Recent developments in policing under the Baillieu government in the Australian state of Victoria threaten the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
The 7-month old Baillieu conservative coalition government last month created two 21-member 'public order response teams' of police to 'stamp out antisocial behaviour' and 'break up public protest', reports the Herald Sun.
These new squads are said to have training in the use of police dogs and horses and have their own distinctive uniform and cars.
A large number of police, clad in apparently 2 types of uniform, attended a peaceful Palestine solidarity demonstration on Friday night outside a Max Brenner cafe in Melbourne's 'QV' building where police 'kettled' or corralled the crowd of protesters by forming a line shoulder-to-shoulder and moving suddenly forward.
Witnesses estimate between 100 and 200 protesters were present and 'up to 100' police.
'Scores' of demonstrators suffered bruising and one a dislocated shoulder. The Herald-Sun reports that 3 police suffered minor injury.
The Israeli-owned Max Brenner cafe is subject to a boycott because it provides chocolate for Israeli Defence Force rations. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign seeks to exert political and economic pressure on Israel to respect universal human rights in the Occupied Territories.
All who addressed Friday's assembly with a loud-hailer were afterwards targeted for arrest. Nineteen arrests were made in all — described by Indymedia as the state's 'largest political arrest in a decade'.
Sixteen accepted bail conditions prohibiting them from entering the QV complex and nearby Melbourne Central for 2 months until their court appearance.
The 3 who refused these conditions risked being kept in custody over the weekend — 'with murderers and rapists' warned the police — but after another hour they were offered unconditional bail.
The 19 will appear in court on 5 September.
Contrary to some media reports, the protesters insist their gathering was peaceful and video footage appears to support this. Melbourne University student Abdul Aziz:
“I was horrified by the police’s unprovoked behaviour … they just started grabbing people around the neck and dragging them away.”
Describes another demonstrator:
"We were peacefully gathered in the QV courtyard. People were making speeches about the daily attacks that Palestinians endure … All of a sudden some special operations-type group rushed into the area and split the demonstration in two. They began by targeting the people with megaphones and pushing people to the ground. They were calculated in their approach.
"… pushed by maybe 40 cops, they drove us into the ground and then surrounded us. We sat and linked arms, refusing to move any further. A number were then arrested as the cops picked off people on the outside of the group and dragged them away."
Human rights lawyer Rob Stary says the arrests show "the new Victorian government is prepared to criminalise legitimate dissent."
Meanwhile, signs have appeared in the shopping-cum-residential complex QV and in Melbourne Central (above) prohibiting individuals or 'an assembly of people' from picketing commercial premises or in any way 'demonstrating disapproval.'