NSW police was at it again last Friday, as it took advantage of the opportunity the COVID-19 health crisis has afforded it to continue its clampdown on public protests.
The overt reasoning is to counter virus transmission, whereas the covert reason seems to be silencing any dissent against its masters.
In league with a number of other student organisations, Sydney University Education Action Group organised the 28 August No Fee Hikes – No Uni Cuts rally to demonstrate against the sustained attacks the Morrison government has unleashed on the tertiary education sector by cover of COVID.
And just like at most other planned demonstrations since June, NSW police started saturating the area prior to the rally, as officers weren’t about to allow any uni students to organise on campus, regardless of whether they were abiding by social distancing rules or not.
Rather NSW police put its new protest-busting tactic to work. Contained in the fourth iteration of the COVID-19 public health order, a stipulation maintains that outdoor public gatherings “for a common purpose” of more than 20 people are illegal.
And police are enforcing this rule despite any social distancing or wearing if masks that’s practiced.
Stamping out dissent
The PM and some of the other MPs who managed to benefit from the free education system that was around in their day, are attempting to hike fees on the humanities, make it harder to obtain tuition fee loans, and they’ve denied university staff access to the JobKeeper subsidy.
Jack Mansell was one of the student protesters who was hit with a $1,000 fine last Friday. And as the Student Representative Council (SRC) Education Officer tells it, this is not the first time NSW police has taken its current campaign to eradicate demonstrations on campus.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Sydney University Education Action Group spokesperson Jack Mansell about how 70 police officers turned up to monitor a maximum of 200 COVID compliant demonstrators, Morrison’s assault on higher education and why it’s necessary to fight back.
Firstly, last Friday, Sydney University students and staff were gathering on campus in a COVID compliant manner to protest Morrison government attacks on higher education.
But, prior to the commencement of the demonstration, 70 NSW police officers turned up to shut it down. Jack, you were one of the people arrested at the demonstration. What happened?
About an hour before the demonstration was supposed to start, we saw a trickle and then a stream of police turn up. This included unmarked riot vans and mounted police.
Two minutes after 1 pm, they came directly up to me and issued a move on order and within 10 seconds, said I had not complied with it and marched me over to their car.
What they were there to do seemed predetermined.
How many people were arrested?
It’s not exactly clear how many were arrested. But there were at least ten fines issued. Most of them were $1,000 fines, but it’s possible two people will get higher fines, because they’d been fined before for protesting.
The protest involved those within the university community. Why do you think it got to the stage that police turned up to prevent it?
They’re trying to send a message that they will not accept any protests: no matter how big, how small or how socially distanced.
They want to set a strong message that they don’t want any protests happening. It’s pretty worrying. We’ve had an even smaller protest at the end of July shut down. Two people got arrested then.
We also held a soccer match as a stunt to point out the hypocrisy, but that was shut down too. That’s even though you can go to any park on the weekend and dozens of people are doing the same thing.
But why would the police have such a localised and comparatively small rally on their radar?
The indication that we’ve got is that they have a list of known activists in the education campaign. Some of the marshals at Friday’s rally overheard officers identifying organisers from a list.
They potentially monitor our Sydney University Education Action Group Facebook page. We do open organising on there because we want people to come.
I’ve had calls in the past from different police LACs about protests that I’m not even organising.
You’re campaigning against the ongoing attacks by the Morrison government during the pandemic period. Overall, how would you sum up what’s going on?
They’re really trying to take advantage of the shock to higher education that’s happening at the moment.
They’re trying to turn the focus away from the Arts and turn universities into nothing more than technical schools that students have to pay high fees to get into.
We know what their vision is for higher education. This is the same government that tried their hand at full deregulation in 2014.
We know what their intent is. So, why is it happening at the moment? Well, there’s a shock to the system, so they’re using it to ram everything through.
So, that would include the JobKeeper subsidy being denied to university staff.
JobKeeper is inefficient in itself. But they amended the requirements three times to deliberately exclude universities from it.
As you’ve mentioned, this is not the first time students have gathered on campus to protest these proposed changes, and nor is it the first time the police have turned up. What’s taken place before last Friday?
We managed to have a couple of protests take place with social distancing measures in June and July.
They were still quite restrictive in terms of what we could do. But we were able to have a couple of protests that were broken into groups of twenty.
Then there seemed to be a point – particularly around the Black Lives Matter protests – when the police decided that they weren’t going to let any protests fly anymore. And they were going to go to the wall to prevent them.
They introduced the interpretation of the health order that said it doesn’t matter if you’re physically spread or physically broken into groups of twenty or less, if you have a common philosophical purpose you can still be done under the health order.
And they’ve used that to try and shut down everything we’ve done since.
And lastly, the Morrison government’s agenda to weaken universities seems to be a sustained attack, and so too does the NSW police habit of coming in to shut down dissenting voices at your campus. What’s at stake here?
There’s quite a lot at stake in terms of civil liberties. The pandemic is an extremely serious thing. And the Morrison government isn’t doing enough to confront it.
And they’ve been blaming protests for the spread, when there hasn’t been a single case in the entire country linked to a protest.
But, literally, down the road at Broadway Mall, there have been two active cases and the shops are still allowed to open and trade.
It’s important that we don’t capitulate to the encroachments on the right to protest. And that we try and protest in the most COVID safe way that we can.
The reality is that the government is still pushing these attacks. We still need to organise to resist that. And, unfortunately, they seem to think that attacking students and staff is an essential service for them.
So, we need to reserve the right to fight back. And what that exactly looks like moving forward is a discussion that needs to be had. But there’s no scenario in my mind where we just accept this.
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.