Saving protests from apathy, police, and bad laws.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Jenny Leong for that insight in the life of Juanita Nielson and thanks very much to Lee Rhiannon and the Greens for inviting me to give this year’s address. It’s certainly an honour to be in the company of the women who have given this lecture in the past.
And thanks to all of you for, coming out to listen to this lecture on a cold winter’s evening. Given the topic I have chosen today, which is the threat to public dissent, not only from bad laws but from the apathy of the public, it’s certainly nice to see this turnout.
On to the lecture itself. It’s a cliché, but when I was asked to give this talk on a topic of my choosing, I feel like the subject of public protests chose me more than I chose it. It’s not something I write about all that often, in fact, I can think of only one op-ed I’ve written specifically on the subject of freedom of expression, and because of this I thought perhaps I couldn’t do it justice. But as all the ideas circulated around my head, topics of sexism, and racism, animal rights, and other issues which I focus on daily in my work, this issue just kept coming back to haunt me. This very real –and justified I believe- fear I have that our rights to dissent and protest are under threat.
Part I: Bad Laws
I’ll begin with Attorney General George Brandis, who earlier this year, tried to sell us his proposal to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (18C, of course, is the provision that makes it unlawful to publish material that offends or insults a person or group on the grounds of race, colour, national or ethnic origin).
Ironically, or perhaps deliberately, even as Brandis was valiantly defending the rights of ‘bigots’, the rest of us were (and are) finding our own rights under threat, as coalition state governments across the country continue to roll out laws that affect the less privileged amongst us.
What these laws all have in common is that they threaten not only our right to peaceful protest and public dissent, but even to simply occupy public space.
So, I’m going to talk about just a few of these laws. And I’ll start with some proposed laws targeting a cause that, as a vegan, is near and dear to my heart. And that is the Ag-Gag laws, as they are colloquially known, and the disastrous effect they will have on animal rights advocacy.
The Ag-Gag laws are an American invention aimed at making it difficult for activists and protestors to uncover animal rights abuses in agricultural operations, better know as factory farms. Ag-Gag laws have made it a crime to covertly film anything that goes on in a ‘livestock’ (I use the scare quotes because I don’t enjoy referring to animals as ‘stock.’
At least seven US states have adopted these laws, the strictest being Idaho, which deems it illegal to ‘interfere with agricultural production.’ This law also applies to employees of the agri-business. So even if you simply work on a farm and witness cruelty, you can be prosecuted for filming it.
Protestors/workers who violate the law face up to a year in jail and fines up to $5000, ironically, the same punishment meted out to those convicted of animal abuse face. So, on paper, according to these laws, filming or otherwise uncovering animal abuse is as big a crime as the abuse itself.
In fact, I would go further and say that these laws treat those who protest animal cruelty as bigger criminals than the animal abusers. They capilatialise on the defamatory accusation that animal activists are all dangerous ‘eco-terrorists.’ The FBI even lists animal and environmental advocates as the Number 1 domestic terrorism threat in the US.
This is despite the fact that no person has been killed or injured in any protest or undercover operation performed by such activists. Compare this to the anti-abortion movement, which verbally and physically threatens women and those who work in abortion clinics. Anti-abortion activists in the US have murdered at least eight people. And according to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977 anti-abortion activists have also attempted to murder a further 17, whilst issuing 383 death threats, committed 153 acts of assault or battery, and 3 kidnappings.
Clearly, not protestors of the peaceful kind. And yet, it’s animal rights protestors who are regarded as the big threat.
Despite widespread opposition and condemnation of these Ag-Gag laws, they have spread to Europe where EUROPOL, like the FBI lists animal activists as ‘terrorists,’ saying that they use ‘unauthorised protests’ and ‘disinformation…in order to discredit their targets and weaken their public acceptance. Images of sick and abused animals are embedded in video footage and made public.’
So, what we are seeing is that is the act of protesting and documenting animal abuse that is criminalised.
How can it be a bigger crime to film abuse than it is to commit it, and why are more and more governments adopting such legislation?
Well, I’ll get to that in a moment. But here in Australia, NSW Liberal MP Katrina Hodgkinson (Minister for Primary Industries) set the stage for similar laws last year, when she described animal activists as ‘vandals’ and ‘akin to terrorists.’ She recently further clarified her comments by calling them ‘agri-terrorists.’
And sure enough, it was revealed earlier this month that the federal and state governments are working together to introduce Ag-Gag laws here, with the instigator being none other than Hodgkinson herself.
Her partner is crime, so to speak, is agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is even threatening to strip organisations that conduct covert investigations of their charitable status. Joyce complains that animal rights charities have ‘committed a crime (but still) they have the hide to say, ‘donate here.’’
One significant problem with these laws is that they equate non-violent groups such as Animals Australia and Voiceless, which rely on securing undercover footage to get the message of what is occurring on factory farms out to the public so the public can make a conscious choice, with underground groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, which has been known to bomb property, and the Animal Liberation Front, which frees animals from farms and laboratories.
US law deems animal activists ‘terrorists’ because they threaten the food supply. But undercover footage has been instrumental in improving the conditions on farms. And the breaches they uncover are what drives, not only welfare legislation that protect animals, but regulations that keeps the food supply safe, or at least safer.
As Emmanuel Giuffre of Voiceless told the media ‘Virtually all we know about the incredible animal cruelty that occurs in factory farming …. has come from undercover video surveillance.’
And it was undercover video footage of sick cows that led to the largest recall in US food history when it was revealed that these sick animals were being fed to kids through the school lunch program.
Now what concerns me most about these laws, apart from the catastrophic effect they will have on the animals themselves, is the eagerness to demonise protestors in order to protect businesses.
Animal activists are increasingly defined as ‘terrorists’, not because they are a threat to public safety, because they clearly are not, but because they challenge those businesses that put profit ahead of basic animal welfare.
In a nutshell, it costs more money to treat an animal well, so there is no incentive to do so, financially speaking. To silence these protestors is to risk even more egregious acts of cruelty that will never come to light. Not to mention breaches of health and safety regulations.
Now you may not be a vegan or care much about what happens to animal on factory farms, to which I say, why? What is wrong with you? (I jest, of course).
But anyone who values the right to dissent and to protest criminal activity should be worried.
Firstly, in the US these Ag-Gag laws also apply to those filming animal abuse from public property. So, if you’re standing on the road watching someone on slaughterhouse grounds kick a cow, and you film it on your iPhone, you could wind up being prosecuted.
This indeed is what happened to American woman Amy Meyer in Utah who was standing on a public street next a slaughterhouse when she saw a cow, clearly too sick to walk, being pushed by a bulldozer.
This is why we all need to be concerned about these Ag-Gag laws: Because what we are seeing is a redefining of terrorism and criminality to single out anyone who protests against what big business is doing.
It is becoming increasingly convenient to equate protestors with terrorists.
And, now that its been applied to animal activists, how long before that definition is redefined to include other types of protestors?
Probably not long, given the crackdowns on other forms of protests across the country.
First up: Victoria's new Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Law — better known as the anti-protest law. This expands police ‘move-on’ powers and, in a blow for anyone who thinks public protest is a vital form of dissent and expression, removes the exemption for political protests.
Police can now issue move on orders (effective for 24 hours) to ‘protesters who are blocking access to buildings, obstructing people or traffic, or who are expected to turn violent.’
Expected to turn violent. What does that even mean? In whose expectation? And who shoulders the burden of proof here? This gives an extraordinary amount of power to police. And as we’ve so often seen, some police do misuse this power. In WA, for example, move-on powers are used disproportionately against Indigenous Australians. Some are issued orders that bar them areas which include their own homes and/or workplaces, effectively imprisoning them, otherwise they risk arrest (which often happens).
Those found breaching the order are subject to arrest, and any who receive more than three move-on orders in a six-month period (or six in 12 months) risk a 12-month jail term. This has led to claims that the laws are a thinly veiled attack on what remains of Victoria's trade unions, for whom public protest remains a key form of activism.
Even Victoria's Attorney General Robert Clark has conceded the laws limit ‘an individual's right to move freely within Victoria ... and may, in certain circumstances, limit the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and freedom of association.’
Of course, similar laws also exist in Queensland, whose ‘move-on’ powers where expanded in 2006, and in some cases have seen people arrested without actually committing a crime.
That state’s controversial anti-association or ‘anti-bikie’ laws ban three or more members of an outlawed motorcycle club from meeting in public, for whatever reason. In January five Victorian men (all members of a bikie club) were arrested as they went out for ice-cream in Queensland.
Now the problem with Queensland’s laws is the same as with the Ag-Gag laws – although they target a specific group, there is nothing to stop them being expanded to incriminate others.
As Gabriel Buckley, president of the Liberal Democrats, warns they are ‘so broadly written that they could be used against any group of people.’
But both Victoria’s anti-protest laws and Qld’s anti-association laws pale in comparison with new draft proposals in Tasmania. If passed into law the Workplaces (Protection from Protestors) Bill, could see protestors face mandatory jail time and members of the public fined for ‘inciting protests.’
The bill was triggered by recent forestry protests, which took place on worksites, but Tasmania’s Resources Minister says it could be expanded to other production sites.
If passed into law, protestors risk penalties including $2000 fines for invading or hindering a business. If the charge is heard in court and the defendant found guilty, this rises to $5000. All convictions will be automatically recorded.
And in what will be Tasmania’s first foray in mandatory sentencing, second and later offences would carry a minimum three months and up to two years in jail. Individuals and organisations found inciting others to ‘hinder’ a business would also face heavy fines.
No surprisingly legal professionals are somewhat alarmed at the extent of the proposed news laws, particularly the mandatory sentencing component. Law Society of Tasmania president Anthony Mihal said, ‘It’s a fundamental principle that our democracy is founded on, that the separation of Parliament and the courts be maintained…Courts should be free to impose penalties taking into account each situation.’
But, also unsurprisingly resources minister Paul Harriss disagrees. He says, ‘This will send the clear message that Tasmanians have a right to earn a living, whether that be in forestry, mining or any other industry, without having extremist protesters come on to their workplaces.’
Notice the use of the word ‘extremist’, which of course is also used to discredit the animal activists I was discussing earlier.
Simply protesting is increasingly being targeted by conservative politicians as counter to what ‘reasonable’ or ‘moderate’ people do. As if voicing dissent and discontent is itself an irrational and radical position.
What we are actually seeing is a concerted effort to demonise those who protests egregious behaviour from corporations.
Instead of holding those corporations liable for their actions, politicians are taking their side, right or wrong.
This is what we have to be clear about: our current state and federal government will always take the side of big business. And they will seek to defame as ‘terrorists’ and ‘vigilantes’ and ‘vandals’ and ‘extremists’ anyone who publically protests the activities of these businesses.
Be they animal rights charities, trade unions, or just everyday concerned citizens.
Protesting is becoming a crime.
So, what's that Brandis was saying about freedom of speech, again?
Part II: Marginalising Protestors
But of course, these dangerous laws are not the only thing hindering our right to protest.
The negative rhetoric used against protestors and activists are also seeing increasingly judgemental attitudes from the public about what constitutes a legitimate protest or act of whistleblowing.
When a small but noisy group of university students disrupted proceedings on QandA in May, chanting slogans decrying the federal government’s budget cuts to universities and the deregulation of fees, they were greeted largely with hostility.
Although the protest only lasted a matter of minutes, the students were dismissed as ‘rioters,’ even there most certainly was not a riot.
A clearly displeased host Tony Jones tried to shut them up, warning ‘You’re not doing yourselves any favours’ and much of the live Twitter feed was unsympathetic, suggesting that this was not the ‘right way’ to go about things.
Afterwards, once the students had been safely escorted from the studio by security, Jones apologised to the audience, and the panel which included Education Minister Christopher Pyne, saying, ‘That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about and those students should understand that.’
But hold on a second, since when is democracy not about protesting? On that note I’ll read from writer Clementine Ford’s response to the incident, printed in ABC’s The Drum:
‘But of course, that's exactly what democracy is all about - freedom of assembly, freedom of political protest, and freedom of speech. Democracy certainly isn't about the ritual celebration of a largely white, largely wealthy, certainly privileged political commentariat being given repeated space and attention to hawk its own agenda while silencing the views of dissenting voices. I wasn't embarrassed on behalf of the students who fronted up to the live broadcast to unfurl their banners and chant against the deregulation of tertiary education; rather, I was embarrassed to watch as a show which purports to be a political weekly discussion exercised such a conservative response to one of the citizenry's most meaningful forms of political engagement - the humble protest.’
This idea, that protests shouldn’t be disruptive, that people should wait their
turn politely (the catch being, of course, that some of us will never get our turn), that there is a right way and a wrong way to practice dissent, and the right way inevitably involves watering down our outrage, making our voice less audible, and our presence less visible.
Which, of course makes us all the easier to ignore.
This silly argument is indeed what the writers of all those bad laws I discussed rely on: the idea that protestors are disruptive and annoying, and therefore they should be curtailed.
But since when did protesting have to be polite? Moreover what good is a polite protest?
If people aren’t interrupted as they conduct their business, if they aren’t affected as they go about their daily lives, if they are not aware of your voice and your presence and your dissent, then no one will even know a protest has occurred.
Which I fear, is entirely the point.
This is precisely how to make protests pointless. Water them down, regulate them, deny protestors access to spaces both public and private. In short do everything possible to let as few people as possible even know that people are protesting something.
Now, it may shock those who look down on protestors to realise this, but people don’t generally protest for the fun of it. They protest because they want others to hear what they have to say. They want their discontent to be registered as widely as possible.
Take that way, and viola, we have just made the right to protest, one of the benchmarks of the ‘free world’ that we like to lord over other countries as somehow as proof of our superiority and our progress, completely ineffectual.
And the more ineffectual they are, the less time people have for them.
Part III: Public Apathy
Which brings me to the third threat facing our right to protest: good old public apathy.
About a year ago, I was attending a film screening out in Parramatta with some fellow feminist activists. As we walked towards the venue, seemingly out of nowhere the streets filled with young people, dressed in what were obviously the colours of a sporting team.
Now, I’m not sure what the sporting occasion was, but it must have been important to these people, because they were jumping about giddily and yelling some sort of chant to each other.
My colleagues and I looked at them wistfully and joked about how nice it would be, if we could convince Australians to get just a fraction as excited about protecting their rights, and the rights of others, as they get about sports.
Why don’t Australians have time for activism and public protest? One of those feminist activists I just mentioned is an exile from Iran, and when she arrived here a few years ago, she was stunned at the lack of political engagement Australians seemed to exhibit. ‘It’s like this whole country is asleep’, she complained to me.
So what is wrong? Why are we still sleeping? Are we so unaccustomed to wide-scale and ongoing protests that they just don’t even register as an option?
And even now, when virtually none of us will come through the Abbott government’s first budget unscathed. Apart from those key March in May protests (which attracted about 10,000 in Sydney and similar numbers across the capitals), and apart from some diligent students, Australians seem to have given a collective shrug and gone back to the gardening, or the TV.
Consider, for example, the reaction to the plan to raise the retirement age to 70. Yes, there was initial outrage. Yes, pensioners let their displeasure be known directly to Abbott on radio and on TV. But when the initial indignation faded, so have the public protestations.
Compare this situation to France. In 2010 the then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 –eight year’s earlier than what will be our new retirement age- literally disrupted everyday life in France for weeks.
More than two million people, from all walks of life joined in, in nation-wide mass protests and strikes.
And I’ll just quote from The Guardian’s report on that event:
‘French protesters furious over the government's proposals to change the pensions system flooded the boulevards of cities from Paris to Marseille today as Nicolas Sarkozy's embattled labour minister presented the reform to a parliament echoing with jeers.
Huge numbers of people – 1.1 million according to the government, 2.7 million according to the leading CGT union – turned out throughout France to demonstrate against plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. There was significant disruption caused to trains, planes and public services as a result of the strike. In the capital alone, the CGT union estimated the number of protesters at 270,000.’
So let’s just highlight one thing there: significant disruption to trains, planes, and public services. Disruption. At workplaces. The very thing that our own politicians and sections of our citizenry are saying protests should not cause.
Ultimately Sarkozy, much like our own current government, broke an election promise and pushed through the legislation.
But millions of people turned out to protest raising the age from 60 to 62. Our government is raising the retirement age to 70 and despite widespread discontent, protests are sufficiently demonised here that people are just not taking to the streets.
There has not been the same mobilisation. Yes, there have been two big protests March in March, which was about general discontent with the government, and the March in May, which protested the budget. But there has been no concerted effort and desire to object and publicly dissent at anywhere near the same level.
Have we simply become too comfortable in our middle class existence? Have we, for the most part, had it, if not easy, but just easy enough not have to take to the streets in protest? Is it that we don’t really think the government will let things get too bad for us? After all, we’re the land of the fair go, right?
It will be interesting to see just what happens when the budget comes into effect. Will that lull us out of this misplaced sense of security?
The outgoing Labor MP Mark Bishop thinks so. He told his Labor colleagues to allow the budget to pass, to let Australians to suffer its harsh consequences, because only then, when they see how bad it really can get, only then will they be compelled to act.
Of course, the problem with that view is that it may help Labor win the next election but it won’t help the people who will suffer under this budget.
Part IV: What Can We Do?
So, what can be done?
1. Well, the news is not all bleak. Public outcry and opposition to these new laws and proposed laws is needed. Because public outcry works. In the case of Utah woman Amy Meyer who as I mentioned earlier, was arrested and charged under the Ag-Gag laws for filming into a slaughterhouse from the public street where she stood. Well, the charges were dropped following widespread condemnation from the public. We may turn up our noses at online petitions and the like as ‘slacktivism’ but sometimes, they really do work, if there is sufficient resistance from the public.
2. Take back our right to protest. I say let’s not accept this idea that protests should not interrupt people going about their business. And I certainly balk at this ridiculous notion that they should not ‘disrupt the right to work.’ If nothing else today, I would dearly love to dispel this underhanded idea that ‘working’ is some sort of sacrosanct right, when in fact it has been twisted by business and employer advocates to promote their own interests. For example, in the US, the anti-minimum wage movement dresses up their legislation that keeps low-wage workers firmly below the poverty line in language pretending to advocate for these workers. This includes such doozies as the ‘Right To Work’ Act. As if, low-skilled workers are just dying to work for next to nothing.
Let’s be honest here, when coalition politicians and big business advocates wax lyrical about the right to work, they really mean their ‘right’ to make sure others are working for them.
3. We need to reject the myth that public protests are outdated. It is a vital and necessary way to, not only make our voices heard, but to support each other. To know that when we march, and rally, and protest, and call out our slogans (however tacky they may be), that we are not alone. It’s about a show of unity, and togetherness.
I remember clearly, the huge protests against the impending Iraq War in 2003. I was at the one in Melbourne, and looking around at all the tens of thousands of people, it did give me comfort, not necessarily that our protest would be heeded and war averted, but comfort knowing I wasn’t alone, and so many fellow Australians were as dismayed and outraged at the prospect of another war.
4. And that leads me to the last point. We really do need to believe in the power of protest. That it’s something bigger than ourselves. Regardless of whether protests are ‘successful’ or not, it is the act of protesting itself, of making our voices heard and our bodies seen, that is empowering and vital. And to that end, I’ll finish with the words of the social activist Thomas Merton, written during the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the US:
‘Do not depend on the hope of results… As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.’