Statement of Concern: Policing of Invasion Day, 2019
On Saturday 26 January 2019 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of ten (10) trained Legal Observers at the Invasion Day march that took place in Melbourne’s Central Business District. The march, which was organised by the group Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, began with speakers at Victoria’s Parliament House on Spring Street, proceeded down Bourke St, turning south down Swanston Street and culminating at the intersection of Swanston and Flinders Streets out side Flinders Street Station.
Legal Observers monitored and recorded interactions between Victoria Police and protesters throughout the four hour event.
Areas of Concern
We are concerned about several aspects of the policing of the event that in some instances pose unjustified limitations of rights within the Victorian Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities Act (2006) and the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution.
High-Level of Policing
Legal Observers noted the high level of police presence for a peaceful event, namely the deployment of a brawler van and other public order vehicles, the use of mounted police, the Public Order Response Team (PORT), a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), and an Evidence Gathering Team that was filming attendees throughout the event. We stress that these annual Invasion Day rallies and marches have been solemn, entirely peaceful and well-organised commemorative events involving tens of thousands of people, including families, children and elderly people. This highly visible level of policing understandably causes anxiety among attendees and may dissuade people from attending and/or bringing their children to the event in future. It also creates the impression among onlookers and the general public that the attendees pose a risk and must be policed. As we have stated previously, we believe that over-policing such as displayed at this event constitutes a form of discrimination.
Prevention of public address system
Police refused to allow a vehicle with a small public address (PA) system) to accompany the march to its ending point at the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets. No clear reason for this restriction was provided to organisers. The same vehicle was utilised in the 2018 march safely and effectively with no problems reported by police. A police member involved in negotiations with the event organisers was reported to have stated that the command not to allow the PA vehicle to proceed this year came from an Assistant Commissioner.
Organiser attempts to compromise and have the vehicle meet the march at its end point were also prevented by police. This restriction on the peaceful assembly effectively removed the ability for march organisers to communicate important messages to the many thousands of attendees and therefore increased risk to attendees. Organisers of the march were reduced to using small megaphones to direct, provide instructions and communicate with attendees. These could not be heard by the vast majority of the many thousand people who occupied several city blocks at any one time. We believe this limitation by Victoria Police to be unjustified, dangerous and a form of suppression of political communication.
Temporary restriction of march
At 11:30am, minutes after the march had begun and moved forward for one block, a line of standing police blocked the march proceeding down Bourke Street. This caused a delay for approximately ten minutes and created a range of potential issues for the march including increasing the risk of a crowd crush as thousands of people moved forward, and health impacts of keeping people longer in the midday sun. It is not clear why the decision to prevent the march was made by police at this point however it occurred at the time when negotiations about the PA vehicle were underway.
In this scenario, police ought to have deferred to the well-organised and easily identifiable rally marshals to allow the march to proceed or pause as required for cohesion.
It was observed by and reported to Legal Observers that on numerous occasions, police presence intimidated attendees by positioning themselves, horses or large police vehicles in very close proximity to attendees, often following, or parking very close to people.
Police should be aware of the impact of their presence upon members of the public. We recommend that police maintain safe and reasonable distances from members of the public during public events.
Use of Mounted Unit
The deployment of the Police Mounted Unit at the front of the march was unnecessary, and as noted above, signaled to the public that the march posed a public threat. The presence of police horses in crowd situations pose a significant risk of injury especially given the size of the crowd, the presence of children, prams, people with disability access requirements and the inability of people to freely move out of the horses way if they are maneuvered close to crowds. While they were not utilised to control crowds, their presence remains unnecessarily intimidating and increases the risk of severe injury to attendees. We remind readers that the past six Invasion Day marches have proceeded entirely peacefully and without any incident that would warrant the use of horses.
Open carriage of weaponry
Legal observers noted police members openly carrying paramilitary-style equipment such as flash/noise distraction devices designed to shock and disperse crowds, and possibly the newly acquired stinger grenades. As we have asserted previously, the open and visible deployment of repression technology at peaceful events serves no safety or operational purpose aside from intimidation. For example, one police officer was observed casually carrying a container of OC spray outside a vehicle for no operational purpose.
Some Victoria Police were observed without official ID badges on display. We continue to stress, as we have in past years, that by their own regulations, VicPol members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016).
We note that no rally attendees were arrested, but observed two far-right supporters being arrested and removed from the area directly in front of the Flinders Street Station clocks (1.20pm).
Legal Observers also noted numerous incidents of police speaking with, deterring or preventing far-right, nationalist or patriot identified individuals or small groups from approaching the march throughout the day. While we note that Victoria Police were cognizant of the risk that far-right ‘patriot’ groups or individuals would attempt to counter-protest or antagonise the march, MALS does not believe this accounts for or justifies the level of over-policing, tactics, and open carrying of weaponry witnessed.
This Statement is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and other agencies upon request.
For inquiries please contact us.