On Friday 1 July, 19 pro-Palestinian activists, including me, were arrested in Melbourne’s CBD for opposing Max Brenner, a chocolate store that sends care packages to some of the most brutal sections of the Israeli army. The arrests show just how far defenders of Israel will go to silence dissent. Furthermore, police intimidating and violently attacking a protest in Melbourne sets a dangerous precedent for anyone wanting to demonstrate in Victoria.
That Friday, we marched into Melbourne Central where Black Pearl (formerly Jericho) once sold cosmetic products made from sea salts stolen from the occupied Dead Sea. It was our campaign of targeting Israeli-owned businesses that forced the store to move out of the shopping centre.
From there we moved across to QV to protest outside of Max Brenner. Owned by the Strauss Group, the company sends care packages of chocolate and other goods to show their support for the Golani and the Givati brigades, known for their involvement in the war on Gaza in 2009. The Golani Brigade was also at the head of a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp near the city of the same name in 2002.
The police, in overalls and leather gloves, sent squads into the crowd and arrested protesters. They mostly targeted those holding megaphones or those seen to be leading the demonstration. Charges range from trespass and besetting, to ‘behaving in a riotous manner’ – despite the fact that it was the police that were ‘besetting’ the store, blocking all entrances with more officers than protesters, whilst we linked arms in a completely non-violent protest. The violence came from the police who grabbed protesters in headlocks, with one arrestee losing consciousness for a time.
Following the protest, we were subjected to outrageous allegations in the media including that the protest was anti-Semitic and comparing us to the Nazis and Black shirts during the 30s. These ridiculous claims are nothing but an attempt to cover for the actions of the racist Israeli state, which maintains the subjugation of the Palestinians through a variety of apartheid laws toward both Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Arabs in Israel proper. This includes the ‘apartheid wall’ that stretches into Palestinian territories in the West Bank. In particular, the blockade of Gaza means many essential items the population need to survive are banned, including until mid-2010 many food and household items such as jam, coffee, some spices and paper, whilst getting construction materials in to rebuild Gaza remains a problem. Israel also maintains a series of checkpoints around the West Bank where Palestinians are forced to take hours to travel between sections of their own land, often dying en route to hospitals or giving birth at checkpoints.
My use of the term apartheid, especially when talking about the BDS movement is deliberate. It links the campaign back to the struggle against apartheid South Africa, where people around the world boycotted anything to do with the racist state in solidarity with blacks fighting to be considered equal in a country to which they were indigenous, much like the Palestinians.
The BDS movement, though taken up by people around the world concerned with the attacks on Palestinians and the abuse of human rights in general, has been called for from within Palestine. Palestinians are asking for our solidarity, for us to help them in isolating a state that strips them of rights and dignity on a daily basis.
Taking a stand in Australia is important, where relatively speaking, we have more rights. But Friday night shows these rights aren’t permanent and need to be defended.
Israel has just passed a law outlawing calls for boycott in Israel, and with the attacks on the flotilla, it is clear Israel is putting pressure on its international allies, including Australia, to clamp down on criticism. NSW politician Walt Secord, a vocal defender of Israel, asked the NSW police minister last month what he planned to do to crack down upon BDS protests in Sydney:
With the BDS gaining support, the NSW Government and the Police Minister must ensure that companies with an Israeli connection are protected and are not unfairly targeted … BDS is part of a worldwide attempt to isolate Israel, to boycott Israeli products, creativity, programs and culture. It has reached Australia and that is of concern. I vehemently oppose the BDS campaign.
This has taken place alongside the law and order agendas of the two states now under Liberal party rule. Ballieu has been keen to shed his ‘red Ted’ image by announcing new laws that mean more police are out on the streets, especially in the city on Friday and Saturday nights. These unprecedented powers allow police to designate an area and order everyone to move on. The police attempted to do this on Friday night and some were arrested under the bizarre charge of ‘trespass in a public area’.
But people should be concerned about the privatisation of public space and the corresponding limitations on the right to protest in Melbourne. Federation Square is off limits to protesters unless campaign groups hand over thousands of dollars to book it. If you have money, you can buy or lease space – which is then barred to anyone wanting to voice criticism of whatever you do.
These new laws have ramifications for other campaigns. If the police can get away with shutting down pro-Palestinian protests and arresting activists, where else can they? Protests for refugee rights outside detention centres have been subject to large intimidating police presences in the last few months, including with dogs. In May, they charged a march outside Maribyrnong Detention Centre with horses just for marching on the road, arresting one protester.
It is essential that everyone that supports the right to protest bands together to defend the ‘Boycott Israel 19’ by signing the defence statement, that has already been signed by prominent Jewish critics of Israel, Norman Finkelstein and Antony Loewenstein. But most importantly, we need to make the next BDS protest bigger than the last one. We cannot let the police succeed in intimidating people from taking a stand in support of the Palestinians. By supporting the ‘Boycott Israel 19’, we can help to make sure the police can’t intimidate any other campaign or threaten our right to protest.