Student activists fighting uphill battle for the fundamental right to protest

Police face off with protestors at the Univserity of Sydney last Wednesday, 16 August. Photo: Aman Kapoor.

Following NSW Police disruption of last week’s protest at the University of Sydney, activists are fighting against the insidious trend of protest prevention. Mike Hitch reports.

NSW Police arrested one protester and fined nine others at the University of Sydney (USYD) on Wednesday, 16 September after activists staged a socially-distanced protest against USYD staff cuts, course cuts and changes to university fees.

Eighteen separate, small and simultaneous demonstrations occurred across the campus at midday, each limited to groups of under nineteen people to adhere to the state’s COVID-safe limit for gatherings.

Despite these precautions, roughly 100 NSW Police officers in riot gear ended up dispersing and arresting protesters.

This selective over-policing of COVID-safe protests is concerning, especially given the NSW Government’s outright commitment to reopening the state and getting things ‘back to normal’.

However, youth activists are now turning their attention to this dissonance in the NSW Government’s COVID response through the formation of Democracy is Essential – an activist group whose aim is to restore the fundamental right to protest.

Democracy is Essential spokesperson Vinil Kumar explained the purpose of the youth-led activist cause to the Sentinel.

“We’re not against the public health orders … What we’re demanding is that protest gatherings be considered as essential as some of the other permitted activities.”

– Vinil Kumar , Democracy is Essential

“Democracy is essential has one key demand, which is that we want the protests to be exempted under the public health orders,” he said.

“Our starting point is that the pandemic has not put an end to the injustices that people have been protesting against for many years. In a lot of cases, those injustices seem like they are going to be exacerbated.

“So, we’re not against the public health orders. We’re not against locking down or shutting down businesses in the name of preventing the spread of a very deadly disease. What we’re demanding is that protest gatherings be considered as essential as some of the other activities that are currently permitted.

“This includes going to a pub where up to 300 people can be in a single area, going to a casino where, again, 300 people can be in a single place. There are even special exemptions that the health minister has granted to ski resorts and netball games.

“We think the democratic rights aren’t just some added extra or a luxury. They’re essential to our society.”

While police issued move-on orders to protestors, one activist – 34-year-old Adam Adelpour – was arrested and held in Newtown station until 7am on stringent bail conditions, which were later dropped.

Riot police detain student protestor Adam Adelpour at last week’s protest. Photo: Aman Kapoor.

Reports also surfaced of police kettling protestors as they moved across campus, ignoring social distancing practices, and ignoring other large groups of people who were not protesting.

As with Sydney’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest in July, kettling groups of people close together results in a much higher risk of spreading illness – a risk that counteracts the safety measures police were ostensibly enforcing.

Despite activists safely protesting the removal of up to 30 per cent of courses and staff budget in USYD’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, this over-policing of youth-led demonstrations is now becoming a regular occurrence.

An organiser of Wednesday’s protest, Kelton Muir, is worried that the unnecessary ‘Trojan-horsing’ of health restrictions means activists are now fighting for fundamental democratic participation.

“The health department says you can’t have a group of more than nineteen people gathering for a common purpose. So we’ve gathered at different locations. We’ve had separate protests and particular purposes to those protests as well. But, the police said if there’s any sign that the gatherings are linked, they can consider it one gathering,” he told the Sentinel.

“Given current reopening measures, this doesn’t make any sense. It was announced that they’re now going to have 50 per cent attendance at the NRL game stadium. You could seat up to 40,000 people in that arena to see the grand final.

“Essentially, there’s just this massive hypocrisy in terms of what’s ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ to prevent the spread of COVID. Young people are now constantly fighting for the right to protest, as well as fighting for the rights of others.”

“It’s become clear police are not going to allow any left-wing or progressive protests to take place, no matter what stringent health measures the participants take.”

– April Holcomb, youth activist

April Holcomb, a youth activist who spoke at the live stream launch of Democracy is Essential told the Sentinel that similar occurrences in July and August indicate that certain groups are being targeted.

“It’s become clear over the last few months that police are not going to allow any left-wing or progressive protests to take place, no matter what stringent health measures the participants take,” she said.

“Police officers are exempt. People sitting and eating at lunch are exempt. Crowds in a stadium will be exempt. What’s not exempt is people standing miles apart from each other to take a stand against cuts to jobs!”

There was a heavy police presence at the University of Sydney last Wednesday, 16 August. Photo: Aman Kapoor.

Holcomb also noted that as protests are “completely banned”, activists will have to become disobedient – a situation she says, “shouldn’t be happening in Australia”.

“There’s no clever way around this, and we can’t necessarily just find a loophole which is going to let us protest. We’re going to have to utterly defy these restrictions, which are only applied to protest,” she said.

“We are going to keep fighting. We are going to take on the threat of repression, take on the threat of arrests and fines. Hopefully, we can make this government accept that public assemblies are a basic democratic right, and need to be protected.”

Kumar believes the right to protest is now more essential than ever, as hateful rhetoric will continue to flourish if left unchecked or overshadowed by COVID-19.

“We now have a bill that is being put forward by Mark Latham that seeks to erase LGBTI people from the school curriculum and targets trans youth. Let alone the fact that First Nations deaths in custody are continuing,” he told the Sentinel.

“We are still in the middle of a climate crisis, while at the same time, Scott Morrison is talking about the gas and fossil fuel-led recovery.

“So there’s still so much for us to be fighting for. We know from history that the only way that society gets better is when people stand up, band together and fight for it. Nothing’s going to get better if we can’t band together.”

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