When I was younger, my parents worried about me going to protests. They didn’t stop me, but they put the fear of god in me about getting arrested. We had relatives who had spent time in Syrian and Lebanese prisons, the sorts of places where people disappeared.
Here, we call those places dungeons, or worse, death chambers. We compare them to our democratic institutions that enshrine the right to protest in law. And the comparison is so stark that we rarely stop to think about what it means to protect the right to protest.
It can’t mean the same thing to everyone, but there are some broadly shared principles. If our democratic institutions are worth their salt, then we don’t use lethal force against protesters. Yet between the use of lethal force, and any sort of force, there is a black hole.
The images I saw of a police officer using pepper spray on a group of sitting students at the University of California's Davis campus in 2011 are still fresh in my mind. I didn’t think that a couple of years later I would recall them in relation to an event that I would witness firsthand. The two incidents provoked similar questions about the presence of police on campus and our duty of care as educators to protect students from violence.
On 27 March, I was one of a handful of staff left standing with a large group of students on a picket line near the end of a 48-hour strike. As staff, we were on strike after collective bargaining negotiations stalled and led to a successful ballot for industrial action.
Over two days on the picket we negotiated with each vehicle entering the university — as is our industrial right — explaining the reasons for the strike and the presence of a staff picket line.
We were nearing the end of our second day when the students came to support us. Our numbers swelled so that we covered part of one entrance into the university.
The truck driver at the top of the queue of vehicles wanted us to see the bigger picture. He had a delivery of beverages for an on-campus food outlet.
The bigger picture, according to him, had nothing to do with cuts to education funding or rolling back staff working conditions. The bigger picture, he said, was that we were denying potential customers their ice-cold drinks.
And because of this selfishness on our part, customers looking for an occasion to dispense with their cash were dying of thirst, or buying drinks elsewhere.
On a hot day, cold drinks are important. We could appreciate that. We’d been standing in the sun for five hours.
On any day, slowing down traffic entering a university is an inconvenience. But that is the point of a picket.
Before the riot police arrived, a staff member had advised the students that they should move out of the way of the traffic when the order to do so was issued.
But if you have ever found yourself standing in front of a row of riot police, you would know that the time between issuing the order to move, and using force to move protesters, can be a matter of seconds, or less.
And so it was that we witnessed a line of riot police forcefully pushing against a group of students and pushing them into each other so as to clear the way for vehicles to enter the university.
Moments earlier, one of those young people had sung seven verses of “Solidarity Forever” into a megaphone. Most people knew the chorus and joined in.
It’s true that not everyone wanted to sing — and some thought that the students should have moved earlier.
But let us be very clear. Neither standing nor singing had caused harm to person or property. What they might have done, however, was slow down a delivery of cold drinks.
The ease with which the police were prepared to use force on that day suggests that it is acceptable for a row of riot police to push over a group of students for delaying a delivery of drinks and holding up traffic.
As a member of staff, my duty of care toward the students, who on any other day could be in my classes, should be to protect them from being subjected to that violence. And if that is my duty of care, then the police should protect me for doing my job.
Yet it doesn’t seem to work this way. Police were not called onto campus to protect staff or students. They were called onto campus to ensure that deliveries reached their destination. Is it more important to keep business running as usual than to protect students from being exposed to the use of force and potentially being seriously injured, or worse?
And if we think so, then it’s also okay for the rest of us to live in the shadow of fear and intimidation. Our right to protest is only protected so long as those in a position to choose not to protect it continue to perceive our actions to be legitimate. But perception is subjective. Protest, and that includes the most peaceful protest, attempts to change the way things are and will look different each time. If we want to inspire young people to change the world, then the least we can do is protect their ability to do so by ensuring that our laws and practices actually reflect the values we claim to uphold.
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