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Police response to campus protest “disturbing” and “violent”

A still from the video showing professor Simon Rice's encounter with police (right, near gates). Photo: Twitter/Honi Soit

By ALLISON HORE

University of Sydney staff and students have been left feeling “disturbed” by footage showing the heavy-handed actions of police at a campus protest on Wednesday.

Around 200 students gathered on the lawn at University of Sydney at around midday on Wednesday to participate in a public “teach out” organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

The protest was in response to higher education funding cuts which are part of the federal government’s controversial “job ready graduates” legislation package. The package now looks set to pass following the government securing crucial support from the Center Alliance.  

Although students gathered as part of the event remained in socially distanced groups of twenty, under the COVID-19 Public Health Orders if separate groups of people are deemed to be in the same location with “common purpose” they can be classed as one gathering. 

After several speeches, students who had gathered got up and ran towards City Road in an attempt to block traffic as they had done in a previous protest. However, riot squad officers funnelled the students back onto the campus where they continued the protest.

Multiple students and staff were arrested and issued fines in the process. Many more were pushed, shoved, dragged or thrown to the ground by officers.

Video captured by journalists at campus newspaper Honi Soit documented the events as they unfolded. One video posted to twitter shows a young woman being violently thrown to the ground by police officers as they attempt to keep the protesters off the road. 

Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who was in attendance at the university event, described the footage as “awful” and added “there is no excuse for this police to act like this.”

The woman, who was identified by the Guardian as University of New South Wales student Shovan Bhattarai, was not fined or arrested. She told the Guardian that at the time of the incident the students were trying to cross the road as part of the march when police “violently grabbed us, tried to kettle us in, and aggressively accosted some of us.”

“They threw me into the gutter and violently arrested and detained some others,” she said.

“This is the violent response NSW police dish out to staff and students taking a stand against education cuts. Me and thousands of other students around the country will not be intimidated by these attacks.”

Sydney University Law professor Simon Rice who was observing the campus protest also fell victim to the heavy handed policing. The professor and his students, who are working on a law reform project about protest legislation, walked alongside the riot squad officers and mounted police. After about twenty minutes the police formed a bottleneck which the protesting students were caught in. Professor Rice walked through to get to the other side where he was confronted by police.

Another Honi Soit video documents professor Rice’s encounter. He is seen on the ground at the gates of Victoria park surrounded by officers. As he attempts to get up, he is pushed down again. 

“Without any announcement or warning, suddenly and with violence, [police] moved in. I saw them grab a woman and pull a megaphone out of her hand. I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and they didn’t answer,” Professor Rice told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“As I was asking that, I was grabbed from behind by both arms and frog marched across the road to the other corner. I couldn’t see who had a hold of me. I turned around, to ask ‘Why are you doing this?’ and was told I was resisting arrest.”

“My legs were kicked out from underneath me and I fell to the ground on my hands and knees. I turned over and tried to get up and was pushed back down again.”

Professor Rice is one of fourteen people in attendance at the event who were issued with $1000 fines for breaches of the Public Health Order. 

Not counting Wednesday’s action, the university’s Student Representative Council president Liam Donohoe says over $43,000 in fines have already been dished out to campus protesters.

A University of Sydney spokesperson told the Guardian that the university “strongly defends” freedom of speech and the right to protest and said they have “serious concerns” about the response from NSW Police.

“We are very disturbed by the footage we’ve seen of today’s events,” the spokesperson said.

“We encourage anyone who thinks that they were treated poorly by the police to lay a complaint.”

 

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