The Guardian 5 September, 2007
Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Back in the 1950s, the main pedestrian exit from Sydney University was across Parramatta Road outside the Students Union. Situated on the crest of a hill, it was a simple "pedestrian crossing". Despite the fact that Parramatta Rd was a main traffic artery out of the city, there was not even a STOP sign, let alone a set of traffic lights.
The first year I was there, a female student was run down and killed trying to get across to the bus stop on the other side. Students had been complaining about the dangers inherent in running this gauntlet at any time but especially in peak hour traffic.
The death of their fellow student galvanized them into action. They surged out onto the street in the next peak hour and simply occupied the crossing, blocking the road to traffic.
Drivers were furious and generally unsympathetic. But they were angels compared to the police who turned up "mob-handed", as they used to say on The Bill.
Big burly coppers waded into the demonstrating students with a ferocity that shocked the students and surprised even seasoned journalists. Boots and batons were used against students of both sexes, by police infuriated by the refusal of these "educated louts" to disperse as they were told.
Then as now police recruits were mainly drawn from the ranks of the working class, ordinary lads and lasses with little prospect of a "career", for whom the police force is both a welcome escape and a refuge.
When Don Dunstan was elected Labor Premier of South Australia, one of his earliest acts was to try to change police culture regarding demonstrations and protests. Police were reminded that people had a right to protest and that the job of the police was not to kick people’s heads in but to protect that right, to see that demonstrators were not attacked or harassed.
This marked a sea change in Australian policing of demonstrations, but of course it did not last. After all, the ruling class had no interest then — and has no interest now — in fostering a lively culture of civil unrest!
A notorious NSW Liberal Premier’s instruction to his driver to "drive over the bastards" when his way was blocked by anti-Vietnam War protesters still encapsulates the ruling class’ concept of how "the right to protest" should be interpreted.
However, as usual the US shows us how it should be done. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested over 1800 peaceful protesters and sent them to an old bus depot, contaminated with asbestos and lead, that had been converted to a makeshift detention centre.
Of course, the NYPD is not alone amongst capitalist countries’ police forces in regarding the public from the point of view of overseer rather than protector or defender. After all, the role of the police under capitalism everywhere is to protect not the public but private property and the rule of those who benefit the most from the private property system — big business.
Far from defending the rights of protestors, the NYPD decades ago pioneered "the use of ‘protest pens’ to herd protesters like cattle" (as Nat Parry noted in an August 20 article for The Consortium For Independent Journalism).
Nowadays, the technique is used in many countries and cities, with demonstrators restricted to "free-speech zones" well away from the object of the demonstration and just coincidentally from the mass media.
The Nuremburg Trials established the principle that police, military officers and judges have an obligation to oppose unjust laws (the defence that "I was just carrying out orders" simply does not hold). This is an important principle which capitalism is loth to accept, for it promotes the concept that people must think for themselves.
Instead, police under capitalism are encouraged to view any activity that is in breach of the law, regardless of how immoral the particular law might be, as an affront, to be forcibly rejected.
Nat Parry draws attention to the "concerted campaign" waged by the NYPD against Critical Mass bike rides, "in which bicycle enthusiasts ride through the streets of New York to highlight cycling as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving.
"In responding to these monthly bike rides, the NYPD has consistently engaged in mass arrests and has recklessly endangered public safety", reported The New York Times in February 2006.
"Police vehicles have driven the wrong way down busy Midtown streets and have cut at sharp, brake-screeching angles across Greenwich Village avenues. They have climbed onto sidewalks to skirt traffic jams near Grand Central Terminal, according to witnesses. Officers have been filmed driving a large sport utility vehicle along the Hudson River bicycle and jogging path" — all in an attempt to prevent the monthly bike rides.
On February 15, 2006, a New York state judge rejected the city’s attempt to shut the bike rides down, calling the city’s legal strategy against the ride "highly irregular" and "as unnecessary as it is inappropriate".
That last phrase could well have been written about the NSW Police Force’s latest acquisition specifically for dealing with demonstrations: the notorious water cannon. Resorting to such artillery to cope with political dissent is a clear sign of a social system that has lost the plot.
What’s next on our streets? Plastic bullets?