As a freelance journalist, it is my job to cover protest and put myself into situations where others may feel unsafe. It is my job to cover events as they unfold and report on them. Here is a detailed first hand account of my experiences of Occupy Melbourne's eviction.
Here I am not stating support for or against Occupy Melbourne. This is simply a detailed statement of what I witnessed.
Start of the Eviction
I had been going down to Occupy Melbourne to cover the events there since Saturday the 15th, watching it grow, watching the emotions build, and yet the protesters stayed, in my honest opinion, completely peaceful even during the eviction which took place on the 21st.
Firstly, I had expected the eviction to take place early morning on the21st and so stayed up all night in the city, talking to people at Occupy Melbourne and generally walking around the area taking in the atmosphere. At 7am the call came out that the council had been given orders by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle to remove the protesters from city square and end their demonstration by 9am. As most of the protesters had been sleeping, and others who hadn’t had a chance yet were completely drained, it took everyone quite a while to regain their bearings and a fair few began to pack up. All the while scores of policemen had begun to encircle the area, riot police in dark blue gathering near Starbucks, and the city council erecting a fence around the demonstrator’s encampment.
I watched as the numbers of police began to swell and the protesters began to set up a defensive perimeter to protect the kitchen where over the previous 5 days they had been feeding the homeless. The protesters took everything around them they could to protect themselves from the new squad of police who had just arrived wearing riot shields, wielding batons and adorned with riot helmets.
As time went on the police began to move in and the arrests began, protesters were torn away from the nearby area, dragged from the sit in by protester reinforcements and newly joined citizens who disagreed with the police’s actions which had congregated outside the entrance to Starbucks. I watched as police began to violently tear peaceful demonstrators from the sit in by their clothes, their arms and legs, and even attempt to forcefully pull a toddler from a mother’s arms as she sat there trying to comfort him, stuck among the gathering.
First Arrest and Threats
I went to check on my friends, who were protesting with Occupy Melbourne, and who had taken up a position behind the makeshift kitchen linking arms in a peaceful and defensive stance. I turned around and noticed a protester getting dragged viciously towards the starcase leading to Collins Street, I ran towards it with my camera at the ready, about to take photos, and was met by 5 riot police who grabbed me, began to yell at me to get away from the fence, to which I replied “I’m not a protester, I’m a journalist”. This appear to anger them and they stated “This guy’s a trouble maker” and they dropped me to the ground and dragged me across the muddied ground of the square towards the police line, and at one point they grabbed me by my legs and lifted me and carried me forcefully the rest of the way. I kept screaming out “I’m a journalist! I’m not protesting!” Once my feet where back on the ground, I had my arms twisted behind me and was told I was under arrest for ‘disturbing the peace‘. I attempted to show the advise the police officers that I was not a protester but a freelance journalist. I was yelled at, berated, my possessions and my camera taken away from me. Finally a calm police officer came up and explained the situation to me, claiming I was not allowed to re-enter the square, still not believing I was a journalist. He led me back by the arm into the square to get my glasses, which had dropped on the ground, and then left me there after saying “If you come back in, you’ll be arrested again”
At this point I was confused, I had been told not to re-enter the square but placed by a police officer in a position where I would in fact get in trouble again. I promptly left and asked a police officer on the front line if I could re-enter to continue my work of covering the event – I was denied entry and told to go away.
Quite a few of the protesters who had been evicted from the camp took it upon themselves to block the trams going through Swanston Street right next to the eviction scenes, a symbolic act some might say. I walked over to talk to one of them about what was going on, and before I could even say much I felt an arm grab me and drag me away. I looked at the person and noticed he was not in police clothes, rather wearing civilian clothing. He said to me “What the fuck are you doing? Get out of here you idiot“, feeling like some random was threatening me, I told him to get off me, his reply was very threatening, “Watch what you say cunt, or I’ll fucking break you“. Like any citizen would, I went to report it to a nearby police officer, to which I was yelled at by the officer and told the man who had just threatened me was an Undercover Cop. I then felt the hands of two undercover cops grab me around the throat and drag me away once more. They let me go, but I was quite shaken by the event.
Out of City Square; Pushing down Swanston Street
I noticed that the police had begun to one by one take every single person who was linking arms and protecting the kitchen and IT tent away, I saw them get dragged across the ground, bloodied, covered in mud. As I stood there taking photos, a young protester next to me was for no apparent reason pepper sprayed. He fell to the ground in agony and I got away with simply inhaling the fumes of it and damaging my lungs in the process. I checked if he was alright, and rubbed onion under his eyes to help flush out the chemicals.
Soon enough I noticed a female friend of mine getting carried along by police and thrown to the ground. I noticed her crying and shaking on the ground and ran up to check up on her. Police had lifted her shirt while dragging her out, exposing her to the public before throwing her down on the ground and leaving her. Me and one other friend of hers took her to get medical support and walked her up to somewhere safe so she could recover.
After all of this, I ran back to the protest to continue covering the event, I had only missed about 10 minutes of it, however, lots of arrests were taking place. Soon enough the police began to push through the crowd and move them further down the street towards Bourke Street, as they pushed along, many more arrests took place and many people were injured, one man being trampled by police horses.
The protest kept pushing on, and people were getting crushed in the mess of it. The protesters took a strategy of facing away from the police and moving as they were told, but holding onto the backs of the person in front of them to make sure no one fell over. However, the police kept pushing and people began to fall, as well as get dragged down to the ground by police and arrested.
As they moved towards Bourke Street/Swanston Street intersections the police stopped, allowing the protesters time to take over the intersection – a very strange move in my opinion – before sending in more police and police horses to push the people further back. Soon enough I was back at the front of the line between police and protesters, attempting to take photos of the event whilst getting crushed. One man who was on the megaphone telling everyone to comply with police orders and not fight back was subsequently arrested as it seems because he was outspoken.
Very shortly later a police officer unholstered his pepper spray canister and generally sprayed towards the crowd, I happened to not get any in my eyes due to wearing glasses, and thus was able to continue working, however those around me all suffered the full effects of the chemical. I heard screams and cries for help as the police then continued to push forward. The line between me and the police thinned out as those between previously had just been arrested. I was yelled at by a cop to “get out of here” to which i replied “I’m a journalist doing my job” and he yelled again “I don’t care, get out of here” I repeated my statement and he claimed “Well, you’re next then” a few seconds later I was tackled to the ground, pinned, my arms twisted behind my back and then berated by police as being a “trouble maker” I was then dragged violently towards the police lines, I told them I was not defying as I was attempting as hard as I could to comply with them, but this just made them angrier. They said “We dealt with you before, but you just insist on coming back to cause trouble.” And I attempted to explain that a Senior Constable had given me permission to return to do my job. They yelled at me to calm down, and that they were not going to listen to me anymore.
I was taken to a divvy van, all my possessions taken off me, my camera taken away. I asked for medical assistance for the pepper spray, to which a cop just poured water in my eyes. Soon enough I was in the brawler unit and left there for ages, before they drove me and the rest of the people in the back to St. Kilda police station where we were made to wait, and then released.
So now I wonder why they chose me to take out, why would they take out someone they knew was not protesting, who they could see that during the chants I was silent, taking photos. Holding an expensive camera in my hand the entire time.
I wonder why the use of such force was needed when from what I had experienced the demonstrators were peaceful, before, during, and after the eviction.