Report Calls For Occupy Inquiry

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Inspired by the global call for action by the Indignados movement in Spain, the protests and revolutions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, activists organised to launch Occupy Melbourne in Melbourne City Square on 15 October 2011.

Occupy Melbourne sought to transform the square into a "common" space of political demonstration where people could learn, discuss and demonstrate about issues of concern. In particular, activists discussed abuses of political and corporate power, globalised neo-liberalism, the imposition of austerity, and the privatisation of public services.

Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne protesters were asked by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the protesters had a "right to protest" but that this right was time-restricted. "A week", claimed Doyle, "was a reasonable time for their mindless shriek of protest".

Assistant Police Commissioner Stephen Fontana was reported as saying: "[The protesters] have had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the citizens of Melbourne."

If it is to be meaningful, any political "right to protest" needs to protect how protesters make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an "occupation" was central to the global Occupy movement. A time restriction defeats the movement’s objective.

Many protesters remained in the City Square, and others joined them in asserting the "public" nature of the square and the right to be in and create open spaces for political demonstration and communication. The square was fenced off from protesters, and all but surrounded by police.

At around 11:30am that Friday, Victorian Police officers from the Public Order Response Team advanced in groups of four to six towards the occupiers and physically removed them one by one, carrying or dragging them out of City Square. Occupiers who had linked arms were wrenched from each other. More than 100 people were removed in this way and property was also moved from the site. A crowd of hundreds gathered to watch and support protesters in the square.

One year on from the controversial eviction, "Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011" is highly critical of the authorities — Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police — who authorised and carried out the eviction. The report documents the personal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their experiences of policing. It complements these personal stories with an account of the relevant law.

The report was published by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (OMLST) and is endorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Liberty Victoria, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network. The report’s call for an independent inquiry into the eviction is strongly supported by the Federation of Community Legal Centres. Last week the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team was awarded the prestigious Tim McCoy award for their work, an annual Victorian award recognising outstanding achievement in human rights and social justice.

The President of Liberty Victoria, Professor Spencer Zifcak, described the report as a "well researched and cogently argued report that raises serious questions regarding the dispersal of the Occupy Melbourne protest in 2011".

"The information and evidence collected in the report suggests that the rights of demonstrators to freedom of speech and assembly may have been violated. These rights are protected by the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities and they are set down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international human rights treaty to which Australia is a signatory. In other words, both Melbourne City Council and Victoria police may have acted illegally and in breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations. Because of this, Liberty Victoria favours the immediate creation of an independent inquiry to examine all the circumstances in which the protest was terminated."

The report documents the harmful effects of this policing operation both on individuals and on the capacity and willingness of people to engage in political dissent. "Today my whole perception of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I witnessed the scariest brutality I have ever seen," Emily, 37, told the OMLST.

The effects of such violence can be traumatising. Many protesters at Occupy Melbourne were new to activism and had no previous experiences of the violence inflicted in the name of "public order". Protesters’ statements collated in the report speak of the terror they experienced during policing operations, which included mounted police charges and the use of dog squads.

The report documents physical injuries sustained during the eviction, including cuts, grazes and bruises as well as serious injuries including broken noses, black eyes and back injuries. It also documents longer-term psychological effects.

"For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a police officer," Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The report argues that such violence stifles political expression and acts as a deterrent to people joining and participating in movements for progressive social change.

The report also examines the various legal grounds used to justify the eviction of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; trespass in a public place; common law "breach of the peace" powers, and; controversial statutory "move-on" powers. It finds that none of these grounds were substantiated and that the forceful removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council appears to have been unlawful.

These findings endorse the comments made by Zifcak who described the legal grounds relied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as "flimsy" and "uncertain". The report’s analysis highlights how police have a wide discretion to use breach-of-the-peace powers to instigate "order" and suppress dissent, because the powers are difficult to challenge on the spot.

The forcible removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square and the policing of the subsequent protest in the CBD shocked the national and international community. Occupy Melbourne was the first Occupy encampment in the world to be evicted violently. The report argues that there is ample evidence of excessive and unnecessary use of force, such as: grabbing and dragging protesters by the neck, legs and arms; throwing and pushing protesters to the ground; punching and kicking protesters, including in the face; use of chokeholds and pressure points; and kneeing protesters in the face and groin. The report also documents the improper use of chokeholds, horses and capsicum spray.

The report argues that these actions breach legislative restrictions on use of force, including Victoria Police’s own internal guidelines. Individual police officers need to be held accountable for these breaches.

On the day of the eviction, large numbers of Melburnians gathered in the central business district. Some gathered to support, some to observe, and some to demonstrate against the forcible removal of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45am and approximately 5pm, this protest was pushed by police up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the afternoon, police used "snatch squads" to grab people — some who appeared to be protest "leaders" and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break — from the street. Over the afternoon, approximately 100 people were taken into police custody. Protesters were taken to police stations at St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, the Melbourne Custody Centre, Moorabbin and elsewhere. Other protesters were held for shorter periods.

Some protesters were driven away from the CBD and released in random locations, including a paddock in Altona. A large proportion of protesters were held in custody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at police stations across Melbourne. The conditions of confinement were inadequate. The report argues police were acting outside of their remit and in breach of their internal guidelines in detaining people pursuant to breach-of-the-peace powers; detaining approximately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may have constituted false imprisonment.

One year after the eviction the OMLST has not identified a single protester charged with trespass or a violent offence for their actions on that day. The authorities who authorised the eviction and the individual police officers who used excessive force have yet to be held accountable for their actions. One year later, it’s time for an independent investigation to document and assess the events of 21 October 2011.

As Tamar Hopkins, principal solicitor of Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, writes in her foreword to the report, such an inquiry is "not only necessary to restore the community’s faith that the rule of law still operates in Victoria, but is required under international human rights law where allegations of human rights abuses have been made".

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