Turn Up the Heat: Demand the Right to Demonstrate Free from Police Violence

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Demonstrators protested against police violence at S11 outside the ALP State Conference. Photo by Alison Thorne.

“Police fear protest riots,” “Fear of violent protests,” Violence fears close stores,” “Help at hand for protest violence” and “Forum chief lashes wild protesters” were among the sensationalist newspaper headlines in the three months before the mass blockade of the Melbourne meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) from September 11 to 13 (S11).  The media regularly asserted that protesters would be violent, despite repeated statements from organisers that the actions would be non-violent. Organisers wanted to keep the focus squarely on the devastating impact of capitalist globalisation on people and the planet.

The protests outside the World Economic Forum were inspirational. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people defiantly and joyfully united to protest capitalist globalisation. Participants experienced a new movement boldly breaking out of the neoliberal straitjacket. Through all of its institutions, capitalism pessimistically argues that there is no alternative to the global market forces. Wrong! S11 participants had alternatives, were discussing and popularising them and building the movement to go and fight for them.

The protest was vibrant, diverse, anti-capitalist, internationalist, optimistic and a threat to the status quo! But this was not the story the media told. Media editors had so absorbed their own propaganda that they did not see the irony in the mismatched audio and video they broadcast. Viewers heard the word “violence” often enough as TV news presenters slavishly read their autocues, but images are better remembered. All the images showed police savagery, especially those of the Force Response Unit thug using his baton like a battle- axe — single-handedly wounding many demonstrators.

S11 did become infamous for violence —  naked cop violence, the violence of the capitalist State against people exercising their democratic right to dissent. On the TV screens of millions, the S11 “villains” were morphed into victims — and outrage against the actions of the police was near-universal — especially after the dramatic footage of a protester run down by a police car, which then sped off.

Enforcing capitalist rule. In a capitalist society, wherever there are police there will be brutality. The mobilisation for the S11 protests — more than a third of the Victoria Police Force — was the largest in 30 years. It did not prevent severe disruption to the WEF meeting. S11’s challenge to capitalism’s idols — private property and big business — was too much for Premier Steve Bracks, who obviously gave a “get tough” order to Police Commissioner Neil Comrie. The subsequent attacks, using highly organised military-style tactics, caused hundreds of injuries. More than 30 demonstrators were hospitalised. (See the accounts by Drew Ridama and Maria Mardones).

The sheer scale and ferocity of the police assault on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators came as a shock to many participants. Nobody was arrested at any of the attack sites, because protesters were not actually breaking the law. Instead, the police used brutality to terrorise and punish — tactics which signalled to other participants how threatening the protest was to the capitalist State. There is no reason for surprise.  The police are its armed instrument, upholding capitalist law and order. The cops were merely doing their job — keeping Victoria safe for big business, by any means necessary.

Bully Boy Bracks. Faced with an armed attack on law-abiding citizens, Premier Bracks showed his allegiances, and that of his party. The police were lauded for their actions.  The peaceful protesters? Following the lead of NSW Premier Carr, he called them “un-Australian,” said that their behaviour was “fascist,” and that they “got what they deserved.” Given that one young protester required emergency resuscitation after her heart stopped beating due to massive cranial trauma, it is to be presumed that the Premier is quite relaxed about criminal assault and attempted murder by state officials!

Bracks got some of what he deserved. His own Williamstown Labor Party branch was among those which passed motions condemning him. Several ALP members went public about their decision to quit the party, and Premier Bracks was popularly labelled “Jeff” Bracks, a reference to Jeff Kennett, the arrogant former Premier he had replaced. Angry S11 protesters demonstrated outside the ALP State Conference which took place the month after S11. If any future investigation shows that Bracks did order the onslaughts during S11, he should be in the dock with the criminal thugs who did his bidding

Policing the Police. A campaign to hold the police accountable for their actions at S11 sprang up after the attack on Tuesday, 12 September. It is vital that this campaign is a militant and public one, and is not bogged down in years of litigation and bureaucratic investigations.

For example, Victorian Ombudsman Barry Perry immediately launched an enquiry and was flooded with complaints from demonstrators and the general public. Of course, the aggrieved S11 participants should use this formal complaint process. But the Ombudsman has the record of a toothless tiger. When The Age reported back in 1997 that the police were spying on radicals, the subsequent Ombudsman’s report did nothing to prevent a repeat. After the infamous baton charge on picketers at Richmond Secondary College in 1993, the police claimed the force used was reasonable. But a 1994 inquiry by the Ombudsman did criticise police, stating that less forceful methods were available to them. He recommended further action against the police, and officers were charged with disciplinary offences. Six years later, just days before S11, the police quietly dropped the internal charges — signalling to police that they had nothing to fear if they assaulted protesters.

Many injured protesters have also lodged a class action seeking damages for their treatment. Over the last six years, the police have paid out more than $8 million in settlements, including for the notorious Tasty Raid, when patrons at a queer nightclub were strip-searched. Thirty protesters who were beaten on the Richmond Secondary College picket line agreed to a settlement of almost $300,000 after lodging a writ alleging excessive police violence. Seven East Gippsland forest protesters injured in the infamous “pressure point” police action in 1994 recently forced the police to cough up $50,000 in damages. While these payouts are welcome, seeing the police involved charged would be a more politically satisfying reward. The injured are entitled to compensation, but should not have to approach the courts for restitution, with all the delays, administrative hurdles and legal manoeuvering such actions entail.

What is needed to curb police violence and other abuses is an accountability mechanism with teeth. One such mechanism is a Civilian Review Board (CRB), made up of people elected from the community, with finances and administration completely separate from the police force. It must have powers to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, dismiss and prosecute police officers and requisition compensation from the police budget for victims.  A CRB would not change the fundamental class nature of the police or completely eliminate police abuse. However, being accountable to the community and armed with real powers, it would make Force Command and individual officers think again before they order or carry out violent attacks on unarmed citizens.

The thousands who blockaded Crown Casino for three days in protest against neoliberal destruction of society had the democratic right to do so, free from police brutality. The savage attack on demonstrators at S11 showed us how easily this fundamental right can be violated. The struggle to minimise police abuse will last as long as capitalism exists. By taking up the fight for a Civilian Review Board, we can win an important weapon for our side in this ongoing battle.

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