For those who haven’t been following, NSW police has been enforcing an unofficial ban on protests since late July.
Under the COVID-19 public health order on gatherings, outdoor meetings or assemblies “for a common purpose” of more than 20 people are banned. This prohibition holds even if participants are socially distanced or wearing masks.
In order to get around this, Sydney University students and staff members organised multiple protests around campus on 16 September. Each separate action involved less than 19 people, and each of them had different stated purposes.
However, NSW police didn’t give a f#%k. It deployed around 100 officers – including the riot squad – throughout campus, as it declared the decentralised demonstrations were for a common purpose.
Officers then set about detaining protesters and hitting them up for those draconian $1,000 pandemic fines.
The thought police
By cover of COVID, the Morrison government has set about dismantling universities. This began by denying university staff the same pandemic employment subsidies the rest of the nation got. And it now wants to hike student tuition fees and cut funding.
This is the reason why students and staff have felt it necessary to take a stand – pandemic or not.
In the case of Sydney university, this has meant NSW police has sent in the troops on two separate occasions to shut down COVID-19 compliant protests.
And on Wednesday, officers went as far as to take one protester into custody and hold him overnight for refusing to accept outrageous bail conditions, including a personal curfew. He now faces court early next month.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Sydney University student and staff member Kelton Muir about the steep job cuts the uni plans to make, how the recent protests had been designed to get around the prohibition, and why now – more than ever – it’s important to uphold the right to protest.
On Wednesday, Sydney University students staged demonstrations designed to get around the new “for a common purpose” prohibition on protests that NSW police have been enforcing.
Kelton, how had the actions been organised to avoid scrutiny?
We organised a set of protests. We had 18 different protests that happened in different locations around the university.
We’d confirmed numbers for each one. And they were built so they didn’t have an overall common purpose: history students organised a protest about staff cuts, while casual staff members organised a protest against wage theft.
So, there was a collection of 18 protests around the university with 19 or less people. And we confirmed everyone’s attendance ahead of time.
We had a very good understanding that there weren’t any gatherings of more than 19 people. And most of them were around 10.
Despite this, police moved in and busted up the separate protests. What happened?
There were police gathered around the university an hour before the protests started. There were about 100 police in total.
They had riot police and around half a dozen horses. The riot police are part of Operation Odin, which has been used quite regularly at protests during the COVID period.
They were stationed all around the university in groups of five to ten. And as soon as any protest actions started, they walked to the group and gave them a move on order.
They then detained students and fined them. In a few cases, students were fined for swearing as well.
It was basically anything they could do to harass students and make us feel intimidated and uncomfortable.
How many people were fined?
I believe nine people in total were fined. One or two also got a fine for swearing. The total amount was around $10,000.
So, we’re talking about 18 separate protests of under 19 people on a university campus, with around 100 officers being sent in to police them.
Why do you think NSW police even bothered?
They don’t want any protests to be going on. They’
ve been intimidated by the Black Lives Matter protests. So, they don’t want any kind of dissent at a politically and economically tumultuous time.
Of course, there’s a health crisis happening on top of everything. But this is much more to do with the economic and political tumult they think could happen in society, and they want to keep a lid on that as much as possible.
They’ve targeted people that they know have been organising other protests as well. It’s definitely linked into that.
And I’m sure the university doesn’t want the protests to be happening, as they want their cuts to go through silently. There was no way the university was going to try and stop the police from being around campus.
So, there are staff cuts going on at the moment?
There are up to 30 percent redundancies happening at Sydney University. That’s over 1,000 employees. And these are full time positions. There could be upward of 1,000 people losing their jobs by the end of the year.
Casuals already lost their jobs en masse for this semester. Hundreds of casuals lost their jobs at the end of last semester.
Why is it important that people are still out there protesting at the moment, considering the authorities are so set against it?
It’s important that people take note of what’s going on in the broader scheme of things.
We’re about to have JobKeeper and JobSeeker reduced and wound back, while there’s still a mass of unemployment. Then there’s a health crisis that in many ways is not being dealt with sufficiently by the government.
And there are other crises, like mass unemployment at the universities or the racism that the police have kept exerting for many years. An Indigenous death in custody happened in Brisbane just last week.
There’s a whole range of reasons why people need to be having their voices heard and shaping their society over the coming months and years, as we enter a serious economic crisis.
This has to happen through people asserting their voices, and that means protesting.
So, it’s important that students have taken this stance. It’s important that families that have had someone die in custody have stood up against the police and the media barrage against protesting that’s happened over the COVID-era.
And lastly, Kelton, this is the third such protest police have come onto Sydney University campus to shut down over recent months. And it appears the response from police is simply getting more ridiculous every time.
Will your protests be silenced?
No, we won’t be silenced. We will be creative. We don’t want to be having fights with the police. We don’t want the police to be repressing us.
We want to be having our voices heard and taking more escalatory action against the university.
We had classes that had less than 19 people in them walk out on strike yesterday. They were then told to go back into their classroom or to move off university campus. And this was because they left their class in protest, when they were already in that size group indoors.
We will have other ways in which we will continue to be creative to escalate our opinion.
They arrested one of our comrades in the campaign on campus yesterday, which has galvanised a lot of people. They’re quite angry and upset about that.
They’re now energised to take action both to respond to upholding the right to protest, and also to keep fighting the cuts.
Main photo captures police accosting Sydney University student and staff member Kelton Muir. Credit Aman Kapoor
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.