Protest Cops With A Political Message


Operational tactics for dealing with the protests have included the setting up of exclusionary zones, issuing of an excluded persons list, riot squad deployments and in Melbourne and Sydney allegations of excessive force.

Police and Security expert Associate Professor David Baker of Monash University says police actions in dealing with protest movements have been changing over the last decade, reflecting a hardening of official attitudes toward politically motivated demonstrations.

"The setting up of exclusionary zones and the arresting of protesters prior to an event, these are common traits that police have been using in controlling protests that they see as being unpredictable, and with a real diverse grouping of people," he told New Matilda.

An estimated 6000 officers were reported to be on patrol in the Perth CBD during CHOGM, as an undisclosed number of people were placed on a police exclusion list. They were warned they would be arrested if found in certain areas of the city during the meeting. 

Many of the individuals on the list have connections to environmental or other protest groups, however one excluded person is also an employee of a company responsible for scaffolding at the event. Sean Gransch was arrested inside the exclusion zone several days before the event and now faces 12 months in prison.

"The issue is that they’re looking at tactics that are aimed at preventing violence in many cases," Baker says, "but the result of that might be that it limits the right of people to protest. It may also be counter productive if it works to inflame potential conflict between police and demonstrators".

Baker says police find it difficult to deal with organisations that do not have an organisational hierarchy similar to their own ranks and levels. He says authorities are ill-prepared to deal with the mixture of diverse groups working on the basis of a consensus, as well as the unknown number of protesters that may participate in a demonstration.

"Police are then inclined to … plan for the worst case scenario. If they expect big numbers or the involvement of certain groups, they will prepare with riot police for example," he says.

In Melbourne, demonstrators have written to the Ombudsman seeking an independent investigation into at least 43 cases of alleged police brutality from the 22 October raid. There were reports protesters were punched in the face, eye-gouged and pepper-sprayed, including children.

City of Melbourne Councillor Cathy Oke supports the inquiry into the decisions both to evict and about the use of force, saying the order for police to remove demonstrators was given without proper consultation with protesters.

"I was incredibly upset with the way it was handled. My understanding was we were still in talks with protesters about when and if it would be necessary for them to move on," she says.

The violent scenes were followed by a vitriolic opinion piece by Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, in which he described protesters as "self-righteous, narcissistic, self-indulgent rabble" and subsequently declined to support any inquiry into police behaviour.

However, protest organisers stopped short of labeling the decision by Cr Doyle to evict them as politically motivated.

"I’m not sure what political or personal beliefs motivated his decisions, if at all, but if he doesn’t understand that this is a genuine movement for better representation and accountability … then that may be a partial explanation for his actions," spokesman Nick Carson told New Matilda.

However, David Baker says that while police decisions regarding operational matters should be independent from political interests, the clear distinction between police and government objectives can blur easily.

"Operationally, police should be independent. In one instance police might choose to act (against a protest group), in another they might allow more time before acting and in a third they might choose not to act at all. Certainly, there is discretion by police informing these decisions, involving judgments on how many police are available, what sort of backup there is, a whole range of operational factors".

"But police are normally pretty savvy as to the political environment they are working in also. In the case of Melbourne last weekend, the Queen was scheduled to visit and police had a pay dispute that had been going on for 12 months. They don’t have to be told directly by the Lord Mayor or the Premier what they want, that they want this Occupy group out of the city. They know the state of affairs, like anyone else could discern. So its a very blurred line".

Two days after the handling of the Occupy Melbourne protesters, Victorian police received a pay rise worth 19 per cent over four years, exceeding their original demands. The offer ended a 12-month-long dispute with the State Government.

West Australian Police had similarly threatened to go on strike during CHOGM with union president Russell Armstrong saying, ”I don’t want to make this a CHOGM issue but the feeling of (police) is they are very, very angry and they want this to escalate."

Ten days before CHOGM was due to commence, a settlement was reached granting police a 13.25 per cent pay increase over three years. 

Further protests are expected in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney this week.

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