arrest support roles so it is always wise to ask another group or organisation to take on that role.  MALS is one of the only legal support groups in Australia who regularly trains and fields Legal Observer Teams but community legal centres, church groups, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have all organised Legal or Human Rights Observer teams in different states in the past.
For big civil disobedience events it might be wise to approach one of these larger independent groups, with plenty of notice,  to provide a team of volunteer observers if they can  – and allow your activists to focus on the actual action.
In monitoring the police, Legal Observers compile evidence which can later be used in court if protesters are wrongly prosecuted, or wish to bring actions against the police.
Legal Observer teams aim to widen the political space to take protest action. Their presence can also provide both a feeling of safety and a deterrent effect on police.
As observers, Legal Observers are removed from the protest itself, which allows them to objectively and independently describe events. It is in this form that Legal Observers are most effective in monitoring police behaviour.
You can think of Legal Observing as just one of the many parts that provide shared social movement infrastructure , along with medical support (street medics) and groups that are dedicated to providing food to protesters (Food Not Bombs).
We may be able to help but we cant do everything: you can get in contact with MALS if you would like to request that MALS provide a Legal Observer Team at actions or demonstrations – or come along to one of our trainings.
But we are a small, all volunteer and entirely unfunded group.   There is simply no way we could organise legal support for every activist group, action or campaign in Melbourne.
YOU need to do that.
WE can just support, advise and provide resources where we can.
You can always contact us at melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

#NotWithYou: Why more weapons for Victoria Police is a Very Bad Idea

In a carefully orchestrated public relations launch on Thursday 22 March, Victoria Police revealed it’s armoury of new repressive weaponry.

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton has expressed concern about how these weapons will be perceived by the public.  “We need the community to be with us on this’’ he said.  Well, we are not and here’s why.

The Operations Response Unit (ORU) received an initial $7.6 million with an ongoing ($35 million) over five years to “improve the management of large scale or high-risk public order incidents.”  The Victorian government, as part of its inappropriately named ‘Public Safety Package’ announced this funding back in 2016 and now we see what VicPol ended up buying with it.
These new weapons will be used by the Operational Response Unit (ORU) and distributed from a new hi-tech vehicle that will record evidence and can livestream to an offsite command centre. Most of these weapons have already been in use in some form by specialist units such  the Critical Incident Response Team and Special Operations Group and have come out at recent prison protests or hostage scenarios.   However this represents a significant rollout to more ‘regular’ public order police.
The only weapon that is totally new for VicPol is the VKS Pepperball firearm (pictured below). A 175 shot semi-automatic rifle that fires capsicum rounds, blunt force pellets the size of marbles or dye markers to brand people for arrest later.  These pellets can blind, maim and leave permanent injuries depending where they hit the body. (Check out the demo for it here.)   There’s footage of these guns being fired at protesters in Portland Oregan (USA) last year here.
 
The 40-millimetre rubber bullet launcher so proudly displayed by  Superintendent Tim Tully has resulted in significant injuries and fatalities around the world. Just last year a 25 year old protester was killed by a rubber bullet in Paraguay.
Stinger grenades  – (pictured below) is a pain compliance, distraction and disorientation device for ‘crowd management’, it may be hand thrown or launched in the general direction of the crowd and may be deployed for ground bursts or aerial bursts at the discretion of the operator  – It explodes releasing nine 32-calibre rubber pellets to waist height with a range of five metres.
The Flash/noise distraction grenades designed to shock and disperse crowds are routinely being used in Israel/Palestine and other conflict zones and have maimed children, can burst ear drums and  generate dangerous fear and panic in crowds.
In terms of capsicum canisters, that detonate to release a cloud of capsicum, deaths can occur if people and gas gets trapped in a confined area such as in prison cells.

Injuries from Less Lethal Weapons:  – Theodore C. Chan, MD, FACEP, Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Instead of investing in communities these new expensive weapons increase the likelihood of violence against communities that are not valued in Victoria, t

A ‘Stinger Grenade’ mentioned above

he incarcerated and the marginalised. They will be used against teenagers at parties, against frustrated prisoners, and against citizens standing up against injustices that the government ignores.

Having observed and documented crowd control policing over the past seven years, Melbourne Activist Legal Support can safely say Victoria Police already deploy riot equipment unnecessarily, inappropriately, dangerously and in ways that infringe upon human rights. We have witnessed OC Spray being used indiscriminately, and against police’s own regulations –  on multiple occasions.
Victoria Police have stated that the main purpose for deploying these weapons is to “enhance the safety of community members and our members”. No  – these are weapons will be used against Victorian citizens.  Independent studies show that riot gear has a destabilising effect at public order events, tending to aggravate and escalate the situation and making it far more dangerous for both community and police.  Riot policing generates fear, anger, distrust and disorder.
At an event referred to during the media launch, the Milo Yiannopoulos protests in Flemington in December 2017, MALS Legal Observers witnessed police ignore hours of vitriolic racial and religious abuse of local residents by white nationalist groups, then we saw intensely provocative riot formations deployed against the very people who had experienced the abuse. Many local residents felt they they were under attack by police.
“One man who has lived at the housing estate for 15 years said he had been standing with his arms linked with other residents in a peaceful stand against the right-wing protesters who were taunting them, when they were doused with pepper-spray by police wielding batons.” –The Age 13 December 2017

Photo: Jason South

Far from justifying the purchase of these weapons, the policing in Flemington that night proved that riot policing makes things worst, and that policing in Victoria is already more intensively focused upon marginalized and ‘less-valued’ communities.
Whenever weapons like this are brought out at protests, kids parties (yes, teenage parties the spill out into the street) or during prison protests, they are routinely misused.
The almost daily misuse of OC spray by Victoria Police is a case in point.  These new weapons make the abuse of civil, political and human rights in Victoria more likely and more severe.  Under human rights law, any restrictions on protest, and any use of force, must be for a legitimate purpose and be proportionate to that aim.  We know from experience that these new weapons will be used without a justifiable purpose, against people posing no threat to police, and in disproportionate ways.

Police spraying toward a Legal Observer and toward no-one who was threatening him – in contravention of Vicpol’s regulations of use. – Melbourne, June 2017

This million dollar purchase by the Victorian government demonstrates the reach of the ever-growing Global Non-Lethal Weapons Market – a multi-billion dollar export industry in repressive technology that fuels conflicts, human rights atrocities and state repression around the world.  Law enforcement departments everywhere have been sucked in by the slick marketing of this ‘less-than-lethal’ arms industry.  Much of the repressive tech that VicPol purchases is never actually deployed (they have LRAD sound cannons for instance but never used them). Whilst civil and political unrest is very profitable for the companies driving this market, it costs taxpayers millions that could be otherwise spent on people and communities.

If the safety of the Victorian community is indeed the highest priority for Victoria Police – it should look to building trust and accountability.  If the Victorian Government is serious about community safety then investing in community resources, infrastructure and support would be far more effective and perhaps a tad less likely to infringe upon Victoria’s own Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
Police misconduct, police abuse of power, police pointing guns into crowds and dressed up like robo-cops all serve to destroy trust.  Victoria Police already have strained relationships with many sections of our community, do they really want to distance and dehumanise themselves even further?
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) has reported upon the disturbing trend of state governments passing draconian laws that curb civil and political rights and restricting civil society organisations to advocate.  The actual or threatened use of these sorts of repressive weapons also impinges upon our civil and political rights. If people stay away from a protest out of fear of police then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.  If people leave a peace assembly if they see police with weapons then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.

So what can we do about it?

The actual use of these new 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.
By ‘revealing’ these weapons to sympathetic journalists in such a careful way,  and writing to community organisations and human rights bodies that same day,  Victoria Police were essentially asking for a social license to use them. It is imperative that they are not given this.
If Victoria Police anticipate a public, media and political backlash it will deter use of these weapons.
Likewise, if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may face costly litigation 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 Victoria

We are citizens not enemy combatants.  Do not deploy weapons on us.  #NotWithYou


Further background:

This new riot gear is part of the $2 billion Victorian State Government package that includes a massive new training facility for special operations police, a $15 million a ‘state-of-the-art, New York-style’  24/7 Monitoring and Assessment (surveillance) centre in Melbourne’s CBD.
Also included is a $227 million IT data intelligence program run by SAS Institute Australia which will merge databases and allow predictive tracking that will make the Cambridge Analytics revelations seem relatively benign.  Body worn cameras, as well as more than 3100 extra police officers are part of the package.  This is all tied up in the Andrews Government’s ‘Community Safety Statement’ which was developed in the context of an Victoria’s ongoing racialised law & order auctions between the major parties.
See also:

Who’s who in Victoria Police

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.

Staying safe: Protective strategies for activists

ActorMap

Knowing how to stay safe as an activist and human rights defender (HRDs) has become ever more important. According to Frontline Defenders, more than 1000 human rights defenders were killed last year alone*, and although many governments have welcomed the UN declaration for human rights defenders, not many have put into place adequate strategies to prevent attacks on activists defending human rights. In many cases, this job is left up to activist themselves on knowing how to stay safe in their work, but depending on resources and lack of training, taking security seriously is challenging work.

Organisations like Protection International (PI) and Peace Brigades International (PBI) work in different countries with HRDs on protective strategies that can lower the chance of attacks and threats. Working together with activists and HRDs, these organisations have built a body of techniques that people can access and apply to their own work.

Here are some quick tips on staying safe in a politically charged world:

  1. Analyse yourself and your surroundings.
    A good context analysis can be an amazing resource for understanding where someone stands in this tectonic shifting world. It helps in being able to take the time to try to foresee potential consequences of actions that are being planned. Sit down, just you or with your collective and start analysing the work you do and who it affects. Who do you affect indirectly? Put it in the context of your community. Has anything that happened locally recently affected the work you do? What about nationally or internationally?
    Start small and then look at the bigger picture.
  2. Who’s who?
    Actor mapping is a great technique in understanding who your allies are, who might be an ally and who definitely is not an ally. Write down the organisations that you know are friendly, then the ones that your not sure about. Finally write down the people you are trying to target with your actions. Its ok to not know where each actor is on the spectrum, gathering more information and completing the actor map is ongoing work. Now you know who you can rely on and who you should avoid.
    Mapping your ‘enemies’ can also help you understand and have an idea of the response they’ll have if you do certain actions.Having your allies mapped out can be very useful when you are in need of support. Creating connections with collectives that can mutually help each other is part of building resilience and solidarity. If you find your self a target of digital surveillance, knowing that a group of friendly hackers are allies can be very helpful. And remember to help out when you can as well.mapping_networks
  3. Incident Register
    Start a security incident register. These are easy and practical in seeing the number of incidents you and your collective have had over a set time frame. These are used widely and help in analysing the type and frequency of threats that people receive. Nothing is to small to register. Someone suspicious outside your meetings? Your phone been calling strange numbers? Saw someone from an opposing group taking photos at a rally? Write them down. It helps to have the time, date, description of what happened, who could have been the perpetrators and who might be the target. Just like everything else, don’t worry about having all the information. Not having information on this at least tells you what you need to be looking for next time.
  4. Support network.
    Communication is vital. Having the numbers of people you trust on your phone can be a life saver. Fostering these connections with allies can make emergencies responses quick and effective. Even just as an individual, putting in the number of trusted allies on your quick dial can help in emergency situations. Just make sure you don’t make it to obvious who they are on the quick dial, in case your phone gets snatched or taken by police. Try memorising important numbers, and if you can’t, write it down in between random numbers on a piece of paper. In some cases, think about having lose change on you to make a call on a public phone, just in case something has happened to your mobile.Calling in on friends and allies can help keep track of your movements and whereabouts, especially if you think you are heading into troubling circumstances. Even in non threatening moments, doing a check in helps everyone feel safe.Having a phone tree for your cause can be very useful to get messages out for a quick response. Tying that in with the actor mapping, you can have a great overview of who are the best people to contact under what conditions. This can lead to a more effective response to emergencies and mobilisations.
  5. Data security
    It’s not all about staying safe in the physical world. Do a quick analysis of the information you work with and see if it could be considered sensitive information. Name, numbers and addresses of activists should be considered sensitive. Remember to consider time frames. Maybe information you have now is not considered sensitive but in a few years it might. Depending on the amount of information you handle that is sensitive, will determine the measures you should take on protecting it. There are great detailed guides on digital security but here is some very quick tips.

    • Try to keep your digital information safe by encrypting your devices. There are great guides out there* on how to do it on all platforms.
    • Next would be encrypting your communications.  On mobile devices Signal Messenger can encrypt your messages to other Signal users, and it’s for free.
    • Email encryption can be more complicated than using signal, but pgp encryption has come along way in being more non tech friendly.
    • Always make backups!
  6. Mental Wellbeing.
    Staying safe is all about looking after yourself, and that includes your mental health. It’s no secret that activism can be hard on peoples mental health, and many have had the all to common burn out symptoms.
    Debriefing and looking for support amongst your allies can help mitigate accumulating feelings of mental uneasiness. Speak to people you feel comfortable with after actions and demonstrations. Try to have an understanding with this person that you don’t necessarily want answers or advice, but instead just want someone to listen and provide empathy.One of the more common consequences of activism work for HRDs is working through fear and stress. Many HRDs fear not only for their own well being, but also of their families and people close to them. Taking the above actions on security is one way to address this fear. If you can analysis and try to understand the threats and potential consequences of the threats, you can at least know you are doing what you can to mitigate the risks.
    A bit of stress is usually a good thing, it helps us from getting bored, but too much of it can be overwhelming. If we are stressed for too long of a time, we can get down and depressed. This is as much about asking for help as it is trying to foster a culture of looking after yourself and one another.

13305106_1050491168368729_2641252022562073985_o

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. It’s up to us to start looking at security in a more holistic sense and put into practise techniques that help us do our work better and safely.

Here is a list of great resources on security for activists.
https://holistic-security.tacticaltech.org/
https://protectioninternational.org/training-learning-publications/
http://www.integratedsecuritymanual.org/
https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/programme/risk-analysis-protection-planning

*List of resources for digital security.
https://securityinabox.org/en/
https://tacticaltech.org/
https://privacytoolsio.github.io/privacytools.io/

*https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/annual-report-human-rights-defenders-risk-2016

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.

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.