How do we understand and respond to the contemporary state’s reaction to protest? In Australia there is a long history of public protest: against the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1967, the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s, protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Reclaim the Night, to name a few. In each case police have been present, in a management role, but rarely with the intent to stop such assemblies. Moreover, it is not difficult to find instances where the police have been passive or even somewhat supportive, as with the Australian waterfront dispute of 1998, or even reluctant to become involved, for example, when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s visit to Monash University in 1976 provoked a volatile protest by students. Taking the long view, it seems reasonable to say that protesters and police have maintained a somewhat symbiotic and not overly violent or interventionist form of interaction.
Why then, in current times, has police presence and behaviour become increasingly visible, forthright and even paramilitary? During the Grocon/CFMEU industrial dispute in Melbourne’s CBD July–October this year police were present in large numbers, featuring the specialised law and order units called the Public Order Response Team (PORT) and Public Order Management (POM): officers on horses and officers in heavy-duty protective gear, with riot shields and pepper spray.
The extensive neoliberal reforms of recent decades have been accompanied by a law and order logic and various related strategies. This has involved a series of striking fusions: between public space and police jurisdictions and control, between police tactics and military cultures, and between public officialdom and corporate interests. Another recent protest in Melbourne provides a concrete example of this.
In the middle of 2011 a small group of Melbourne-based activists from the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid took up the cause of the global ‘BDS’ campaign. This wide-ranging movement supports the Palestinian-initiated actions of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. In Australia the campaign has targeted the Max Brenner chocolate chain. The Strauss Group, owners of the Max Brenner chain, fund two platoons in the Israel Defence Force.
On 1 July 2011, Melbourne BDS activists staged a protest outside the Max Brenner shop in Melbourne’s QV shopping centre. Because the protestors had assembled there previously, on 1 April and 20 May, a large contingent of police was already present. The protestors assembled in the open square in the centre of the complex, which abuts the Max Brenner frontage. Behind the police lines shoppers were seated in the Max Brenner store. The protestors chanted, the police and a QV official made an announcement attempting to be heard over the chants. Some moments later small squads of police began arresting protestors. The method used in this process is known as kettling, a tactic designed to identify a target then surround and compress the space around a person. The initial arrests involved several leaders of the protest. Subsequently nineteen people were arrested and taken to a loading bay for processing.
When the arrests began the main body of the protestors took up a close-knit seated formation. After a series of discussions and airing of strategy proposals, the remaining group left QV and moved onto an adjacent street. At the end of the night sixteen protestors were charged with trespass and ‘besetting’ (interference with the conduct of daily business), while a small number was also charged with resisting arrest and assaulting police.
The next element in this chain of proceedings occurred after a subsequent protest. Four of the group of sixteen facing criminal proceedings were re-arrested in early morning raids on their homes. Each person was charged for breaking the original bail conditions. Three were released on a surety of $2000, the fourth after paying $10,000 as surety.
On 1 May 2012 the case against the sixteen accused began as a summary contest in the criminal division of the Melbourne Magistrates Court. The proceedings continued for seventeen days, with the prosecution presenting evidence by twenty-six police and four civilian witnesses, including the manager of the Max Brenner store and the manager of the QV centre. All of the accused, represented by a team of pro-bono solicitors, made submissions of no case to answer.
On 23 July a fifty-seven page statement was presented to the court by Magistrate Simon Garnett. His ruling found that all of the accused were clear of charges of besetting and trespass. In reaching his decisions Garnett drew on a number of Australian and international legal precedents. He also highlighted two issues that were central in his final ruling. Firstly, he noted that the owners of QV Square and the Melbourne City Council had an agreement under the provisions of Section 173 of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 that includes a caveat stating that the access lanes and QV Square are to be open to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, thus making them ‘public spaces’. Secondly, these public spaces come under the provisions of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, thereby protecting rights of ‘freedom of expression’ and rights to ‘peaceful assembly’.
Several themes emerge from my examination of the protests themselves, the court case and the related media coverage.
Coordinated Planning by Dominant Interest Groups
At several points throughout the trial, evidence was given about meetings involving Victoria Police, management of QV Retail Centre and Melbourne Central Retail—the two shopping complexes where protests occurred—and security groups from the Melbourne Jewish community. Police scanning of social media activity had alerted them to plans by activists to return to QV square on 1 July 2011. Victoria Police obtained advice from the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office about the scope of their powers in relation to the management of protestors at QV Centre. Planning also involved the decision to include ‘special’ police squads at the 1 July protest.
In this planning process notices were drawn up, distributed and displayed, making key assumptions about QV square as private property and as therefore being subject to a range of laws and regulations in line with this. Police handed protestors notices saying that protest behaviour would be ‘closely monitored’ and that:
If you propose to demonstrate disapproval of the political or social interests of any retail tenant within Melbourne Central or QV, or create any disturbance in and around retail premises within Melbourne Central or QV, then you are prohibited from entering the shopping complexes.
Police management strategies proceeded on this basis, with the possibility of protestors being subject to charges related to trespass, access to ‘private’ property and besetting.
In other words, police proceeded in their planning and coordination on the assumption that QV Retail Centre was private property, and on this matter they received encouragement and cooperation from QV management. It is also relevant that QV management opted not to proceed with civil action to have a court injunction to stop the protest, instead choosing to have direct police action if and when a protest occurred.
The Focus on Protest Leaders
In preparation for the protest police had compiled lists of likely leaders. Officers attending the protests were provided with the list and photographs of each person understood to be in a leadership role. The role of leader was usually confirmed by the sighting of protestors addressing the group or giving instructions at the protest.
Targeting leaders is one example of paramilitary logic. It is designed to create maximum confusion and anxiety within the group. These reactions were clearly evident on 1 July, with protestors engaging in extended discussion to develop a new strategy once the leaders had been arrested. It was shortly after this that the protest group left QV Centre.
The leaders who had been targeted were extracted from the protest group by a squad using a wedge arrest formation. This method uses a minimum of five police. The first in line is normally the largest and strongest, who will break into a group and take hold of the targeted ‘arrestee’. The two behind take hold of the arrestee’s arms. The two or three officers in the third line begin and continue the process of leading the way out of the scrum from which the arrested person has been ‘extracted’. Again, such strategies have been imported from the military into police training and are increasingly being applied in the management of protests.
Increasing Importance of Print and Electronic Media
During the trial those present were shown many hours of video evidence presented by Victoria Police. The videos helped to create an evidence bank of key incidents. For instance, the arrest of one targeted leader was shown many times and from many angles and thus became a critical issue for discussion and analysis. Events leading up to and including the 1 July protest clearly indicate a police management strategy involving the collection and storage of audio-visual records with the intent of using them in subsequent proceedings.
Rob Starry, who coordinated the successful pro-bono defence team, suggested we ‘keep cops for lawbreakers not peacemakers’. This pithy observation expressed the concerns of individuals and groups focusing on the presence and behaviour of police at public protests. In contrast, Michael Danby, Federal Member for Melbourne Ports, declared that ‘anti-Israel protests don’t deserve support’. This position was also voiced by other politicians, including Victoria’s Premier, Ted Ballieu.
While these polarised positions were given prominence in mainstream newspapers, other media contained different concerns. Jeff Sparrow, for instance, observed that the protests were a struggle over the future of public space. He reminded readers of the ongoing battle to retain public space as part of the commons, and that ‘struggles over public spaces are fundamental to capitalism’. A second issue was the struggle over the right to common assembly. Adam Fletcher observed in The Conversation that the 1 July protest could set a precedent for the right to protest peacefully. Both resonated with Magistrate Garnett’s finding that protestors had lawful right of entry to the property and, once there, to conduct a political demonstration.
What we find in this situation is, on the one hand, a convergence of institutional interests, highlighting an ongoing consolidation of state power, and on the other, a consolidation of particular interests and values, increasingly coordinated with the state’s repressive arm. More specifically, the themes dramatised in this case sit within neoliberalism’s meta-narrative of freedom and compliance: maximum freedom of opportunity to have access to and engage in an extended marketplace, yet paramilitary actions to attempt to suppress legitimate protest in the service of powerful interests.
Note: With thanks to Jane Kenway for her advice and critical reading.