Democratic Rights Aren’t Willingly Given — They Have to Be Fought For

Vinil Kumar

New South Wales is allowing stadiums to seat up to 10,000 fans right now, but the Liberal state government has used COVID-19 as a pretext to ban all public protests. Vinil Kumar, who faced the NSW Supreme Court on this issue, spoke with Jacobin about the battle to protect our democratic rights amid lockdown.

A protester is apprehended by New South Wales police in the Domain on July 28, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Interview by
Jim Poe

Encouraged by Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the New South Wales police have used COVID-19 as cover to dramatically escalate attacks on the right to protest.

Small bands of peaceful protesters, vastly outnumbered by riot police, were dispersed by officers on horseback and sonic crowd control weapons. Veteran activists were singled out and visited by police in their own homes or targeted at demonstrations and subjected to intimidation, arrests, and fines. Courts banned safe, responsible, socially distanced protests while politicians and the media vilified protesters. All the while, mass sporting events and luxury cruises have been given a free pass by the same authorities.

These are just some of the scenes from the past few months in Sydney and elsewhere in NSW. It’s part of a long-term push to crack down on dissent. COVID-19 infection rates remain relatively low in Sydney. No cases have been traced to protests, either in NSW or elsewhere. Despite this, Scott Morrison has used the pandemic as a pretext for what amounts to a ban on public protest.

Vinil Kumar, the National Union of Students (NUS) anti-racism officer and a long-term member of Socialist Alternative in Sydney, has experienced this crackdown firsthand. Authorities dragged him all the way to the state Supreme Court in their attempt to ban a Black Lives Matter protest. Following this, he was targeted for arrest and fined at another. In response to these strong-arm tactics, he has joined forces with a broad array of others to launch a new campaign: Democracy Is Essential – Restore the Right to Protest in NSW.

Jim Poe, an independent writer and socialist, interviewed Vinil to discuss the context of this increasingly authoritarian repression in NSW, as well as the broader threat it entails to democracy in Australia.

 


JP

You’ve argued that the state government and NSW police have effectively illegalized protesting during the coronavirus pandemic. How have they done this?

VK

Since June, police have targeted protests and attempted to shut them down. The first significant incident followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter demonstrations were called all around Australia. In Sydney, BLM organizers were taken to the Supreme Court, and their planned demonstration was banned. In defiance of the ban, sixty thousand people still turned up. Five minutes before the march was scheduled to start, when it was quite clear the protest was going to go ahead, the Supreme Court was forced to overturn its decision.

Immediately after that, there was a whole flurry in the media — both federal and state politicians denounced the protest as jeopardizing public safety. The NSW police used this as a pretext to seriously clamp down on further BLM protests. A week later, six hundred police officers mobilized to prevent three hundred BLM protesters gathering at Town Hall and Hyde Park. Mounted police succeeded in dispersing the protesters. They also deployed a “long-range acoustic device,” or LRAD, which is like a sound weapon. It can broadcast very high-pitched noises and has been known to cause permanent hearing damage. It was a serious escalation. The next day, one hundred police turned up to suppress seventy refugee rights protesters.

In the following weeks, squads of police showed up at activists’ houses to deliver a letter, which basically said, “We know you were at this protest, and if you are seen at future protests, we will take action against you.”

In June, I was taken to the Supreme Court as one of the co-organizers of the BLM rally in Wollongong. Although police were successful in petitioning the court to revoke authorization for our protest, 150 people still turned up.

The most severe incident was in July. A BLM demonstration had been planned in the Domain in Sydney. Police swooped in and dispersed the rally before it could gather, arresting six people, including some key organizers, who were fined $1,000 each.

Most recently, police aggressively dispersed two small student protests against fee increases at Sydney University. At the first one, police told two students they were being arrested because they had been seen at other political protests. And at the second protest, I was one of ten who were arrested and fined $1,000.

JP

You mention police going out of their way to intimidate activists. There’s something quite vindictive about their approach, isn’t there?

VK

Yes, it’s egregious when you think about it. Police are deliberately targeting people for their political activity. There’s no other way to interpret it. It’s very targeted and the goal is intimidation.

JP

Has the government or police attempted to give an explanation for what amounts to outlawing political protest?

VK

They’ve tried to justify by arguing that public health trumps democratic rights. They’ve basically said that in a health crisis, gathering in the streets to demonstrate is a luxury. They cite public health orders, which forbid public gatherings of more than twenty people. And they’ve shut down protests regardless of the measures organizers take. All of the targeted protests were held outdoors, where there’s lots of space for people to distance out. Organizers made a serious effort to ensure that masks were worn at the protests, that hand sanitizer was available. They even split people up into groups of twenty — but the police argued that this was still gathering for a common purpose and was not allowed.

JP

There are some glaring contradictions in what gatherings the government considers acceptable or essential, as compared to protests, aren’t there?

VK

Absolutely. At the same time they’re denouncing BLM protesters, Scott Morrison and the state governments have been pushing to reopen the economy. They want to see business return to profit as usual, which means opening up workplaces regardless of what the health impacts are.

In NSW, shopping centers, pubs, and other recreational venues are open. Schools have been largely kept open, so that parents can keep working. This has substantially contributed to the spread of COVID-19 — most of the existing clusters in NSW are linked to workplaces, schools, pubs, or other areas of public activity. All the known transmissions have occurred in enclosed spaces. At the same time there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of transmission linked to any of the BLM protests, including in Victoria where a second wave took off from June. But this has not stopped a hysterical campaign by the government and the police.

It’s governments and businesses that have been reckless with public health, not protesters. The implication is that businesses, shopping centers, zoos, and casinos are all essential, while the democratic right to protest is a luxury that we have to give up in the name of public health.

This argument is even more absurd when you consider that five hundred people are allowed to gather at a community sporting event. Stadiums are allowed to seat ten thousand people. The NSW health minister has personally granted exemptions to recreational vessels — yachts — as well as ski resorts and netball games.

The hypocrisy is really breathtaking when you think about it. The government and the police don’t care about the health and well-being of Indigenous people who are murdered in police custody. And yet when it comes to protesting around this issue, they play the health card. We’re being lectured on public health by the same governments that have chronically underfunded and privatized health care and aged care. The same governments are expanding fossil fuel extraction and use, when just last year millions of people in Australia’s major cities were choked by smoke from a horrific bushfire season.

JP

So you’re calling for an exemption for political protests. What else is the campaign demanding?

VK

Our demand is that in NSW, public gatherings for the purposes of protest should be exempted from the public health orders, much in the same way that yachts and ski resorts and netball games are. We’re not against serious health measures to curb COVID-19 — we absolutely support the measures being taken to curb the virus. But that should not be at the expense of democratic rights.

Those two points are important to hold together. Workers and ordinary people are the ones who suffer most from the spread of COVID-19, and the reckless reopening of the economy poses the biggest risk to our health. So we need serious health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including the shutdown of schools and workplaces. The criminalization of public protest isn’t necessary. If the government thinks it’s safe enough for ten thousand people to watch a football match, there’s no excuse for effectively banning protest.

Governments and businesses are putting profit ahead of people’s lives — and we can’t just shut up and leave it to them. We’ve seen mass sackings in many industries. Morrison is about to cut the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, which will return welfare to below-poverty levels. University fees are being increased. Other injustices haven’t been put on hold, either. Indigenous people are still dying in custody. The climate crisis is worsening while our governments are expanding polluting industries. Refugees are still locked up in detention centers and offshore concentration camps, and we’re seeing a renewed assault in NSW against the rights of LGBTI people in general and trans youth in particular. None of that will go away by itself.

JP

Given the multiple overlapping crises, from the climate emergency to the latest global financial collapse, it seems as though the government is eager to clamp down on protest. But do you think this is a deliberate strategy?

VK

Yes, I think it is. Think about what 2019 looked like. There were protests all around the world, from Sudan to Lebanon to Hong Kong. Climate strikes swept the world, Australia included. That really shook things up politically.

Last year, a story broke in Victoria about a new division of riot police who were training to counter protests in an urban environment. In justifying the move, the Victoria Police spokesperson specifically said they’d been watching what had been going on around the world, and they wanted to be prepared. I think the authorities have a clear sense that, yes, as inequality and the climate crisis worsen, and as social discontent grows, resistance will escalate in Australia as well.

I think governments are keenly aware that it will be impossible to stabilize the economy if workers are able to strike and demand higher wages, if students are able to defeat cuts to education, or if we’re able to disrupt the fossil fuel industry. Basically, from the government’s point of view, clamping down on political opposition from below is a key part of restarting the economy. They know we have power collectively. Earlier this year when the bushfire crisis was sweeping the country, massive protests put the government under real pressure.

They know that when people get angry, business as usual gets disrupted. They know that when we take a stand collectively, it works — otherwise, they wouldn’t bother criminalizing protest.

JP

Compared to other democratic countries, is there a heightened threat to the right to protest and civil liberties in Australia? Are there situations around the world you’d compare this to?

VK

The COVID-19 crisis has led to a crackdown on protest all around the world. The most obvious example is the use of militarized police in the United States against Black Lives Matter protesters. In the UK, earlier this month there were six hundred arrests at Extinction Rebellion protests; as well, an LGBTI protest was canceled after police threatened organizers with tens of thousands of pounds in fines.

These are Western liberal democracies, just like Australia. But the same pattern is happening everywhere: as social and economic crises have deepened, there’s been a long-term trend toward the crackdown on democratic rights. The pandemic is accelerating that, under the pretext of protecting public health.

JP

So this is a local manifestation of a broader trend that was happening even before the pandemic?

VK

Yes, definitely. In NSW, since the start of the war on terror — from 2002 onward — police powers have been massively strengthened. Previously, police did not have the power to issue move-on orders at political protests. That changed after 2002. The police are now allowed to stop, detain, and search people without judicial oversight or warrants.

The use of repressive police powers has grown against environmental protesters, in particular targeting those who oppose coal mining or fracking. That has started to normalize the criminalization of protests. Infamously, last year, police threatened to forcefully move a thirteen-year-old climate activist who was protesting outside Kirribilli House, the prime minister’s Sydney residence.

JP

Police have recently cracked down on right-wing anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne — how would you respond?

VK

Firstly, I don’t support what their protests are about. I don’t support their calls to loosen the lockdowns and return to business as usual. Business is spearheading that campaign, because they are desperate to restore profitability, at the expense of the lives of working-class people. So I don’t support those calls — I don’t think there’s anything radical or progressive about those demands at all.

However, I am also opposed to the crackdown on their protests and the heavy-handed use of police powers to arrest protest organizers. Once that is normalized, it can be used against the rest of us.

JP

You’re looking to form a broader coalition on the Left in Australia to fight this. Who has become involved?

VK

So far we’ve been really encouraged by the response to the statement put out by the campaign. Over four hundred individuals and a few dozen organizations have signed on.

A number of prominent Greens MPs, LGTBI activists, and Indigenous activists have signed on. We’ve received endorsements from the Tamil Refugee Council and a number of other legal and civil liberties groups. Uniting as many people and organizations as possible is really important. This is not just a fight around a single issue — it’s a fight for everyone who thinks our society is unjust or needs changing.

JP

The name of the campaign foregrounds your concerns: “Democracy is essential.” Do you believe this is a major threat to democracy in Australia?

VK

If you think about it, what passes for democracy now in our society is actually a bit of a sham. Our political leaders clearly don’t care about ordinary people or what the majority want. A majority wants action on climate change in Australia — but it’s not happening. There is very broad support for increasing health care, mental health, education, and welfare funding. But instead, these services have endured cuts.

It’s quite clear that the official channels have failed us. For anyone who isn’t part of the business class or the establishment, it’s necessary to work collectively to exercise our democratic rights. That’s the only way to have a real say over how society should be organized.

JP

What do you fear for the future if protests are banned indefinitely?

VK

The more legal restrictions are placed on protests, the harder it will be for us to organize. This will hand more power to the state. This isn’t the first time people in Australia have faced repressive anti-protest laws. They’ve been tried before, and they’ve been defeated before, most famously in Queensland, under hard-right premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Democratic rights aren’t willingly given by governments — they have to be fought for. So we have to push back. We can’t let the government normalize the idea that participating in a public protest is a criminal act. And unless we back our demands up with mass numbers and force, the people in power will not listen.