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
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STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Policing of Invasion Day March 2019

On Saturday 26 January 2019 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of ten (10) trained Legal Observers at the Invasion Day march that took place in Melbourne’s Central Business District.  The march, which was organised by the group Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, began with speakers at Victoria’s Parliament House on Spring Street, proceeded down Bourke St, turning south down Swanston Street and culminating at the intersection of Swanston and Flinders Streets out side Flinders Street Station.

Legal Observers monitored and recorded interactions between Victoria Police and protesters throughout the four hour event.

Areas of Concern:

We are concerned about several aspects of the policing of the event that in some instances pose unjustified limitations of rights within the Victorian Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities Act (2006) and the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution.

High-level of policing

  • Legal Observers noted the high level of police presence for a peaceful event, namely the deployment of a brawler van and other public order vehicles, the use of mounted police, the Public Order Response Team (PORT), a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), and an Evidence Gathering Team that was filming attendees throughout the event. We stress that these annual Invasion Day rallies and marches have been  solemn, entirely peaceful and well-organised commemorative events involving tens of thousands of people, including families, children and elderly people. This highly visible level of policing understandably causes anxiety among attendees and may dissuade people from attending and/or bringing their children to the event in future. It also creates the impression among onlookers and the general public that the attendees pose a risk and must be policed. As we have stated previously, we believe that over-policing such as displayed at this event constitutes a form of discrimination.

Prevention of public address system

  • Police refused to allow a vehicle with a small public address (PA) system) to accompany the march to its ending point at the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets.  No clear reason for this restriction was provided to organisers. The same vehicle was utlised in the 2018 march safely and effectively with no problems reported by police.  A police member involved in negotiations with the event organisors was reported to have stated that the command not to allow the PA vehicle to proceed this year came from an Assistant Commissioner.  Organisor attempts to compromise and have the vehicle meet the march at its end point were also prevented by police.  This restriction on the peaceful assembly effectively removed the ability for march organisers to communicate important messages to the many thousands of attendees and therefore increased risk to attendees.   Organisers of the march were reduced to using small megaphones to direct, provide instructions and communicate with attendees. These could not be heard by the vast majority of the many thousand people who occupied several city blocks at any one time.  We believe this limitation by Victoria Police to be unjustified, dangerous and a form of suppression of political communication.

11:46 am  Police speaking to driver of one of two PA vehicles which were prevented from accompanying the march. Photo: MALS.

Temporary restriction of march

  • At 11:30am, minutes after the march had begun and moved forward for one block, a line of standing police blocked the march proceeding down Bourke Street. This caused a delay for approximately ten minutes and created a range of potential issues for the march including increasing the risk of a crowd crush as thousands of people moved forward, and health impacts of keeping people longer in the midday sun. It is not clear why the decision to prevent the march was made by police at this point however it occurred at the time when negotiations about the PA vehicle were underway.   In this scenario, police ought to have deferred to the well-organised and easily identifiable rally marshals to allow the march to proceed or pause as required for cohesion.

    Police forming a physical barrier to prevent march continuing down Swanston St. (Photo: Facebook)

    11:34am Police forming a physical barrier to prevent march continuing down Swanston St. Photo: MALS

     

  • It was observed by and reported to Legal Observers that on numerous occasions, police presence intimidated attendees by positioning themselves, horses or large police vehicles in very close proximity to attendees, often following, or parking very close to people.  Police should be aware of the impact of their presence upon members of the public. We recommend that police maintain safe and reasonable distances from members of the public during public events.

11:38am Brawler van positioned facing attendees at a distance of approximately five metres Photo: MALS

11:38am A large police brawler van and large buses followed the march at often close proximity. Photo: MALS

Use of Mounted Unit

  • The deployment of the Police Mounted Unit at the front of the march was unnecessary, and as noted above, signaled to the public that the march posed a public threat. The presence of police horses in crowd situations pose a significant risk of injury especially given the size of the crowd, the presence of children, prams, people with disability access requirements and the inability of people to freely move out of the horses way if they are maneuvered close to crowds. While they were not utilised to control crowds, their presence remains unnecessarily intimidating and increases the risk of severe injury to attendees. We remind readers that the past six Invasion Day marches have proceeded entirely peacefully and without any incident that would warrant the use of horses.

11:55am Police Mounted Unit at the front of march down Bourke Street. This is what the public saw as the march approached. Photo: MALS

Open carriage of weaponry

  • Legal observers noted police members openly carrying paramilitary-style equipment such as flash/noise distraction devices designed to shock and disperse crowds, and possibly the newly acquired stinger grenades. As we have asserted previously, the open and visible deployment of repression technology at peaceful events serves no safety or operational purpose aside from intimidation. For example, one police officer was observed casually carrying a container of OC spray outside a vehicle for no operational purpose.

11:52am Police Evidence Gathering Team were observed constantly videoing attendees throughout the event.  Photo MALS

ID Badges

  • Some Victoria Police were observed without official ID badges on display. We continue to stress, as we have in past years, that by their own regulations, VicPol members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016).

General observations

We note that no rally attendees were arrested, but observed two far-right supporters being arrested and removed from the area directly in front of the Flinders Street Station clocks (1.20pm).

Legal Observers also noted numerous incidents of police speaking with, deterring or preventing far-right, nationalist or patriot identified individuals or small groups from approaching the march throughout the day.  While we note that Victoria Police were cognizant of the risk that far-right ‘patriot’ groups or individuals would attempt to counter-protest or antagonise the march, MALS does not believe this accounts for or justifies the level of over-policing, tactics, and open carrying of weaponry witnessed.

END

This Statement is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and other agencies upon request.

For inquiries please contact: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

EVENT REPORT: 66 Records Label Launch, Collingwood

Published: 4 September 2018

Available for download here (PDF)

On Saturday 1st of September, to the morning of Sunday the 2nd, September, 2018 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of nine trained Legal Observers at the 66 Records Label launch that took place at the Gasometer Hotel near the intersection of Alexander Parade with Smith Street, in Collingwood, Victoria.

Legal Observers were present in three shifts from 9.00pm on Saturday 1st until 4.00am on Sunday 2nd September. The team was present upon request by the event organisers after Victoria Police informed the event organisers that police would be attending the event.

The presence of independent Legal Observers at events which receive particular policing attention and media scrutiny is critically important. Having trained independent witnesses can be vital for providing objective evidence and accounts after the fact for public and legal purposes. Legal Observer event reports or Statements of Concern are often utilised by journalists, human rights bodies, police complaints departments and legal teams to ascertain contemporaneous evidence and objective data.

Organisors and legal bodies are acutely aware that any events and incidents involving young people of perceived African background are highlighted and subsequent media coverage can distort public perceptions and increase discriminatory and harmful associations. These associations are commonly utilised for political purposes by commentators including politicians. It is often the case that media depictions or characterisations of an event can vary significantly from actual observed reports.

It is important to note that journalists and commentators were not present on the night and did not have contemporaneous eyewitness accounts of events as they unfolded. Having trained and independent observers at events such as these is something we would encourage under these circumstances.

MALS works closely with a range of human rights and legal bodies including community legal centres and teams are often made up of legally trained people, laws students and solicitors who volunteer their time for such events.   All Legal Observers work with MALS in a volunteer capacity.  Observers do not interfere with or hinder police work. Legal Observers closely observe the actions of police, private security and other parties in their interactions with members of the public, provide basic legal information to members of the public about their rights and responsibilities. Legal observers help ensure police and private security agents act according to their lawful powers and do not infringement upon the civil and legal rights of members of the public.

Legal Observers are identified by high-visibility vests with Legal Observer printed across the back and front.

 

Direct Observations

The Legal Observer Team on the night reported that the event was well organised, and the attendees were peaceful up until approximately 2.20am on the Sunday just prior to when the event was due to finish.

Police patrols visited or conducted walk-throughs in the venue eight times over the night. Police were polite and communications with venue staff and legal observers were cordial during each patrol. There was no indications that any altercations would break out during each of these patrols.

The final police patrol was present just outside the venue when the initial fight broke out inside.

At approximately 2.20am Sunday morning arguments and physical fights broke out amongst some event attendees. These fights began inside the venue and later broke out outside as people were exciting the venue.

The large crowd of approximately 200 people were outside the venue due to the event finishing and them being ushered outside. By 2.40am all attendees had left the venue. It is important to note that only a proportion of this crowd were actively involved in fighting. Others were trying to calm the situation or were in the process of leaving the area.

At 2:25 several PORT (Public Order Response Team) had arrived on site and began cordoning off the lanes to Alexander Parade.

At 2.41am Observers noted eight police vehicles stationed along Alexander Parade and Smith Street. By 2.45am an unmarked police 4WD and a police truck had arrived on site. And a line of 14 police were observed moving south down Smith Street.

Observers were not present at the location at the corner of Emma and Maton Streets when a car collided with the event attendees at approximately 2.45am but were present soon after. Three police members immediately attended to the injured person.

Police cordoned off this area as police and paramedics attended to the injured person. The remaining crowd dispersed over the next 60 minutes.

By 3:31am only 10 people remained in the area who identified themselves as either friends or family of the injured person.

Observers remained on site until approximately 4.00am.

Commentary

MALS asserts, based upon our observations, that policing was at appropriate levels throughout the night of the event with regular policing patrols – commensurate with an event of that nature and size. Observers notes that police responded quickly to the incidents outside the venue and more police members and resources, including the Public Order Response Team were in attendance within minutes.

Based upon our observations at the event, the calls by some parties for more police resources, powers or numbers after this event are duplicitous.

It is untrue, as some media outlets have claimed, that “200 people were involved in the brawling. Whilst a minority of the crowd were involved in sudden physical assaults, most others were attempting to stop the fights or were moving away from the venue in the process of dispersing from the area.

The Legal Observers did not witness any evidence of ‘gangs’ or ‘gang like behaviours’ at the event. The physical violence witnessed by observers was predominately between young men who were affected by alcohol.

Whilst the media commentary surround the event has been politicised by commentators almost immediately afterwards we wish to highlight some clearly evident factors missing from the public discussion of the event to date.

Alcohol is involved in approximately 60 per cent of all police attendances.[i]

Excessive consumption of alcohol is a major cause of physical and social harm. Victoria Police’s own data indicates that the availability of alcohol, either in concentrated entertainment precincts or liquor outlets acts as a substantial driver of assault and related offences.[ii]

There is a considerable amount of research and data from the health, hospital and justice sectors about alcohol related harms and strategies about reducing it. The association between the violence that occurred at this event and the perceived ethnicity of those involved is not only simplistic and incorrect; it diverts attention away from evidence-based factors and their solutions.

Our thoughts go to the people injured on the night, their friends and family members.

MALS will field legal observer teams at future events upon request if capacity allows.

For further information about Melbourne Activist Legal Support please see https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

 

 

 

[i] Miller, Peter (A/Prof). 2013, Patron Offending and Intoxication in Night-Time Entertainment Districts (POINTED). NDLERF Monograph Series No.46.National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund. Canberra

[ii] [PDF]Policing Alcohol Harm in Victoria – Victoria Police

https://www.police.vic.gov.au/retrievemedia.asp?Media_ID=108141

 

#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

EVENT REPORT: Invasion Day Rally and March 2018

26 January 2018

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of seven(7) legal observers at the 2018 Invasion Day Rally and March which was organised by the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR).

The team observed and noted police behavior, crowd control tactics and interactions with the public from 9.30am until the completion of the event at 3.30pm.

Police presence was significantly larger than for previous Invasion Day protest marches in recent years but moderate given the large estimated crowd size which ranged between 40,000 – 60,000 attendees. 

As MALS has discussed previously, 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.  MALS has observed this over the past few years where peaceful, well organized and even solemn events such as the Invasion Day rallies are heavily policed despite there clearly being no plans for disruptive or violent action.

Police conduct during the 2018 march through the Melbourne CBD primarily appeared to be generally facilitative and designed to manage the movement of the marchers west down Bourke St, to turn south down Swanston Street and then eventually east down Flinders Street to the march endpoint at Parliament Gardens.  Some Public Order Response Team (PORT) cordons were positions across streets at various locations designed to prevent the march interacting with the City of Melbourne Australia Day Parade down Swanston St. This meant that the march was delayed for short periods of time whilst organisors liaised with police and saw the eventual moving of police cordons.

Police cordons during similar protest events in the CBD can infringe upon the rights of peaceful assembly and association contained in section 16 of the Victorian Charter Of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (2006). The team present on this day considered the limitation in this instance to be temporary, particulary considering the length of time the marchers chose to remain at various intersections along the route which were unhindered by police action.

The Australia Day Parade was completed by the time the march arrived at Swanston Street but metal barricades along both sides of the road posed some problems due to the large crowd size.

MALS was also noted that police were cognizant of the risk that right-wing groups or individuals would make attempts to counter-protest or harass the rally.  The team noted one incident on Flinders Street where a right wing activist was prevented from gaining access to the protest by police.

We note from the Street Medic team present that only minor heat related injuries were treated.

Areas of Concern:

The Victoria Police Mounted Branch (9 horses and mounted police) was present and maintained a position approximately 50 metres in front of the protest march for most of the time. The presence of police horses in crowd situations poses a significant risk of injury given the size of the crowd, the presence of children, prams and the inabilty of people to get out of their way if they are manoeuvred close to crowds. Although they were not utilised to control crowds at this event, their presence remains unecessarily intimidating and MALS strongly recomends that police horses not be deployed in any crowded or populated area at any protest event due to risk of servere injury.

Use of force:

Legal Observers witnessed and received some reports of use of force by police members in the Public Order Response Team (PORT) as the attendees rallied at the Flinders St station intersection.

One attendee reported that her female friend and an elderly male were pushed back by an police member as they tried to move further down St Kilda Rd/Swanston St when the march initially arrived at the intersection. The attendee reported that the officer was unprovoked and had not issued any verbal instructions or warnings beforehand.

A MALS Legal Observer was also subject to physical force (a rough push) by a PORT member upon arrival at the Flinders St intersection. The legal observer subsequently brought this to the attention of the officer in charge.

Identification:

MALS also notes with some concern that many PORT members were not wearing their official ID badge, despite requirements to do so. Notably, the PORT member who pushed the MALS legal observer did not have their ID badge.

By their own regulations, VicPol members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank. (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016)

As we have noted numerous times previously, the wearing of visible name tags at protest events is inconsistent and this poses serious problems for accountability.

Media and online harassment of activist

We also note with concern that some sections of the media choose to single out and highlight one provocative statement from the rally and even made it into a headline in some cases.

Legal Observers heard the statement in its context and it was clearly a metaphorical and figurative point as was later explained by the organisor herself.  Singling out this one statement amidst an half day of speeches is no more than racist demonisation. It has served to generate outrage and condemnation from parties who were not present and has resulted in online abuse, threats and harrassment of the organisor.

The abuse or harassment of an activist in any online forums is unacceptable.   Resources to deal withthis sort of online harrassment are available here and here.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) supports activists to defend their civil and political rights by fielding legal observers at protests and rallies, and providing training, resources and up to date information on the right to protest in the State of Victoria. This is the fourth year in a row that MALS has provided support to attendees at the Invasion Day Rally.

 

This Statement is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and other agencies upon request.

For enquiries please contact: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

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https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

Our Activist Lawyers Network is launched!

A report on the launch of the Activist Lawyers Network

Lawyers network launched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicola Paris,

Counteract

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


 

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

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

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

Roles of the Activist Lawyers Network

The network’s core roles and functions will include:

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

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

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

Related image

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

2) Legal Briefings at protests

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

3) Legal Observer Teams

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

4) On Call Legal advice

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

4) In custody support

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

Image result for ACLU legal training

5) Assisting with complaints about police

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

6) Representation in court

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

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

7) Advocacy & Law Reform

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

REQUIREMENTS:

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

ABOUT Melbourne Activist Legal Support

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

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

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

About the Anti-Mask (Public Order) Laws

benny zable

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

This article has been updated on 21 June 2018.


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


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

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

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

DESIGNATED AREAS

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

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

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

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

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

NEW POLICE POWERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEW OFFENCES

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

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

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

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

OUR CONCERNS

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

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

USE OF MASKS AS POLITICAL EXPRESSION

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

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

THE RIGHT TO ANONYMITY

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

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

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

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

MASKS AS PROTECTION

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

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

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

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

This law now criminalises that practice.

THE Act CONTAINS NO EXEMPTIONS OR PROTECTIONS

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

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

STATUS IN PARLIAMENT

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

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


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

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

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

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

Anti-mask laws proposed in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for protest masks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masks as political expression

Image result for protest masks history

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right to anonymity

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

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

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

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

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

Masks as protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space.

What is this thing called Legal Observing?

And why do you wear those pink vests?

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for legal observers

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

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

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

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

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

Third-party presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for legal observers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to try it out?

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

Anthony Kelly