NSW Police presence at Sydney Uni protest leaves law professor & student protestor injured: An interview with UNSW SRC Education Officer, Shovan Bhattarai

Poppy Morandin.

 

Tactics employed by the NSW Police to disperse a student protest at the University of Sydney have sparked outrage, following released footage of a senior law professor and a young female protestor being pushed to the ground.

Multiple students and staff were arrested and fined, following a protest held to fight against the government’s changes to higher education, university funding cuts and job losses.

“Specifically, we were coming out in opposition to the Liberal’s education funding cuts bill that has recently passed through the Senate, and the attacks to education being carried out on a campus level by Vice Chancellors around the country.” said Shovan Bhattarai, UNSW SRC Education Officer.

“There was a mass mobilization of the NSW police force at the protest. Sydney University was completely swarming with police officers, there were multiple squads of riot police, and mounted cops on horses.

“At UNSW where I took part in a protest earlier in the morning, dozens of police were sent to intimidate student protesters, and at Macquarie University earlier in the day the police had actually read out the riot act to a Year 12 tour group they mistook for a protest.” she explained.

Students were gathered peacefully, before they were reportedly chased by police who were then filmed shoving protestors in order to prevent them marching on the road.

Senior law professor Simon Rice says, that he was merely observing the protest at Sydney University and whilst attempting to move through the crowd, was grabbed from behind by police before he subsequently had his legs kicked out from underneath him.

The footage shows ensuing events in which as Rice attempted to get back up, he was forcefully pushed back down to the ground by two officers.

“The police have this idea of common purpose…I was not part of any group, I was on my own. I was walking through a large group, I was not gathering. I do not accept that I was in breach of the order.

“I was standing apart from it, I was standing closer to the police than the students most of the time.” he explained.

Footage shared by the university’s student newspaper Honi Soit exposed Ms Bhattarai experiencing a similar interaction with officers.

“I was violently thrown into the gutter by a police officer when I tried to cross Parramatta Road as part of the march. When it happened, my head was millimetres away from hitting the curb of the footpath.

“It was frightening. I was shocked and outraged by the level of violence NSW Police were prepared to dish out against students and staff standing up to education cuts.  

It’s pretty clear that NSW Police were trying to intimidate us to stop us from fighting the agenda of the Liberals and Vice Chancellors, but I think I speak for thousands of students around the country when I say that this incident has only steeled our resolve to keep fighting these attacks on our education.” she explained.

The video footage has now been viewed over 50,000 times online, eliciting comments of shock and outrage at the level of force employed by officers.

The protest was unauthorised, and its resulting infringements, will add to the more than $43,000 in fines that have been issued by police to university protestors over the last few weeks.

The right to hold a peaceful public assembly is regarded as an integral aspect of the democratic process, especially on university campuses.

“All of history proves that the only way ordinary people – students, workers, and the oppressed – have ever won anything has been through protest.

“Whether you’re talking about the civil rights movement, the movement against uranium mining or for marriage equality in Australia, or the last time we defeat education attacks like Abbott’s attempts to deregulate university fees in the 2014 budget, mass action on the streets have been at the heart of these wins.” contended Ms Bhattarai.

However, under Australian law there is no positive guarantee in relation to the right of persons to gather in a public place.

“The state should not restrict our democratic right to protest. We know that NSW Police will continue to mobilise in huge numbers, and they will keep fining and arresting protestors, especially targeting organisers. They will continue to try and intimidate protestors from standing up against injustice, but we have to try and push back.” said Ms Bhattarai.

Participation in an unauthorised public assembly, subject to circumstances, may leave persons liable to a variety of charges including unlawful assembly, obstructing persons or traffic, riot, and offensive behaviour or they may be directed by police to ‘move on’.

Relevantly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it can also result in breaches of the Health Order restricting gathering and movement.

While restrictions may have eased, it remains that a limited number of people can gather outside in a public place, with breaches possibly resulting in $1,000 on-the-spot fines.

If fines are court-elected, some of these breaches attract up to $11,000 fine or 6-months jail, or both under section 10 Public Health Act 2010 (NSW).

An assembly may be authorised in accordance with section 23 of the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).

For more information, click here for an outline on the law on your rights to protest in NSW.

Many advocates sought to emphasise the hypocrisy within the current easing of restrictions yet nonetheless being unable to protest.

“They are cynically using the guise of NSW public health orders for political repression, to try and smash up our basic democratic right to protest and stop us from standing up to various injustices.

“You can attend the footy with 40 000 others, to pubs and restaurants, or to the casino. At the same time as our socially distanced protest was given this treatment by NSW Police, Broadway shopping centre right next door to campus was completely packed full of people doing their shopping with no issues. Clearly there is a very different standard being applied to commercial venues compared to protests.” said Ms Bhattarai.

The University of Sydney issued a statement in which they stated: “We are very disturbed by the footage we’ve seen of today’s events. We encourage anyone who thinks that they were treated poorly by the police to lay a complaint.”

“We strongly defend freedom of speech and support the right of our students and staff to express their views in a legal, safe and respectful way.

“We did not invite NSW Police on to campus today. NSW Police did contact us once ahead of the event, and twice during it. We confirmed we were aware activity was planned, based on social media. We provided no further information or judgement about the activities, and did not make any requests.” the institution contended.

However, contrastingly, David Shoebridge who was present at the protest, posted: “Maybe Sydney University admin will be less keen in the future to actively call in the police, including sending police videos of their students gathering together and basically inviting police to arrest their own students?”

Ms Bhattarai echoed Shoebridge’s sentiments noting that following a Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that management had collaborated with NSW Police at previous rallies, and had even gone through CCTV to identify students involved and target protestors with fines.

Interesting facts: to be allowed to make a Supreme Court bail application, you must first have been refused bail after making a bail application in a lower court in NSW.

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