Sydney University students Chloe Rafferty and Holly Hayne were making their way over to a lunchtime student organising meeting last Friday that was about to be held at a campus park area, when three NSW police general duty officers approached them.
The police were interested in the pair as Hayne was holding a megaphone. And it was obvious the officers weren’t simply there by chance, as they referenced the organising meeting that had been announced on Facebook, which 18 people had indicated they might be attending.
The footage of the incident shows the senior officer question the presence of the megaphone and the fact there was a meeting to take place.
Rafferty asked if it’s illegal to organise a protest. And the officer responded, “At the moment, if you’re in contravention of the minister’s health order, yes, it is.”
The uni student further questioned why the officers had come onto campus over a lunchtime meeting of under 20 attendees. She observed that holding a megaphone now warrants intimidation from police, and then pointed to a fourth riot squad officer who was also in attendance.
The officer in charge began to back away, but then added, “I will warn you now, if you gather with more than 20 people for a common purpose, we will take action under the public health order.”
And the last thing he said to Chloe as he left was, “I’m sure your parents would be proud of you.”
The authoritarian creep
At an NRL match in Parramatta over the weekend, the stadium screen proudly announced there were 7,359 people attending the game.
However, NSW police continues to enforce an unofficial ban on protests of over 20 people that’s been in the public health order since late June.
In response to this unannounced and widely unknown prohibition on political assemblies, a group of uni students have launched Democracy Is Essential.
Calling for the right to protest to be restored in NSW, the campaign statement has been signed by hundreds of supporters and organisations.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Democracy Is Essential spokesperson Chloe Rafferty about police targeting the small lunchtime meeting, ongoing attacks on civil liberties and how the only way the people are going to take back the right to protest is by assembling for a common purpose.
Last Friday, three uniformed police officers approached you and a friend as you were about to sit in a park area of Sydney University for a lunchtime meeting with a small group of other students.
The officer in charge was querying why your friend was holding a megaphone, as it “would be indicative of a willingness to engage in a protest action”.
Chloe, what are your thoughts on being approached on campus like this?
The police approaching what was a lunchtime organising meeting of under 20 students really shows a pattern of repressive behaviour by the NSW police towards activists, particularly student activists from Sydney University.
This is an egregious attack on our civil liberties, which now isn’t just targeting protests, but is also targeting meetings that are simply talking about progressive campaigns.
So, the police were aware of this small lunchtime meeting of students being held in the park?
NSW police are obviously following our Facebook pages. They referenced our Facebook event for the meeting, which clearly indicated that it was not a protest – that it was an organising meeting that would be outdoors and socially distanced.
They weren’t there by accident. They had obviously targeted the meeting and intended to come down and break it up.
As you pointed out in the clip, there was a fourth riot squad officer on the periphery watching on. Why would there be a riot squad officer on campus in the middle of the day?
Well, you could question why there would ever be riot squad officers either at an on campus meeting or for a peaceful protest.
But, sadly, it’s become a really common sight for Sydney University students to see not just one riot squad officer, but dozens and dozens of riot squad officers on our campus to break up protests and apparently, to break up meetings as well.
When you questioned the senior officer on why they were acting in that way, he refused to continue speaking to you, and then made the remark, “I’m sure your parents would be proud of you.”
What did you think of that?
It showed the contempt NSW police have for student activists. They obviously can’t stand the fact that we’re continuing to organise.
It was extremely unprofessional, and it showed the level of hostility the NSW police have to student activists, but also protesters and activists in general.
He was obviously frustrated that we were standing up for our rights, and we weren’t going to accept this creeping authoritarianism.
The officer in charge implied that organising a protest may be illegal at present, and that an actual protest of over 20 people is.
You were on campus with a few others in proximity to you and it was obvious you weren’t protesting, yet you were accosted by four police officers.
What’s going on in the state of NSW?
We’re facing an unofficial ban on the right to protest. We can be pretty definitive about that.
Every protest that I’ve known of in the last couple of months has been systematically broken up by police.
That was whether or not it was more than 20 people. Protests of under 20 have been broken up and subjected to fines.
This is nominally because of the COVID health orders, but it’s obvious by now that this is not about our health. There are lots of busy places operating, including the footy and Jamberoo Recreation Park.
This is about using these powers unjustly on protesters. We’ve faced that with big protests that have been socially distanced and masked. We’ve faced that with protests of under 20 people.
And now we’ve faced that at a lunchtime organising meeting, just because it was simply known to police that activists would be there.
And lastly, Chloe, a group of uni students recently launched the Democracy Is Essential campaign, which has the aim to restore the right to protest in this state.
It’s since gained the support of numerous civil society groups and other interested parties. What’s the next step from here?
We have to win back our right to protest by protesting. We have to demonstrate to the Berejiklian government that protesting, democratic rights and civil liberties are essential.
And we’re demanding from the Berejiklian government that protests have an exemption from the health restrictions.
The next step is the next education protest, which is coming up on 14 October. There’s also a Community Action for Rainbow Rights demonstration coming up on 10 October.
Democracy Is Essential will be bringing contingents of people who care about civil liberties to every progressive protest in the city of Sydney, until we win back the right to protest.
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.