On Friday April 10, in Melbourne, a safe car convoy protest organised by the Refugee Action Collective called for the urgent release of refugees in the Mantra hotel in Preston because of the threat of Covid-19. It was stopped by police and 26 refugee supporters were fined $1652 each – making $43,000 in fines.
I was one of the organisers of the protest, but did not get to attend because six police came to my house at 12 noon, seized my phone and arrested me for “incitement” under the 1958 Crimes Act. This has implications beyond myself or even the refugee movement; long after the health laws have come and gone this charge could be used against climate activists, or against unionists for organising industrial action or picket lines deemed not to be legal.
The last time “incitement’ (incite to riot) was used against activists in Australia was in 1992 for organisers of a student protest about Austudy cuts; those charged were found not guilty.
I am charged with incitement to break the health laws, but our protest was safe with no more than two people from the same household per car. The inconsistency and hypocrisy around these laws is staggering. It is still legal to travel to a holiday house in Victoria, the police association is still advertising time share holiday accommodation for its members, and a few days after our convoy, a Country Fire Authority car convoy for Jeannie Gribble’s 100th birthday was celebrated by Channel 9 News and the Age newspaper online, and no police were present.
The police who arrested me did not practice social distancing, with themselves or myself. I was driven to Preston Police station and had to wait half an hour in the car with three officers, whilst a bail hearing took place. I spent nine hours in a police cell, whilst they obtained a warrant to search my house. I was then driven back to my house by three different officers, and six officers (again not practicing social distancing in my small house) seized my all my computers, portable hard drives, usb discs, including my 15 year old son’s computer and my education department laptop that I need for work (I am a high school science and maths teacher). On the way back to the police station, we passed a dozen people huddled outside a fish and chip shop waiting for their food, one officer commented that it was a breach of the regulations, and they kept driving.
Our protest was completely safe, detention centres are not. The 70 refugees in the Mantra hotel have no ability to protect themselves from Covid-19. They sleep three to a room, have no hand sanistiser, cannot socially distance in the narrow corridors, or tiny kitchen and activity spaces, and are often handled by Serco guards who come from all over the country and whom usually do not wear gloves or masks. The situation is just as bad in the Broadmeadows detention centre, and for 120 refugees, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane. They have taped markers in their meal queue that are only 65cm apart because there is not enough room. These places are like cruise ships on land, the virus could spread rapidly in such contained environments. This has already happened in the United States, where hundreds of inmates and guards in prisons and detention facilities have the virus, and at least two have died from it.
The refugees at the Mantra came from PNG and Nauru under Medevac laws. Many have underlying health conditions, diabetes, asthma and respiratory problems, kidney disease, and Crohn’s disease that make them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Other refugees who came to Australia from offshore for medical treatment are already living safely in the community. It was only in February 2019 that the Coalition government started locking up those who had come under Medevac as debate about the repeal of the legislation intensified.
Federal MPs Ged Kearney and Peter Khalil have called for the release of the refugees at the Mantra hotel. Ged Kearney supplied a recorded speech for our car convoy protest. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews claims that his government is the most progressive in the country, but has had not one word to say about Scott Morrison’s detention of refugees in Victoria. Andrews’ extensive health powers could be used to shut these hell holes rather than used against those of us drawing attention to them.
I am due in court on August 6, I will be pleading not guilty; refugee supporters will be also challenging their fines.
Information about the defence campaign can be found here.
Chris Breen is a member of the Refugee Action Collective, a high school science teacher and an elected member of the Australian Education Union Branch Council.