The Free Palestine rally on May 22 saw significant police presence and a number of concerning policing practices. Key points include:
- An officer was observed wearing a thin blue line patch. This is the second time this year that a Police NSW officer has been observers displaying this symbol, which has been sanctioned by Victoria Police as a symbol of white supremacy and resistance to police accountability;
- Mounted police engaged in several unsafe practices, including riding horses directly through a closely gathered crowd of chanting protestors and less than a meter from a sleeping person on the ground, as well as close to several protestors engaged in afternoon prayers;
- Police forcibly pulled aside and questioned a minor, asked for their ID and threatened them with arrest over an alleged disturbance. Questioning took place behind a line of 10 police officers and legal observers were not allowed behind the line;
- Police did not place roadblocks or traffic control officers at two of the intersections passed through by the approved march route. Rally marshals were left to direct traffic without police assistance for a significant portion of the rally; and
- Some officers treated legal observers with hostility, with one observer being told to stop filming the actions of a high-ranking officer.
Police presence at the rally was initially low, with 2-4 officers patrolling the area prior to the beginning of the rally. As the rally began, police engaged in negotiations with organisers about the proposed march route, telling organisers that they would not allow them to take a route past the synagogue on Elizabeth St. Police expressed concern about protestors taking props such as coffins past the site. An agreement was reached for protestors to walk through Hyde Park to avoid passing by the synagogue.
A Constable was observed wearing a patch on the top left hand corner of his police vest displaying the Australian flag with a thin blue line through it. This is the second time in the last three months that a Police NSW officer has been observed displaying this symbol. The officer was later observed covering his badge and the patch. Police NSW have not responded to a previous incident of a Constable displaying this symbol on his uniform at the Pride in Protest rally in March. The ‘thing blue line’ symbol has been banned by Victoria Police due to its alignment with “white supremacist and extreme right wing movements, counter black lives matter movements and the condoning/cover up of police misconduct”, as revealed in a leaked internal email from Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh.1
Legal Observers NSW condemns the lack of concern shown by Police NSW about officers advertising their alignment with white supremacist and anti police accountability iconography.
A mounted police unit arrived as protestors gathered in the park. Police rode the horses to the St James side of Hyde Park, passing less than a metre from a person sleeping on the grass and close to several protestors engaged in afternoon prayer. Unsafe mounted police practises continued throughout the rally, with horses riding less than 5 metres from the back of marching protestors and moving through protestor crowds at Belmore Park where the march ended. Observers noted several incidents where horses spooked in response to pet dogs or passers-by, with officers narrowly keeping control. When a crowd of protestors gathered to oppose a minor being pulled aside for questioning by police, two mounted police rode directly through the close-knit gathering.
Legal Observers NSW again expresses concern about the ongoing use of mounted police in protest settings. Mounted police directly endanger protestors and passers-by.
About 40 officers accompanied the rally down Elizabeth St to Prince Alfred Park. The intersections at Liverpool St and Goulburn St were not blocked off by police as they had been at the Climate Strike the previous day, and no officers were monitoring the flow of traffic. Marshals had to direct traffic at each intersection to avoid harm to protestors. About 45 minutes after the march began, police started helping direct traffic at Liverpool St, doing so for another 10 minutes before the march moved past the intersection. Police did not stop to direct traffic at Goulburn St.
When the march arrived in Belmore Park, protestors gathered for speeches. A protestor was roughly pulled away from their group by 5 officers to be questioned about an alleged disturbance. The protestor was a minor and several protestors attempted to tell police this and expressed anger about the questioning. Police formed a line of about ten officers between the group of protestors and the protestor being questioned. A support person was allowed to pass through the line, but no legal observers were allowed nearby. The protestor was asked for their ID and told they could face arrest in relation to the disturbance. The protestor was then released and told they would be contacted by police.
Some officers expressed disapproval of monitoring by legal observers. A high-ranking officer told an observer to stop filming him as he gave directions to a crowd of protestors, saying ‘you don’t need to observe me’. Observers were also questioned about their connections to organisers. Several officers turned on their body cams when speaking to observers. Monitoring the actions of law enforcement officials has recently been recognized by the UN Human Rights Committee as being ‘of particular importance for the full enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly’.2 Legal observing is deployed around the world as a means to provide a level of independent and impartial scrutiny at community protests and political events that serves to deter police from using violence against citizens. The deployment of surveillance technology against independent legal observers indicates a resistance towards such scrutiny.
Legal Observers NSW is concerned about the hostility of police officers to independent monitoring and scrutiny.
2 General comment no. 37 (2020) on the right of peaceful assembly (article 21) : Human Rights Committee