Palestine solidarity on trial
For three weeks in May, the right to peacefully protest will be on trial in Melbourne.
ON 1 MAY, 19 Melbourne activists will be put on trial for their political activity. In a precedent setting case, these pro-Palestine activists will be fighting a variety of charges designed to criminalise dissent in Baillieu’s Victoria and intimidate supporters of Palestine in Australia.
On 1 July 2011, Victoria Police attacked a peaceful demonstration in Melbourne’s CBD. In one of the largest political arrests in a decade, 19 activists were detained during a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) action against the Max Brenner store. The chocolateria is owned by Israeli conglomerate the Strauss Group, a company that provides “care rations” for the Israeli military, including the Golani and the Givati brigades – two of the key Israeli military brigades involved in Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009, which killed more than 1300 Palestinians. In more recent times the Golani brigade has been noted for its brutal enforcement of Israeli colonisation of Palestinian Hebron in the West Bank.
After a series of peaceful demonstrations against Max Brenner, the 1 July action was kettled by police before activists were individually targeted in an unprovoked attack by the police riot squad. The police used pressure point tactics on some of the demonstrators; others reported bruising and rough treatment and one woman had her shoulder dislocated.
Damian Ridgwell, one of the arrested protesters told the Electronic Intifada about his experience:
“I was dragged behind police lines. Once they grabbed me and started dragging me, I went limp and dropped to the ground… As I was being carried through the corridors of the loading dock, I lost consciousness because one of the police had me in a choke hold. I am not sure how long I was out, probably a few minutes. I woke up on the loading dock floor and heard the police saying I was ‘out’.”
The majority of those arrested were charged with trespass in a public place (yes that is apparently a crime) and besetting (an archaic law that means “to surround a building”); a small number were also charged with behaving in a riotous manner”.
After attending another protest, four of these nineteen protesters were again arrested (for breaking their bail conditions) in dawn raids on their homes. These anti-democratic conditions stipulated that activists may not return within fifty metres of Max Brenner stores in the Melbourne CBD. Three were released from jail on a bail of $2,000 each. One of the more prominent campaigners, Vashti Kenway, was made to pay a $10,000 bail or face prison. All up the activists are facing fines of around $30,000.
In the subsequent weeks and months a parade of politicians and apartheid-loving celebrities attempted to initiate a new fad: the “drink in”. This involved a small gathering of freedom-hating individuals (including but not limited to Kevin Rudd, former newscaster Jana Wendt & Victorian state politician Michael Danby) in their local Max Brenner for a relaxed drink – just to show their support for Israel. While the “drink in” fad bombed, these establishment figures found support in ever more unsavoury quarters. The organised fascist movement got on board.
The Australian Protection Party, (a neo-Nazi and Islamophobic group) as well as the Australian Defence League (a spin-off from the fascist English Defence League) held counter-demonstrations at the pro-Palestine protests in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. To get a flavour of the politics of these organisations you only have to read a post by one prominent APP leader, the noxious racist Darrin Hodges, who said on the Nazi Stormfront site, “I’m more interested in the purer form of fascism… and while I don’t subscribe to the whole ‘worship Hitler’ thing, his comments on multiculturalism and politics in general are still just as relevant today as they were 70-odd years ago.”
In Brisbane one of the pro-Israel mobilisations actually invited the fascists onto the platform to speak. They waved Israeli flags, and chanted pro-Max Brenner slogans. These bedfellows of the mainstream right in Australia physically assaulted an aboriginal speaker, Robbie Thorpe, at one of the demonstrations in Melbourne because he drew the comparison between the dispossession of the Indigenous people of Palestine and the Indigenous people of Australia.
The fact that neo-Nazis and Zionists came together is no accident. This is part of global phenomena. Support for Israel and the USA invariably leads down a pro-imperialist, racist path. The increasingly brutal actions of Israel against the Palestinians fit neatly with the hysterical anti-Muslim campaigns by the APP/ADL.
The fines, and the aggressive manner of the Victorian government’s pursuit of the activists, reveal a further series of intersecting agendas.
The first is the hostility of the Australian establishment towards those who support Palestine. To get anywhere in mainstream Australian politics requires a display of unwavering support for Israel. It is bipartisan policy to back the apartheid state. Because Israel is a key link in the US’ chain of command across the Middle East the Australian ruling is a champion of the Israeli state. It is significant that, with the exception of a few individuals, the overwhelming consensus in parliament is to offer an unshakable hand of friendship to Israel.
This commitment is what accounts for the hysteria in the establishment press (particularly the Australian) after the Marrickville council attempted to boycott particular Israeli-owned goods and services last year. The liberal press is hardly any better with Melbourne’s Age recently jumping on the bandwagon with a slanderous piece attacking not only the German poet Gunther Grass for his mild critique of Israel’s brutality – but also the Max Brenner protesters for their supposed “hostility to Jews”. No mention of Israel’s war crimes, or of the thousands of Jewish critics across the world who back Palestinians’ demands for freedom and justice.
The case against the Max Brenner 19 also highlights the behind the scenes collusion between the Victorian government, the police, the shopping centre management (of QV and Melbourne Central) and the Australian Zionist establishment. Vic Alhadeff, CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, outlined their anti-BDS strategy, stating that it includes “but is not limited to, engagement with civil society and politicians, patronage of boycotted outlets, cooperation with police, shop owners and centre managers and exposure of the motives behind the BDS movement”. The strategy should be one which seeks to “speak softly” but to also carry “a suggestion of a big stick”.
Furthermore, during a bail variation hearing at the Victorian Magistrate’s Court on 27 July 2011, Victoria Police confirmed that a decision had been made to arrest the protesters before the demonstration. This decision was made after meeting with Zionist organisations, the Victorian government, shopping centre managements and the management of Max Brenner.
This kind of collusion reflects increasing attempts to criminalise BDS and pro-Palestine solidarity activism internationally. Currently in the US, France and Greece, hundreds of pro-Palestine activists are facing criminal charges for non-violently standing up for Palestinian human rights.
The response to these demonstrations also reflects a broader social phenomenon: the growing militarisation of the police force. New highly-trained units have been established, such as the Special Operations Group (SOG) and the Critical Incident Response team.
These forces are trained in increasingly hostile forms of crowd control such as kettling. Such tactics have been utilised against other protests such as Occupy Melbourne. There are squads whose sole purpose is to “monitor” and “infiltrate” activist groups. One senior sergeant’s court testimony suggested that police infiltrators had been sent to pro-Palestine solidarity meetings in order to monitor the activity of BDS activists.
These intersecting interests have found targets in the Max Brenner 19 and will be on display during the three-week trial. There has been an out flowing of support from Australia and abroad. John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Jeff Sparrow and Antony Loewenstein have been a few of those brave enough to voice their opposition to the trial.
Support the campaign.
Come to the Melbourne Magistrates Court, 1 May at 9am, 233 William Street.
Public meeting in Melbourne, Friday 4 May at Trades Hall, Carlton.
BDS protest on 18 May, Old GPO, Bourke Street Mall.
Visit boycottisrael19.wordpress and studentsforpalestine.org.