Some thoughts on police and protest

Montrealais (en:WP)

Late one June night in New York City, 1969, police raided the gay-friendly Stonewall Inn and attempted to arrest many of the patrons for offenses against ‘public morality’. Spontaneous demonstrations against the police behaviour by evicted patrons and a gathering crowd of onlookers  quickly developed into a riot. It was a critical moment in the development of the worldwide gay liberation movement, and a catalyst for widespread ongoing political action for LGBTQI rights.

In Sydney in 1978, a gay and lesbian pride march was organised by the Gay Solidarity Group as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots and to show support for other gay and lesbian activists around the world who were fighting homophobic laws and widespread social discrimination. It too was met with police violence, something that paved the way for many restrictions public protest to be removed from New South Wales state law.

Fast forward to 2013. Last weekend at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the contemporary incarnation of that 1978 commemorative protest, a young gay man was filmed crying and pleading his innocence as police officers knocked his head into the concrete. The video quickly spread across news websites and social media, igniting outrage at heavy-handed police tactics and their attempts to stop onlookers documenting the event. The police force insisted they were conducting an internal investigation. I admit, I’m sceptical that anything will come of it.

The two men who reported instances of police brutality, including the man on the film, said they were subjected to such treatment because they had tried to cross a road. They hadn’t started a fight, they hadn’t hurt anyone, they hadn’t even put their own lives in danger: they simply had not done what a police officer wanted them to do. It’s not irrelevant to note that one of those laws allegedly used to arrest at least one of these men – the charge of ‘using offensive language’ – is a law completely odds with everyday community standards. I could say the word ‘fuck’ a hundred times in the street today and nobody will arrest me. But if society – and, by implication, the police – were predisposed to consider my behaviour offensive in the first place, it may well be used to bring me into custody.

Consider a hypothetical: You start to cross the road. A police officer tells you to stop. You do it anyway. The police officer grabs you and twists your arms behind your back. You say, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ The police officer arrests you for using offensive language. You say, ‘Why are you arresting me? I’ve done nothing wrong! You can’t do this!’ You get angrier, and twist around trying to free your arms. The officer knocks your knees out from under you and says now he’s charging you with resisting arrest. Now you’re really angry, and you’re also hurt and trying to stand up, so two more police officers come over and pin you onto the ground. You kick your legs about, trying to shake off their grip, and your foot catches one of them in the shin. So they charge you with assaulting a police officer.

It’s the classic trifecta,  wide open for abuse in all those old ways. It’s also worth noting that it – particularly the offensive language charge – is frequently and disproportionately used against another marginalised group in Australia: Indigenous people. Because things get even more complicated when race becomes involved. Consider the controversy that erupted recently in South Africa, when the Johannesburg Pride March was interrupted briefly by action group called One in Nine, who staged a ‘die-in’ to protest both ‘systemic violence targeting black lesbians in South Africa and the commercialisation of the Pride event itself’.

That critique has relevance even here. As the gay community has become more and more visible, and simultaneously further incorporated into the market, so the pride marches around the world have become increasingly depoliticised. In fact, it is often the recognition of and development of a ‘gay market’ that facilitates this depoliticisation, as events become more and more focused on public image and less accommodating of  resistance. In stark contrast to the Stonewall solidarity demonstrations, for example, police themselves have often marched in uniform in Australian prides, as a demonstration of ‘goodwill’ towards the LGBTQI community.

One might argue that in many ways this in itself signifies social acceptance of diverse sexualities. But while it’s undeniably true that significant progress has been made, the events of last weekend are a reminder of just how paper thin that veneer of progress is. This isn’t discrimination that can be fought simply with colourful parades and tourist attractions. This is discrimination that is social, pervasive, and deeply structural, and it won’t change until those structures do.


Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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