#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

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Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

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

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

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

The network’s core roles and functions will include:

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

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

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

Related image

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

2) Legal Briefings at protests

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

3) Legal Observer Teams

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

4) On Call Legal advice

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

4) In custody support

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

Image result for ACLU legal training

5) Assisting with complaints about police

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

6) Representation in court

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

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

7) Advocacy & Law Reform

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

REQUIREMENTS:

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

ABOUT Melbourne Activist Legal Support

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

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

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

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.

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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.

Occupy Policing: The Eviction of Occupy Melbourne

Inspired by the global call for action by the Indignados movement in Spain, the protests and revolutions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, activists organised to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square on 15 October 2011. Occupy Melbourne sought to transform City Square into a ‘common’ space of political demonstration where people could learn, discuss and demonstrate about issues of concern. In particular, the abuses of political and corporate power, globalised neo-liberalism, the imposition of austerity, and the privatisation of public services.

Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne protesters were requested by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the protesters had a ‘right to protest’ but that this right was time-restricted. ‘A week’, claimed Doyle, ‘was a reasonable time for their mindless shriek of protest’. Assistant Commissioner Fontana was reported as saying: ‘They’ve [protesters] had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the citizens of Melbourne.’ If it is to be meaningful, any political ‘right to protest’ needs to protect how protesters make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an ‘occupation’ was central to the mode of protest that the Occupy Movement took. Placing time restriction on this defeats the specific objective of the global Occupy movement. Therefore many protesters remained in the City Square, and others joined them in asserting the ‘public’ nature of the Square and the right to be in and create open spaces for political demonstration and communication. The Square was fenced off from protesters, and basically surrounded by police.

At around 11:30am, Victorian Police officers from the Public Order Response Team in groups of 4–6 officers advance towards Occupiers and physically remove them one by one, carrying or dragging them out of City Square. Occupiers who have linked arms are wrenched out of that formation. Over 100 people are removed in this way from City Square. Communal and private property was removed from the site. Prior to this violent eviction from City Square a crowd of hundreds gather to watch and support protesters in the Square.

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-10-01-38-amOne year on from the controversial eviction ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011‘ is highly critical of the authorities—Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police—who authorised and effected the eviction. The Report documents the personal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their experiences of policing. It complements these personal stories with an account of the relevant law. The Report was published by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (‘OMLST’) and is endorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network.

The Report documents the harmful effects of this policing operation both on individuals and also on the capacity and willingness of people to engage in political dissent. ‘Today my whole perception of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I witnessed the scariest brutality I have ever seen police conduct’, Emily, 37, stated to the OMLST. The effects of such violence can be traumatising. Many protesters at Occupy Melbourne were new to activism and had no previous experiences of the violence inflicted in the name of ‘public order’. Protesters’ statements collated in the Report speak of the terror experienced from policing operations, including mounted police charging through the protest and the use of dog squads. The Report documents physical injuries sustained in the policing of Occupy Melbourne, cuts, grazes and bruises as well as serious injuries including broken noses, black eyes and back injuries. It also documents longer-term psychological effects. ‘For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a police officer’, Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The Report also argues that such violence has broader political effects in that it has a ‘stifling’ effect and acts as a deterrent to people joining and participating in movements for progressive social change.

The Report examines the various legal bases used to justify the eviction of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; trespass in a public place; common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers, and; controversial statutory ‘Move-On’ powers. The Report finds that none of these bases are substantiated, and that the forceful removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council appears to have been unlawful.

These findings endorse the comments made by Liberty Victoria President Spencer Zifcak who described the legal grounds relied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as ‘flimsy’ and ‘uncertain’. Its analysis highlights the problematic nature of police use of breach of the peace powers to justify repressive action, and points to how breach of the peace powers give police large amounts of discretion and have been used by police to instigate ‘order’ and suppress dissent, especially because these laws are difficult to challenge on the spot.

The use of force in removing Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square and policing the subsequent protest in the Central Business District shocked the national and international community. Occupy Melbourne protesters were the first in the Occupy movement globally to be subjected to a violent policing intervention. The Report argues that there is ample evidence available as a matter of public record of excessive and unnecessary use of force. The Report documents police use of bodily force such as grabbing and dragging protesters by the neck, legs, arms; throwing and pushing protesters to the ground; punching and kicking protesters, including in the face; use of chokeholds and pressure points; and kneeing protesters in the face and groin. It further argues that such use of force arguably breaches legislative restrictions on the use of force including Victoria Police’s own internal guidelines and that individual police officers need to be held accountable for these breaches. The Report also documents the use of chokeholds, horses and OC spray in ways which were both harmful and arguably in breach of internal guidelines.

Through the course of the morning much larger numbers of Melbournians gathered in the Central Business District. Some gathered to support, some to observe, and some to demonstrate against the forcible removal and policing of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45 and approximately 5pm, this protest was pushed by police up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the afternoon, police used ‘snatch squads’ to grab people—some who appeared to be protest ‘leaders’ and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break—from the street. Over the afternoon, approximately 100 people were taken into police custody. Protesters were taken to police stations including St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, Melbourne Custody Centre and Moorabbin. Others protesters were held for shorter periods. Some protesters were driven away from the Central Business District and released in seemingly random locations, including a paddock in Altona. A large proportion of protesters were held in custody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at police stations across Melbourne. The conditions of confinement were inadequate. The Report argues police were arguably acting outside of their legitimate power and internal guidelines in detaining people pursuant to ‘breach of the peace’ powers. It finds that the actions of police in detaining approximately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may well have exceeded their lawful powers and constituted false imprisonment.

One year after the events of the eviction, as far as the OMLST has been able to ascertain, no protesters have been charged with trespass or with any violent offences relating to 21 October 2011. One year later, the authorities which authorised the eviction and the policing operation have not been held accountable for their actions, individual police officers who acted contrary to guidelines on use of force also have yet to be held accountable for their actions. One year later, it is urgently time for an independent investigation to document and assess the events of the 21 October 2011 in order to authorise such accountability processes. As Tamar Hopkin, Principle Solicitor, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre writes in her forward to the Report, such an independent inquiry is ‘not only necessary to restore the community’s faith that the rule of law still operates in Victoria, but is required under international human rights law where allegations of human rights abuses have been made.’

The Report can be downloaded from the Resources page here.

Julia Dehm and Sara Dehm