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.

Policing the Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne

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

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

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

Why the large police presence?

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

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

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

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

Context Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated by the rally organisors:

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

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

So whats the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Kelly

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

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

 

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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.