Australia

‘No apologies’ for mass protest arrests despite controversial tactic

Victoria Police have refused to be drawn on a controversial tactic being used to corral anti-lockdown protesters during several fiery rallies in Melbourne over recent months.Complaints over the use of “kettling” – a tactic where police surround demonstrators to contain the crowd in a tight space and effect mass arrests – are growing among protesters…

Victoria Police have refused to be drawn on a controversial tactic being used to corral anti-lockdown protesters during several fiery rallies in Melbourne over recent months.

Complaints over the use of “kettling” – a tactic where police surround demonstrators to contain the crowd in a tight space and effect mass arrests – are growing among protesters and legal representatives.

It comes as a Victorian politician urged protesters to make submissions to the federal Joint Committee inquiry on COVID-19 criminal activity and law enforcement, which will look at practices used by Victoria Police during the pandemic.

Organisers have also urged protesters to lodge complaints with the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, government ministers and local MPs, while legal action is also being considered.

They claim the tactic has aggravated violence between protesters and police and has forced them to be grouped closely together for long periods of time in breach of coronavirus social distancing laws.

But Victoria Police have defended their actions and say they make no apologies for enforcing the chief health officer’s directions.

In a statement, the force said they did not disclose the nature of tactics or methodology used by Victoria Police due to operational reasons.

“Over the last couple of months, Victoria Police has responded to protest activity across metropolitan Melbourne, where people were deliberately breaching the chief health officer directions that were in place at the time,” a spokeswoman said.

“At times police were also subject to violent behaviour from several individuals who attended these protests.

“We make no apologies for enforcing the chief health officer directions by arresting those who were blatantly breaching the rules and acting in a violent manner.”

While traditional protest and riot management policing focuses on dispersing crowds, kettling acts as a crowd containment method.

It is supposed to allow police to slowly release small groups out of the “kettle” as a way of defusing tensions, but as highlighted by recent rallies in Melbourne, it has had the opposite effect of increasing tensions by trapping people in confined spaces for several hours and depriving them of the option to leave.

Human rights advocate Anthony Kelly, of Melbourne Activist Legal Support and the Police Accountability Project, said kettling effectively put people under arrest and in police custody for long periods of time.

“It prevents them from leaving an area and going about their business and effectively it’s a mass arrest tactic even though police don’t necessarily arrest anybody,” he said.

“It’s basically putting police operational and control priorities well above the rights of the people, the protest participants.

“As a form of crowd control it’s essentially a very clear infringement of human rights.”

Mr Kelly said the tactic also prevented people from joining a protest and undermining their right of political expression.

He said the controversial tactic had been the subject of several successful lawsuits in the United States.

Kettling has previously been used by Victoria Police during an Extinction Rebellion rally in 2019 where protesters were trapped on Princes Bridge near Flinders Street station.

More anti-lockdown and freedom rallies have been planned for Melbourne this Saturday and in early December as protesters push for Premier Daniel Andrews to resign and an end to the state of emergency.

Victoria Police said they had always been able to help facilitate peaceful and lawful protests conducted in accordance with the chief health officer directions, but organisers claimed their appeals to be allowed to do so in a safe manner had “fallen on deaf ears” with Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius.

State Liberal Democrats MLC David Limbrick, who was arrested during the recent Melbourne Cup Day protest outside Parliament House alongside 404 others, said police had handled many people with “unnecessary roughness”.

“Unless the government wants to justify these tactics, they should ban kettling immediately and rescind the fines handed out to protesters,” he said.

Protest organisers, who feared giving their names due to the threat of an incitement charge still hanging over their head, told NCA NewsWire they believed the tactic was the main cause of any violence.

Another said the rallies had been peaceful until police kettle or surround protesters.

“It appears at the moment they are kettling us to ensure we cannot socially distance, so we can be arrested and fined for not socially distancing, it’s quite absurd,” one said.

jack.paynter@news.com.au

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