News & Views

Where does MALS sit with all these ‘anti-lockdown’ protests?

Photograph by Scott Barbour/AAP

We know there’s a lot of anti-lockdown protest activity going on and we are seeing a growing anti-lockdown narrative online and within our own social media feeds. As Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) we thought it was time we responded properly.

MALS understands that many people feel that the Chief Health Officer (CHO) directives such as mask-wearing, movement restrictions, business closures, and the current Stage 4 evening curfew represent unfair and unjustified infringements of their rights.  For many people, these restrictions may be the first time they have experienced significant limitations upon their freedoms. For others, these restrictions may compound feelings of already being targeted by police.  We understand that many people in Victoria are fearful and have concerns that these limitations on our basic freedoms might represent a growing authoritarianism.

The use of the charge of ‘incitement’ against people organising or proposing any protest events as well as house raids and confiscations needs to be broadly condemned no matter where we stand.

The charge of Incitement is a repressive tool that could easily be used preemptively against any protest organisers where police think a crime ‘might’ be committed. That’s a huge concern.

We believe that this sort of policing as well as the over-emphasis on police-led and punitive responses to COVID-19 have increased the perception of unfairness in Victoria, and have also increased the likelihood of a backlash and misplaced resistance. The Victorian Government and Victoria Police should take some responsibility for this. Overly punitive approaches to previous health pandemics (such as SARS, Ebola, HIV/Aids) have previously led to distrust in public health authorities, and have undermined the observance of important public health measures. Add the huge amount of baseless conspiracy misinformation on the Internet that feeds upon both rational and irrational fears, and it’s no surprise people want to protest the lockdown.

However, restrictions upon basic freedoms such as movement and gatherings are sometimes necessary and can be entirely ‘lawful’.  As human rights advocates, activists, and lawyers, we also understand–as Amnesty International Australia and Victoria’s Human Rights Commission have pointed out–the temporary and proportional limitation of rights for clear public health purposes is permissible on human rights grounds, similar to compulsory seatbelts or cordons being placed around a burning building.1

MALS recognises that this COVID-19 pandemic is a real and serious threat to public health and the health system’s ability to cope, and without these measures, we would be facing a far-higher death rate than we have so far. MALS is not against the public health restrictions, but we do want them applied fairly, proportionately, and only for as long as absolutely necessary. 

As lawyer and researcher, Eda Seyhan has written:

“This is not an argument against lockdowns. But the exercise of state  power during this pandemic, while exceptional, should not be viewed as  unconnected and irrelevant to the normal workings of the state. There is  the immediate and oft-repeated risk of executive powers being normalized once states of emergency have formally ended.”

Why Human Rights Organizations Should Not Lose Focus on Civil and Political Rights, Journal of Human Rights Practice

All Victorians should be alert to the risks of these extraordinary powers being misused now or into the future. It is possible to support the health restrictions but be critical of how they are policed and enforced. MALS will continue to help run covidpolicing.org.au, alongside other human rights partners to promote accountability and track the misuse of police powers and we urge everyone to report any misuse of police powers.

Know Your Oppressions

Many anti-lockdown groups have been using language and memes drawn from many other social and political struggles. The public health restrictions in Victoria, even those under Stage 4, are not at all comparable to the structural repression experienced by First Nations, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples; refugees or asylum seekers; migrant communities; people of colour; or LGBT+ communities who have survived and resisted decades and sometimes centuries of cultural, legislative, and systemic oppression. To suggest there is any equivalence between lockdown and the lived experience of oppression, is an expression of ignorance and privilege.

To compare living with public health restrictions as akin to the life-threatening reality of authoritarian or dictatorial governments is also inaccurate and naive. Many MALS members and activists we routinely work with, have lived inside or have worked in actual dictatorships. Victoria is not one.

Sovereign Citizens & Legal Information

We have noticed the surge in so-called ‘sovereign citizen’ stances and challenges to public health restrictions—often trying to use very far-fetched and incorrect understandings of the law.2  MALS does a lot of work informing and educating activists about their civil and political rights, and so we urge people to be very careful where their legal information is coming from. A short list of sources we trust can be found here.

What does MALS think the government should do?

MALS supports the calls of many human rights, legal, and advocacy groups, to step back from the over-use of policing, fines, and the blaming of individuals that has characterised so much of the response to the crisis in Victoria so far. 

There also need to be commensurate accountability processes in place for all the current COVID-related expansions of police powers and roles.

Accountability means:

  • Independent investigation of all allegations of police misconduct including the discriminatory application of fines; 
  • The release of detailed police stop and fine data;
  • Robust oversight and investigation into the police use of surveillance technology such as drones, Automatic Number plate Recognition (ANPR) systems, or GPS phone tracking.

This accountability is critical not only on human rights grounds but will go some way in  reducing the growing level of distrust in the government’s response to the pandemic in general.

Do we think that there should be protests during a lockdown?

Yes. If we can expect some commercial activity to continue safely, we can expect the same of protest events. Protests should be considered an essential service to any healthy democracy.

Protests that are organised safely should be given the same sort of consideration and allowances as business and commercial activities.

We continue to call upon the Victorian government and health authorities to recognise and make clearly defined allowances for protest activity that is organised with COVID-safe practices under all future CHO State of Emergency directions.  

The carefully organised protests by the Victorian Refugee Action Collective (RAC) and the Black Lives Matter protests organised by the  Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) and other groups in early June remain superb examples of how this is entirely feasible.

Finally, protests, even those we don’t agree with, should be able to proceed without pre-emptive charges, house raids, excessive and unlawful police violence, use of police weapons or other forms of human rights abuses.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates, law students, and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, monitors and reports on policing at activist events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for positive social movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres, and a range of local, national and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil & political rights.
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Footnotes

  1. Embedding human rights during COVID-19, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
  2. Aidan Ricketts, lecturer at the Southern Cross University’s School of Law and Justice, has written about this here: The difference between a legal system and a fantasy novel.