“For Palestinian Liberation”: Unionists for Palestine’s Erima Dall on the Police Protest Crackdown

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Port Botany arrest

As NSW police set upon the 500 nonviolent demonstrators at Port Botany on 21 November with unbridled force, it became apparent that pro-Palestinian protesters are facing criminal charges in the same manner as climate defenders have been over recent years.

The disconnect between the Australian constituency and the nation’s political class has been stark, as a cross section of the community has been taking to the streets to show their opposition to the wholesale massacre the Israeli state has unleashed upon the walled-in Palestinian populace of Gaza.

Yet, not only has the Netanyahu government been perpetrating countless war crimes over recent months, but the leaders of the western allies have displayed further callousness in simply lining up to show their support of this attempt to kill off an entire people to secure their land and resources.

Unionists for Palestine and the Palestine Justice Movement organised the snap action at Port Botany on having learnt that the Calandra, a boat owned by Israeli shipping company Zim, had docked early that Tuesday morning, after being stuck out at sea due to a similar reception in Melbourne.

Opposing the genocide

The first Port Botany action in response to the genocide in Gaza happened on 11 November. This was successful in disrupting the route of the Dax, another Zim ship, which, in light of the demonstration awaiting it, decided to travel to Port Melbourne to dock.

From there, Unionists for Palestine put together a rapid response text list, which meant on the 21st of the month, after learning that the Calandra, which had been stuck off the coast, treading water, since 8 November, had managed to dock at the port in Sydney.

To get 500 civilians to descend upon Port Botany on a Tuesday night with just 12 hours’ notice was quite the achievement for organisers, however no one had expected that NSW police were going to beat upon the unarmed crowd in order to disperse it.

Officers went on to arrest 23 of the nonviolent demonstrators, charging them under the draconian antiprotest laws the former Coalition government enacted last year.

Those taken into custody were charged with disrupting a major facility, contrary to section 214A of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which is a crime that can see an individual be put away for up to 2 years and/or fined $22,000.

Rank-and-file support

Unionists for Palestine is a group of rank-and-file members from various local unions, who are opposed to the genocide taking place in Gaza, and in favour of ending trade with Israeli companies complicit in the violence, as well as further calling for Palestinian liberation.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to wharfie and Martine Union of Australia (MUA) delegate Erima Dall about the overbearing police response to the recent port action, the next Unionists for Palestine rally set for the end of this week, and the global tragedy that is the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

Solidarity with Palestine. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes
Solidarity with Palestine. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes

Firstly, the NSW Police Force took a heavy-handed approach to those partaking in a rally at Port Botany on 21 November, which was staged by Unionists for Palestine.

Those involved reported that in moving in to disperse the crowd, the NSW police acted with overreach and excessive force.

Erima, how would you describe the approach NSW police took that evening?

The approach was absolutely unnecessary and quite violent. When they decided to move protesters off the road, which they did specifically to allow the 10 pm shift to come in, that’s really when they lashed out.

People, who were just sitting down peacefully, were ripped out of the crowd. People were slammed to the ground. People had their shirts ripped.

We had police on horse pushing into the crowd. At one point, people had to lift a baby in a pram up and over the crowd to get it away from the police horses.

They were kettling us in on both sides of the road, so the only way out for the 400 people still on the road was down a very narrow path. They were shoving and pushing people into that pathway, and we couldn’t move away fast enough.

The other thing I’d add is that 500 was an excellent response to get at 12 hours’ notice, but we did not have the numbers to hold that road once the police really were determined to move us.

There was no necessity to arrest people and charge them in order to clear the path. They could have easily moved us on without having to use those heavy-handed tactics.

NSW police officers run horses into the peaceful crowd gathered at Port Botany to oppose the Gaza genocide. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes
NSW police officers run horses into the peaceful crowd gathered at Port Botany to oppose the Gaza genocide. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes

The snap action was in an effort to delay the Zim transport company ship, the Calandra. Can you talk about why this ship was being targeted? And how successful would you say these actions have been?

There are a couple of reasons we wanted to target the Calandra. Firstly, it’s part of the Zim shipping line, which is the oldest Israeli shipping company that has transported weapons directly from the US to Israel.

The managers of Zim have put the company at the complete service of Israel during its bombing of Gaza and have also introduced a war-risk premium tax. I call it a genocide tax. And the CEO used to be an Israeli navy commander.

So, Zim was really born in bloodshed and continues to be implicated in bloodshed.

The ship that we were targeting and the ships that come to Australia don’t, that we know of, transport weapons to Israel. They carry commercial cargo that goes around the Asia Pacific.

This is part of something that is much broader though, and that’s the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which is an attempt to put economic pressure on Israel.

BDS is really an attempt to label apartheid Israel as a pariah state. So, we are actually calling for no Zim shipping in Port Botany and no Israeli cargo through Port Botany.

Zim is implicated at every level of the Gaza genocide, and so is our own government through their unconditional support for Israel’s brutality right now.

Regarding the delays, the rally was very successful, as there are a few things we found out. One was that we blocked the trucks from 8 pm to 10 pm and the Hutchison Terminal put out notices to all the companies to cancel those two hours of trucks.

So, the trucks were delayed. Trucks already in the terminal had to leave via a back exit. There were also some small delays for people who started their shift at 9.30 pm.

But the most significant thing was the Calandra itself had tried to dodge our protest, similar to the Dax, in that it similarly changed its route to switch Melbourne and Sydney.

But after it left Melbourne, the ship spent almost two weeks at sea, doing circles and sitting at anchor, trying to wait until after our protest before it came into the port.

But because we waited until after they were docked to call the protest, all that waiting was for nothing. And that comes at huge costs and delays.

We were able to confirm that was how it happened with the ship’s crew. Their captain was extremely frustrated by the targeting of the Zim shipping line.

The rank-and-file support for the Palestinian people is completely at odds with that of the Australian political class and the carte blanche its provided Israel. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes
The rank-and-file support for the Palestinian people is completely at odds with that of the Australian political class and the carte blanche its provided Israel. Photo credit social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes

Twenty three demonstrators were arrested on the night, and some of them were charged under the draconian antiprotest laws the Perrottet government brought in last year.

What are your thoughts about police once again moving to apply these drastic laws?

We have now found out in the last 24 hours that all 23 protesters are going to be charged under section 214A. So, our information has been updated there.

These protest laws need to be scrapped by Labor. It is really disgraceful that the Labor government hasn’t reversed those laws that came in under the Liberals.

We need the right to protest genocide. They are talking about the damage that we do to commerce by sitting on a road and blocking a ship for a couple of hours.

Ships get delayed all the time, from the weather, because they don’t have enough cargo… What we did was absolutely nothing in the scheme of how shipping works.

But we need to stage some actions that do inflict some sort of pressure because our leaders aren’t, and our media institutions aren’t.

The establishment in Australia is criminally silent on this. So, the Palestinian Justice Movement and Unionists for Palestine will take that action.

We are not going to put the profitability of a port or critical infrastructure ahead of the entire economy of Gaza and over the lives of over 14,000 people.

What are your thoughts on the Australian government’s position during this ongoing genocide?

It’s blown open the myth of so-called Australian values and so-called western democratic respect for the rules-based order, as they like to say.

It is selective sympathy. You can see the outpouring of support and practical military aid to Ukraine when Russia invaded. But the Israeli invasion of Palestine could not be more different.

Clare O’Neil, the home affairs minister, called our protest “despicable”, but they wouldn’t even use that word to describe the Israeli bombing of hospitals or the Israeli bombing of evacuation routes.

It is sickening to be honest. It is sickening to know that our unions are affiliated to the Labor Party, and I really hope they catch up to the mood of their own members and do every single thing they can to pressure and blow open those debates in the party because we won’t stand for it.

Palestine protest

There has been a lot of talk about antisemitism. And it would seem that pro-Palestinian rallies are at times being labelled in this manner. Have your rallies suffered any of this misguided blowback?

I haven’t seen anyone accuse the rallies at Port Botany of being antisemitic. I would say, however, that we do not in any way minimise any form of racism.

We stand absolutely against Islamophobia and antisemitism and nobody who engages in hate speech is welcome at our rallies and they will be expelled. And the Palestinian Action Group has made that very clear.

But it is also a trick of the media to try to smear pro-Palestinians, when the demonstrations don’t have anything to do with antisemitism. Most of the rallies invite Jewish speakers. They feature Jews Against the Occupation and Jews for Peace.

Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. They are different strands: one is a religion, one is a particular ideology.

The media needs to educate people on that, rather than conflate things, which doesn’t help us navigate these issues.

What would you say the difference is?

Judaism is a religion in which there are many currents, ethnicities and nations. Whereas Zionism is an ideology of colonial settler nation state building in historic Palestine.

Zionism is a colonial project that says Israel is the historic homeland of Jewish people but to the specific exclusion of all other people.

Nobody wants to see Jewish people expelled from the Middle East. But they don’t have the right to a demographic majority at the expense of Palestinians, who have been made refugees in their own lands.

And if Palestinians had the right of return, had one person-one vote and equal rights, there could actually be moves towards a united Palestine that includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze and many other religions and ethnic groups.

And lastly, Erima, Unionists for Palestine have organised another rally for this Friday. This time it will be outside NSW parliament.

What does your network want to see achieved going into the future? And what can people expect this Friday afternoon?

We called this rally outside NSW parliament to send a message to Chris Minns, the state Labor premier, to firstly drop the charges against the Zim protesters and scrap the antiprotest laws.

Further we want to see him end the complicity of Australia in Israel’s violence right now. We demand that they speak out to stop the war on Gaza, for a ceasefire, to lift the siege on Gaza and to end apartheid in Israel.

We are particularly trying to mobilise union members and officials. So, we have the ASU NSW.ACT secretary Angus McFarland confirmed to speak, and other speakers are being confirmed.

The Rally Outside NSW Parliament for Gaza is set to take place at 5.30 pm this Friday 1 December at NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street in the Sydney CBD

Main image: NSW police officer apply excessive force in arresting a pro-Palestinian activist at Port Botany on 21 November. Photo credit: social justice photographer Zebedee Parkes

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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