September 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Injustice unmasked

By Patrick Lau
What are the priorities of policing protests under lockdown?

On most days, the best spots for protesting in the Sydney CBD belong to the Falun Gong regulars. Tuesday, July 28, is no different – the footpath between Woolworths and Town Hall train station has been thoroughly staked out, with a row of placards claiming 10 metres of prime real estate. At their centre, a Falun Gong practitioner sits sheltered from the threat of rain in silent meditation, as immovable as Buddha under the bodhi tree.

Over in Pitt Street Mall, a man is handing out flyers detailing a convoluted litany of injustices involving a 2002 Family Court decision, a “secret” culvert near his house, and the “evil and bitch and hangman NSW Police”. This is his 44th straight day of protest to the indifferent lunchtime traffic.

“I ask the police to arrest me, but they say they can’t,” he complains.

Beneath the Captain Cook statue in Hyde Park, opposite the Australian Museum, two young men are eating ravioli from a Tupperware container and live-streaming their discussion about defending history. “Angry mobs shouldn’t tear down statues,” insists the one wearing an Akubra.

Up in the Domain, a Black Lives Matter protest has attracted about 50 attendees, showing support for another investigation into the death of David Dungay Jr. It’s a number far diminished from the tens of thousands who attended a Sydney BLM rally in June, and significantly fewer than the 5000-odd who had expressed interest on Facebook.

Dungay, a Dhangadi man from the NSW Mid North Coast, died in Long Bay jail in 2015 after being restrained and sedated by five guards. Last year, a coronial inquest did not recommend disciplinary action against the guards, and Dungay’s family have been pursuing other legal options. They have also become involved in Sydney’s BLM movement.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller was quick to suggest that he would decline the BLM protest application and fight it through the courts, arguing that an outbreak in Melbourne public housing towers could be attributed to a BLM rally there – a claim rejected by Victorian health services.

“Relying on some pretty good intelligence out of Victoria, we know how dangerous these protests can be, in terms of health,” Fuller told 2GB’s Ben Fordham. “I think it led to a lot of frustration … seeing big numbers on the TV clearly flouting the health laws.”

The organiser of the Sydney event, Paddy Gibson, responded by scrapping plans for a march from Town Hall to parliament, and instead asked attendees to gather in the Domain in groups of fewer than 20, wearing face masks and maintaining distance.

But Fuller was troubled enough that he called out the constabulary in force. Although the police presence wasn’t precisely quantified, there were “many hundreds” of officers involved, according to assistant commissioner Mick Willing.

About 15 minutes before the BLM event is due to start, police order the protesters to move on, and Gibson and four others are taken away and fined for breaching public health orders. Another woman receives a criminal charge for swearing at police.

It’s a severe anticlimax: a proto-protest, a fraction of the size anticipated, and shut down before it began. Clumps of police mill about the Domain’s cropped lawn in loose formation, like military enthusiasts re-enacting manoeuvres at Malplaquet, but there’s not much enthusiasm in them. Bemused tourists on their way to the Art Gallery of NSW pause for photos of the strange spectacle.

The protesters trickle away into the CBD, followed by the far more numerous police. Even among the city crowds, these two groups are easy to pick out in their masks: apart from a pair of security guards directing a queue outside the Apple store, hardly anyone else in Sydney is wearing one.

Greens state MP Jenny Leong, a long-time acquaintance of Gibson’s, says that the BLM Domain event involved the most police she’d ever seen. “We’re talking APEC levels of policing. The difference being at the APEC rallies there were 10,000 people on the streets protesting.”

For Leong, concerns about health aren’t the whole story, and she questions whether the police should be able to shut down a rally that’s calling for police accountability. But on a broader issue, Leong thinks democratic access to public space and speech are at risk under the COVID regime.

“It doesn’t look like this pandemic is going anywhere in terms of our ability to get it under control, and we need to recognise that we need to find COVID-safe ways to enable people to engage in peaceful protest.”

Leong says that people’s ability to freely participate in our democracy is more important than sport, or people being able to go to a Westfield shopping centre. “You want to see more democracy, not less, in the middle of this crisis,” she adds. “There are so many people in positions of power in our parliaments that would prefer to not have the doors open, and would prefer not to have the scrutiny, and that’s dangerous to our democracy.”

Four days later at the SCG, defending NRL champions the Sydney Roosters handle the Gold Coast Titans pretty comfortably. Attendance is limited and entry to the ground is staggered, but not tightly enforced. A lone, yawning police officer oversees the main gate, unaware of or ignoring the teenagers giggling over a spliff behind the police van.

At Bondi, where a series of outbreaks in March led to a temporary closure of the beach and the imposition since of a 500-visitor limit, a drive-through testing clinic has been set up in a car park. “People come from all over,” a nurse muses. “A lot from the western suburbs, inner west today.” On warm weekends, the promenade is packed with hundreds at a time, although relatively few are daring enough yet to step onto the sand.

On Sunday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian issues updated guidance from the department of health: masks are not mandatory and can’t replace social distancing, but are now “highly recommended” in crowded, enclosed spaces.

Later that afternoon, the organisers of another event in the Domain, the weekly Speakers’ Corner session, report a solid attendance of enthusiastic amateur rhetoricians and their equally passionate hecklers. One newcomer, sporting a pair of oversized belt buckles, has a particular fascination with COVID-19 safeguards, but speakers also concern themselves with “roofers, androids, the ruler of the universe”. And dandelions.

Patrick Lau

Patrick Lau is a Sydney-based journalist who covers business, the environment and culture.

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