The last week has seen brutality on the streets of Fitzroy as the Napthine government struggles to complete soil sample drilling necessary for the East-West tunnel link that has thus far been disrupted by community picketing. Victoria Police and the Melbourne Planning Authority have used overwhelming police numbers, crack squads of riot police, search and rescue teams, intelligence teams and, now, a dedicated task force, as well as secret orders and last minute information releases in order to bully the #tunnelpicket into oblivion.
Yet the protesters have held strong and in spite of numerous (and serious) injuries are maintaining the fight against the Victorian government with the confidence that the campaign will strongly contribute to the Napthine government’s downfall at, or before, the next state elections.
The coverage of the campaign has been sporadic and at times perverse – cameramen rushing in to film patients receiving treatment, clamouring and jittering when the police snatch-and-grab squads start to move and only recently starting to show surprise and shock at the level of violence meted out to picketers. But most aggravatingly, there has been continued reference to the picket as being a violent protest.
While it is true that there has been violence at the pickets there is an important distinction that must be made between violent protest (using violence to express dissent or combat the state/capitalism) and peaceful protests at which there is violence. The #tunnelpicket falls firmly, and undeniably, into the latter campaign.
As yet the only effort I have seen to explore this dichotomy was the brief comments from Libby Gore (temporary host of ABC774’s breakfast radio show) on Wednesday which were rejected by a co-host who blithely declared that there was a simple calculus whether an action counts as a violent protest: “Was there violence? If yes, it was a violent protest!”
This attitude is not only mistaken, but it is ultimately damaging to the campaign as potential supporters are misled to the ironic belief that protesters are being violent and thus the campaign is illegitimate (or worse, just unpalatable). When dealing with a population that is, largely, politically ignorant and reporters who at best might be described as politically ignorant also the implications of these falsehoods becomes dire: not only is it insulting to place the blame and responsibility for state violence upon the hands of the peaceful protesters but the revulsion of violence amongst the community and Victoria Police’s knowledge that the protesters will cop the flack for their own violence has seen this redefinition of “violent protest” come up for codification.
Recent legislation passed by the lower house of the Victorian Parliament will give police expanded powers to arrest and fine “violent” protesters, with the #tunnelpicket campaign implicitly referenced in the readings and discussion of the Bill. This legislation was introduced 20 years to the day after Victoria Police’s “first paramilitary operation”: the breaking of a picket at the Richmond Secondary School, and with similar lies being used to justify police actions today as they were twenty years ago.
The blurring of the notion of “violent protest” and the resulting obfuscation of serious police brutality has produced a situation in which police may soon be given the powers to indiscriminately attack peaceful and non-peaceful protesters and give them a hefty bill to go with the bruises and broken bones later.
This is a situation that can only be undone by wrenching the notions of violent protest and violence at protests apart and removing the ability for Victoria Police to grant legitimacy to their actions by tarring the entire action as violent (and thus in the public eye, bad) when they attack people in the street.
Already, the high level of violence and injuries caused by Victoria Police to a clearly peaceful group has made the East-West tunnel link even more unpopular and contributed greatly to the high levels of support for the #tunnelpicket campaign. But this is only one of many campaigns and individual protests active today and more will be required to quash the disguising of state violence as violent protest.
Citizen media is needed to film, tweet and publish the circumstances of arrests and protests more generally to show that police claims of violence against cops are lies. People who are arrested with the accusation of being violent need to contest the charges and, if released from arrest without charge, speak loudly about the desperation of a Victoria Police to create a negative media image. And most of all, people need to start explaining that peaceful protests are only made violent through the violent intervention of the state.