As abroad, so at home: NSW police cracks down on antifascist protesters

Fascism is in full march across the United States. This month, protesters in Portland were abducted from the street by police and taken away in unmarked vans. Rather than condemn these actions, Trump doubled down on his plan to ‘dominate the streets’ by expanding the use of federal troops to other American cities.

By contrast, the fact of fascism in Australia is more quotidian and mundane, creeping insidiously into mainstream culture through policy and broadcast. Most of the time, it is enough to let the logic of a settler colony move to its own authoritarian conclusion. Occasionally, however, things do flare up and remind us of how the table is set. This happened two weeks ago, when the police cracked down on antifascist protesters while protecting the far right. 

The occasion was a a solidarity rally for Raimond Kelly organised by far-right agitator and general chud Nick Folkes. Kelly is the man who literally cracked a whip outside the Chinese embassy while shouting ‘dirty f***ing commies’ as a ‘protest’. A group of antifascists turned up to Newtown court to show that fascism won’t be accepted on the streets of Sydney so long as there is any left to speak of. During the rally, one protester – a member of the Australian Communist Party – was apprehended by police for ‘offensive language.’ While he was being detained, another protester who tried to record the arrest was seized by plainclothes officers wearing suits and lanyards. As she tried to get free from this apparent assault, she was charged with assaulting an officer. The sequence was captured on video.

The two were remanded and kept in custody for a couple of hours before being set free with police bail. They were given a court date in the first week of August.

Once again, the police is willing to use prejudicial legal codes to suppress political protest, and then to press charges on those who sought to resist arrest. Anyone that has familiarity with the law and protest knows that ‘offensive speech’ is the kind of charge that is used to detain people when there is no cause to do so, and is often used to detain the homeless and particularly Indigenous people. Most magistrates will quash these charges and tell police to harden up and accept that harsh language is ‘part of the job’.

The practice is even more dubious when the speech in question is political. In 2015, Danny Lim was notoriously arrested for wearing a sign reading ‘Tricky lying Tony you cvn’t screw education, health, jobs and the environment’. After a legal argument, the presiding judge ruled that political protest constituted a ‘reasonable excuse’ mitigating offensive speech. 

The arrest of the second protester shows that the police is willing to claim ‘assault’ for as minor an act as kicking out when being placed under arrest. Nearly everyone that is arrested resists in some way. To charge someone with ‘police assault’ for this is so far from the realm of commonsense application of law as to suggest very prejudicial treatment.

The flip side of the repression of leftists is the way that police treated the fascists present. Cops formed a defensive line around the far-right and stood by as the racists spewed vitriol and hate. The attack on the antifascists seemed, in juxtaposition to the treatment of Folkes et al, to be a calculated effort to silence and detain progressive demonstrators. The hyperbole of the police fact sheet also suggests this, claiming the protesters were violent and deliberately assaulted a police officer, causing ‘immediate pain to his left leg.’ The police bail paragraph emphasised that they believed now protester to ‘lack any respect for authority or any regards for other people’s safety.’ Among her bail conditions, she was precluded not only from entering Newtown, but from protesting at all. The use of exaggerated charges to detain and demobilise a demonstrator is a difficult thing to explain away as cops just ‘doing their job’.

For this reason, legal counsel for the protesters have decided not only to fight their charges, but to take civil action against the police for excessive force. At the time of writing, a Sydney-based firm is  assessing the case. 

It is critical that Australian progressives show unity before the creeping authoritarianism of the Morrison government. That a bill was introduced in May of this year to increase ASIO’s powers constitutes as much proof as one needs of the direction Australia is heading. Director General of security at ASIO, Mike Burgess, told parliament that the Organisation gets ‘involved’ with protests when ‘we have intelligence or information that says someone is wanting to encourage people to protest.’ 

When such warnings are made out in the open, we should heed them. The police is clearly pursuing out political objectives by identifying and demobilising effective organisers. If we don’t want our cities to become tomorrow’s Portland, we must show today that we stand with each other against the state’s complicity with fascism.


Image: Flickr

Giacomo Bianchino

Giacomo Bianchino is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the City University of New York. He has written for the Saturday Paper, New Matilda and Overland, as well as publishing academically in books and journals.

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