Policing, protest and the pandemic

LGBTIQA+ liberationists speak out against police abuse

Share with your friends


2020 has been one hell of year—environmental catastrophe, COVID, a capitalist system in crisis, naked police abuse and resistance! LGBTIQA+ people have a massive stake in uniting with other communities to stem the erosion of democratic rights and hold police accountable.

Decades of struggle against police abuse. The contemporary queer community was forged through resisting police attacks on the right to socialise and organise.

  • August 1966, San Francisco—cops target gender diverse, young and queer patrons at Comptons Diner. They arrest those who defy gender norms by cross-dressing, sparking months of protest.
  • June 1969, New York—the Stonewall riots, led by trans women of colour, butch lesbians and a diversity of queer working class patrons of the Stonewall Inn, explode in rage against decades of homophobic and transphobic abuse. Inspired by the civil rights, women’s lib and anti-war movements, they find role models for rebellion.
  • June 1978, Sydney—police attack the first Mardi Gras and arrest 53 people. This ignites the Drop the Charges movement and months of sustained protest with many more arrests. Activists rally around the chant ‘stop police attacks on gays, workers, women and Blacks,’ a rallying cry to unite all police targets.
  • August 1994, Melbourne—police raid Tasty, a queer night club. They hurl homophobic abuse and strip-search all 463 patrons on the pretext of a drug raid, which found nothing. A class action wins payments for false imprisonment and assault.
  • May 2019, Melbourne—police raid the residence above Hares & Hyenas bookstore and event space. Nik Dimopoulos runs outside. Cops violently set upon him, fracture his shoulder and cause permanent damage.

In response to mass outrage, Victoria Police were forced to apologise to Dimopoulos and owners, Crusader Hillis and Rowland Thomson. They promised ‘a thorough investigation’ by Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and Police Standards Command.

History keeps repeating

Melbourne-based activist and writer, Emma Russell, is the author of Queer Histories and the Politics of Policing? in which she critiques police apologies and participation in events, such as Pride March, as public relations exercises, noting that ‘policing is far from a neutral or benign force.’ Russell explains, ‘The normalisation of police presence at LGBT Pride events advances the process of commodification, assimilation, and exclusion that gay liberationists and queer activists have long fought against.’

Police apologies are hollow gestures, when those who perpetuate the abuse are routinely exonerated. Earnest pledges to find answers, coupled with calls to stay calm and let the system do its job are a routine response designed to let off steam and defuse protest.

Every time a First Nations person dies in custody, grieving families and others taking to the streets are promised the system will provide justice. Every time, it fails. In August, the family of Tanya Day was ‘devastated and angry’ when told that no criminal charges would be laid against police over her death. The Yorta Yorta grandmother was arrested in 2017 in Castlemaine for public drunkenness, while sleeping on a train to Melbourne.

The Hares & Hyenas team were also angry when IBAC released its report in April, finding that police had acted lawfully. IBAC declared the response was not disproportionate—this despite witnesses describing Dimopoulos screaming in pain, hunched in the gutter, cuffed tightly with rigid plastic restraints and surrounded by cops in riot gear, holding semi automatic weapons. Two month later, Dimopoulos announced he is suing the state government to demand compensation for his physical and mental injuries.

Just why were the police barging into the residence above Hares & Hyenas, an iconic queer community hub? The cops claim a case of ‘mistaken identity’. It seems Dimopoulos was ‘relaxing in a residence while brown’. This echoes the experience of so many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), who routinely complain of random police interactions for ‘driving while Black’ or shopping, sleeping, waiting to collect take-away, travelling on public transport, walking, or a range of other everyday activities. Dimopoulos was racially profiled by police looking for a Lebanese man.

Racial profiling is rife. Korey Penny, a highly skilled Aboriginal worker, is one of six people in the country who can operate the multi-million-dollar tunnel boring machine used on the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project. In September, the Noongar construction worker was travelling to work on his bike, carrying the required permit. Penny was racially vilified and brutally attacked by Victoria Police, then taken by ambulance to hospital with serious injuries. Like Dimopoulos, this was a case of mistaken identity. Penny is a member of the Australian Workers Union. The union’s Victorian Secretary told The Age, ‘His only crime was to be riding a pushbike to work. Would he have been treated the same way if he had been white and wearing a suit and tie? Obviously not’.

I spoke with Samia Goudie, a queer Bundjalung woman, who told me, ‘When we are stopped by the police, we have to respond to the inevitable comment that we must have done something wrong! For those of us who are Black, gay, or refugee, we face this oppression every day, it lives on our bodies. Being queer, Aboriginal, and a woman is a triple whammy.’

She spoke about police indifference when those from oppressed communities are the targets of crime: ‘I lived in Sydney for years when gay men were disappearing off cliffs, and there was little police interest in finding out how they died.’

Reflecting on 2020, she says the fight to stop racial profiling and over-incarceration and to hold police accountable is long and continuing. ‘I was struck that it took the police murder of George Floyd, a Black man in the U.S., to focus mainstream attention on what’s happening here. The epidemic of deaths in custody has continued for decades. So have the scandals of kids tortured in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre or an Aboriginal child charged for receiving stolen property after a friend gave them a Freddo Frog. And we have the death of David Dungay, whose last words were the same as those of George Floyd, I can’t breathe. The wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests galvanised First Nations who latched onto the moment demanding to be heard! Young people are playing a particularly inspiring role.’

Lesbian activist Michelle Reeves is a member of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, a group campaigning to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. She says, ‘BLM has been instrumental in raising awareness around the impacts of over-policing on the BIPOC community in Australia, and has grown to include the Black Trans Lives Matter movement, representing the heightened risks of violence faced by the trans community.

Reeves is passionate about the need to build alliances, noting that ‘across marginalised communities we hear similar stories arising from increased policing’.

Health crisis increases police powers

The rise of the pandemic in 2020 has exacerbated these issues with police granted sweeping new powers. This makes the situation much worse for BIPOC, queer youth, homeless people, those living with a mental illness and other community members who are routinely criminalised, such as sex workers.

Reeves explains the impact on the LGBTIQA+ community, which ‘faces high suicide rates, family violence, homelessness and reduced access to healthcare services. None of these issues can be solved by a police response, yet a police response is what we’re likely to receive in a crisis. Increased police powers give police a greater ability to patrol our communities. Emergency laws impact vulnerable youth who are at increased risk of family rejection due to homophobia and transphobia.’

Increased police powers are devastating for First Nations. Reeves says, ‘High police interaction rates translate to higher rates of arrest and risks to both the person in custody and their community. The 1997 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody recommended that jail be used as a last resort, yet here we are in 2020 seeing increased police powers in every state. These increase police interaction with the public and do not address the health emergency we have at hand.’

Goudie highlights that it is essential to stop powers becoming entrenched. She references the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention as an example of how so-called emergency powers can persist once in place. Introduced under the guise of concerns about child abuse, the Intervention suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and imposed heavy regulation on Aboriginal people’s lives, with no consultation. These measures still exist today. ‘We’re seeing the same thing happening with COVID—the health issues are real but are being used to give more power to police, which means more racism, more homophobia and more violence weighing heavily on over-policed communities.’

Goudie, who has worked in health for much of her life, believes ‘the mix of COVID and police is fraught. Measures put in place for health reasons can quickly slip into ongoing repression.’ But she has no time for conspiracy theorists or anti-maskers: ‘The number of people who make opposition to masks the focus for freedom has shocked me. This seems to be their first taste of their personal freedom being impacted! They should try being queer and Aboriginal.’ She argues there is a need to have a good political anchor and to fight for democratic rights, noting that we don’t have enshrined constitutional rights to free speech like they do in the U.S. If we had these guarantees here, this would be a tool to use in the fight against a creeping police state.’

Governments are using the pandemic as cover to allow more widespread use of surveillance technology, including automated number plate recognition, drones and systematic monitoring of social media. Protests organised in a COVID-safe manner, strictly adhering to health guidelines, are being suppressed—organisers being charged with incitement and slapped with hefty fines. In September, Victoria Police told the Refugee Action Collective that if they hold a media conference, they will be fined. ‘It is outrageous that Victorian police have become the arbiters of who can hold media conferences, of who can speak and who cannot,’ declares spokesperson, David Glanz.

Organising to win!

For the queer community, there are crucial lessons from the early days of the HIV/AIDS community. Faced with a health crisis, the community quickly recognised the political risks and got organised with clear demands. Analysing the situation, discussing solutions and formulating demands is urgently required.

Radical Women (RW) hosted an online event in June to do just this. The event, titled Turn Rage Against Police Abuse into Rainbow Resistance, honoured the Stonewall Rebellion. Thanks to the impact of gay liberation, murdered queers of colour are finally amongst those remembered as many march in t-shirts proclaiming Black Trans Women’s Lives Matter. But it wasn’t always like this. Queer visibility, recognition and respect in the movements had to be fought for—and in some quarters it still does. Something RW does with gusto!

Amelia Kirk-Harkin, contemporary artist, apprentice upholsterer and a member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union, presented on behalf of Radical Women about the nature of the police. She explained that the role of police is to uphold the status quo. Working class people in their multi-hued, multi-gendered, rainbow diversity are all targeted by a system that protects capitalist profits, racism and patriarchy.

Kirk-Harkin discussed how public outrage and organising against police brutality rose to a new level in 2020. She had marched with the Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party joint contingent in Melbourne’s huge, disciplined, distanced, masked and very effective Black and Indigenous Lives Matter protest on 6 June. Drawing on this experience, she discussed the need to transform the expressions of rage that the global movement represents into a sustained movement for structural change, taking on the ruling class whose interests the cops protect.

Like Radical Women, many other opponents of police abuse want to bring this system down. Emma Russell also believes that to eradicate the abuse will require systemic change. She makes the case that, ‘in 2020, the growth in visibility of radical movements challenging the foundational violence of policing makes clear that police reform has never and will never bring us closer to social justice. In the relatively short history of policing in Australia, it has always been weaponised to advance the intertwined projects of settler colonialism and capitalism. Police reform has played a key role in the maintenance of police legitimacy and power. Indeed, Victoria Police, as we now know it, was conceived as a reform to the disparate and brutal forces that were mobilised in the first decades of the colony of Port Phillip.’

But while working for the day when we have a system that delivers social justice for all, what can be done now?

There are important measures that would make a real difference for Nik Dimopoulos, Korey Penny and deaths in custody families, such as Tanya Day’s children. We need to put an immediate end to the practice of police investigating police. Establish police review boards, elected from and controlled by the community, with powers to investigate, discipline, prosecute and sack police.

Demand the slashing of police budgets, and disarm the police! The five-year service contract for automated number plate recognition alone costs $17.3 million! Funding must be redirected to provide inclusive social services, job programs, free education and training, public housing, including for queer youth, and a free, quality public health system for all!

Support is growing amongst grassroots unionists to demand Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) revoke the affiliation of The Police Association (TPA).

Michelle Reeves is a member of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). She believes the union movement has an important role to play in the fight to curb police violence. ‘It’s so important to work within your union to build knowledge and material support for these struggles. With the groundswell of support for calls to remove police from VTHC, there’s never been a better time to discuss the dangers of policing as a health emergency with your union branch and use our collective power as workers to create a better world.’

Members of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, Meriki Onus, Tarneen Onus-Williams and Dr Crystal McKinnon, are unionists with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union. They initiated an open letter to VTHC, calling on it to ‘to stand against the police presence in the public housing towers and to permanently end the affiliation of TPA, including taking steps to ensure they are prevented from ever re-affiliating.’ The letter attracted almost 2,000 signatures.

This campaign is resonating strongly with radical, BIPOC and LGBTIQA+ grassroots unionists. Help amplify this demand by contacting your union and urging support. Police out of the union movement! Cops are not workers: they serve the capitalist state against those it exploits and oppresses.

These demands can be won! Debbie Brennan, Melbourne Organiser for Radical Women agues, ‘Calls to defund, disarm and put police under community scrutiny and discipline already have gained a lot of traction in the U.S., where policing has a long and brutal history—like here. George Floyd’s murder was a flashpoint, which has galvanised and solidarised people across borders. Governments are responding by expanding police powers under the cover of COVID safety. A united front of resistance by all of us targeted is not just possible, it’s necessary. This would be powerful.’

Brennan adds, ‘The police are the armed force of an increasingly repressive state and protectors of an organised far right. By fighting to bring cops to heel, we would be pushing back against this double danger.’

On the day IBAC failed those hoping the cops would be held accountable, Police Minister Lisa Neville responded by ‘thanking all police members for the work that they do.’ Their job is to protect the interests of the class that rules—one that also relies on homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism to pit us against each other. Our job is to disrupt the cozy status quo and build a movement, which holds police to account.

There are many ways to be part of building this movement—wherever you are in the country, I would love to hear from you and talk more about how you can contribute.

Alison Thorne

Further reading

Freedom Socialist Party statement—Why increased police powers are not COVID Safe and How to resist

Radical Women Statement—Black women’s lives matter

Indigenous Social Justice Association campaign—Support the call for police out of Victorian Trades Hall

Alison Thorne is a member of Radical Women, a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union and a campaigner to stop deaths in custody, working with the Indigenous Social Justice Association—Melbourne. She is the managing editor of the Freedom Socialist Organiser. In 1983, she motivated the lesbian and gay community to recognise HIV as a political crisis as well as a health challenge, calling for united and collective organising. Contact her at alison.thorne@ozemail.com.au

This piece was originally published in Bent Street, Australian LGBTIQA+ Arts, Writing and Ideas, issue 4.2, 2020. Read more from Bent Street on their website.

Share with your friends