COVID-19 Protest Policing January-March 2021 – Unequal and Unjustified

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to ease, restrictions on protest remain unduly tight and unevenly applied. This report draws on first-hand legal observer data to examine policing at three recent Sydney protests – the Pride in Protest Mardi Gras March, the Women’s March and the Invasion Day rally. The approach adopted by NSW Police at these events highlights the unequal burden of control and surveillance placed on marginalised communities, and the ways in which this burden restricts democratic assembly and expression.

Key points:

  • Police adopted a heavy-handed approach to policing the Pride in Protest rally and Invasion Day, creating an atmosphere of tension and putting protestors at risk of police violence. This was despite the considerable effort put in by organisers to ensure COVID safety and liaise with police, and despite the official exemption from the Public Health Order obtained by Pride in Protest.
  • Both events were characterised by heavy police presence, interference with protestors’ movement and the excessive exercise of police powers. A march of under 100 people at Invasion Day was met with move on orders and 5 arrests. Pride in Protest attendees sitting in groups of less than 10 in Hyde Park were issued an arbitrary move on order after the march was over.
  • The lighter policing of the Women’s March highlighted the disproportionate amount of control, surveillance and violence that police exercise on Indigenous and queer communities. Police allowed the March to continue through the CBD in excess of authorised capacity and at its own pace, with no move on orders being issued and more courteous treatment of attendees by police.
  • Police have not respected the right of attendees to be made aware of their legal rights, with officers violently shoving a legal observer aside and ripping a card with legal information away from an arrestee at Invasion Day and an officer questioning a Pride in Protest attendee without allowing him to be made aware of his rights by observers.

Pride in Protest

The Pride in Protest Mardi Gras march faced heavy police interference in the lead-up to the event on March 6. Organisers were drawn into a protracted back-and-forth with NSW Police, who withdrew their acceptance of a Form 1 request days before the protest and took protestors to the Supreme Court in an attempt to halt the rally, before a last minute exemption was granted by the Health Minister. The protest was exempted from the Public Health Order as long as protestors remained in 3 socially distanced groups of 500 and followed the COVID Safety Plan prepared by organisers. This was the first protest in NSW to receive a formal exemption from the Public Health Order. NSW Police subsequently issued their acceptance of the proposed route from Taylor Square to Hyde Park, allowing protestors to march down Oxford St.

Despite this authorisation, NSW Police adopted a heavy-handed approach to policing the protest. About 30 police officers lined the perimeter of Taylor Square as protestors gathered for speeches. When protestors began to fill up Oxford St, in line with the approved march route, several officers attempted to push them off the road. A police officer walked into one of the legal observers filming the interaction. Police then formed a line across Oxford St and stopped protestors from crossing the street to reach Taylor Square. This continued for about 20 minutes, before police began allowing protestors to cross. After continued negotiation with organiser liaisons, the police confirmed they would allow the march down to Hyde Park. The police formed a tight perimeter around the march, with 15 police officer at the front, 5 on bicycles at each side and 8 mounted on horses at the back, as well as four police vehicles.

When the march paused on Oxford St at the corner of Hyde Park, police almost immediately issued move on orders for the protestors to continue off the road, despite the intersection being blocked off for the march. A group of about 20 riot police joined those already at the intersection and the officers assembled around the protestors, effectively forming a kettle. The front section of the march continued moving into Hyde Park, where a further 30 officers were stationed around the War Memorial. A group of about 200 protestors remained on Oxford St and continued chanting. After about ten minutes, the mounted police at the back of the kettle began moving forward and directing protestors to continue into Hyde Park. An officer then told organisers the occupation could continue for another ten minutes at least – however, officers at the intersection continued moving in on the group and directing them off the road. Protestors then moved off the intersection into Hyde Park, and police formed a line along the intersection to prevent occupation. In total, the march had occupied Oxford St for about an hour.

In Hyde Park, organisers gave final speeches and advised everyone that the protest was over. The Community Union Defence League was holding a barbecue in the park, and about 200 protest attendees stayed in the area in small groups to listen to music and eat. Around 50 police continued patrolling the park. Some officers questioned attendees about the reasons for the barbecue. After about an hour, police began circling remaining groups and telling them they were not allowed to be in the park and would be asked to leave at 5pm. Police cited the Mardi Gras Public Health Order, which allowed police to direct a person within the Order zone to leave the zone when requested, with no justification or reason required. By 5 pm, less than 50 people in small groups remained on the grass around the War Memorial, sitting and talking. Police moved around to each group and told them to leave.

Two people were stopped by 5 or 6 officers while exiting Hyde Park, on the basis that the police drone had captured one of them exchanging something with someone else in the park. The police conducted a search of this person, asking them to take things out of their bag. When they didn’t find anything, they let the two people continue out of the park. The 5 or 6 police officers then walked over to a group of three people sitting on the grass by the War Memorial, who were friends of those stopped. Police began questioning one of them about possession of a substance without a prescription, as another 10 officers circled around the group. What follows is a deidentified account of subsequent events.

The officer questioning him did not give Jake time to think about whether he wanted to respond and what he wanted to say. One of Jake’s friends was trying to tell him that he did not have to answer questions from police, but the officer spoke over her and continued asking Jake questions. A legal observer gave him a card with his rights on it but Jake did not get a chance to read it as the officer continued questioning him. The police searched Jake’s bag as he was being questioned and found nothing in it. They took down Jake’s personal information and took a photo of his license.

Officer J Smith conducted a pat down search of Jake over his clothes and checked his pockets, as well as asking him to remove his shoes. Officer Smith had a patch on the top left hand corner of his police vest displaying the Australian flag with a thin blue line through it. Officer Smith moved away after the search and one of the people present (Diane) asked one of the other officers whether the patch was a sanctioned modification to Officer Smith’s uniform. Diane told the officer that the patch had been sanctioned in Victoria as a symbol of white supremacy and had been the subject of a formal apology by a Victoria police officer who was wearing it. The officer said he did not think the patch represented “that” and otherwise did not respond to Diane.

The police then told the group they had to leave the area. Diane asked if the move on order was active immediately and whether it meant they had to move out of the park. One of the officers responded that the order was effective and they had to move out the area. Diane tried to clarify whether the area meant the park, but the officer responded “I’m not speaking to you”. A police officer stood over Jake at a distance of less than half a meter as he was packing his bag up. Jake told him he was packing his stuff up to move on and that he didn’t want the officer standing over him, but the officer did not move and said he was just talking to Jake. Diane asked one of the officers for clarification about whether the move on order meant they had to leave the park. One of the officers said yes, and another officer clarified that they had to move out of the CBD.

Jake left and the police continued standing around the group as everyone packed up. A female police officer walked over to a bag and asked whose it was. One of the people in the group, Maxine, responded that it was hers. The officer then said she needed to search the bag because the police had a suspicion that Maxine had something in it or had put something in there. The officer searched the bag and found nothing. She then approached Maxine and asked her to lift up her bra. Maxine asked why, and the officer said it was because she thought Maxine might be holding something in her bra. Maxine asked if the officer was asking her to take her bra off in front of everyone. She had a mesh bodysuit on over the bra and began taking it off when the officer said she didn’t need her to take the top off, only pull the bottom of the bra down and give it a shake. Maxine complied and when nothing was found on her, the officer moved to Diane who was standing next to Maxine and searched her bag but did not ask her to move any of her clothing.

The heavy-handed policing of the protest created an atmosphere of tension and apprehension in a setting that was geared towards expression and celebration. The police provided no justification for moving attendees from Hyde Park at a time when attendees were doing nothing more than using the park to sit and eat in small groups of less than 10. Despite having given authorisation for the march to continue down Oxford St, police gave contradictory and confusing directions throughout the protest and pressured protestors to move off the road. In total, the police presence numbered over 50 officers, including about 10 vehicles and 8 horses. When they questioned and searched attendees, the police crowded around them in intimidating numbers, did not allow individuals to be made aware of their rights, and did not communicate clearly about move on orders. Overall, the conduct of police leading up to the protest and during it was marked by heavy-handed control and a lack of any identifiable public health benefit. Organisers created and implemented their own COVID Safety Plan and the event did not carry any greater risk than other mass gatherings which did not attract similar policing.

Women’s March and Invasion Day

The disparity in the way in which different communities are policed was highlighted by the conduct of NSW Police at the Women’s March, held just over a week after the Pride in Protest march. The Women’s March Form 1 request was approved under the condition that the protest remain under 500 people and maintain COVID safety. The protest attracted around 3000 people who amassed around Town Hall before walking down Market St, down Elizabeth St and to Macquarie St, where protestors demonstrated outside Parliament. Police presence was still heavy, with about 50 officers present and a line of mounted police following the back of the march. However, the mode and attitude of policing had a stark contrast to Pride in Protest. Protestors were allowed to file down the street at their own pace, with mounted police waiting for protestors to slowly clear off the light rail tracks at Town Hall before following behind. When protestors gathered on Macquarie St in front of Parliament House, they were able to remain there for about an hour before dispersing of their own accord, with police issuing no move on orders and not seeking to enforce the Public Health Order, which was mentioned at the beginning of the rally but not invoked by police for the rest of the action.

Observers who were present remarked on the difference in policing compared to the Pride in Protest action, with police acting in a far less intimidating and controlling manner than they had only a week prior. The contrast was even more stark in relation to the policing of the Invasion Day rally a month and a half before. During the speaking component of the action, police formed lines between groups of protestors to keep them in groups of less than 500 and issued announcements to those present that they were in breach of the Public Health Order, ultimately forcing organisers to call off the march in order to avoid mass arrests. A small breakaway march of less than 100 people through Hyde Park was met with move on orders and 5 arrests. A legal observer was violently shoved to the side by police while filming the arrests. When legal observers attempted to give one arrestee a card detailing his legal rights, police did not allow him to take the card and he had to grab it with his mouth. An officer then ripped the card out of the arrestee’s mouth.

The stark difference in policing cannot be explained solely by reference to the public health threat level – there had been no locally acquired COVID-19 cases for 10 days leading up to Invasion Day and restrictions on gatherings were significantly eased just days after the protests. The COVID-19 threat level had not changed between the Pride in Protest rally and the Women’s March. In the absence of a public health explanation, the difference in policing demonstrates the unequal burden of control and surveillance placed by NSW police on marginalised Indigenous and queer communities.