MEDIA RELEASE: Policing of Black Lives Matter protests must not unduly infringe freedom of assembly

5 June 2020

Australian governments must ensure that COVID-19 emergency measures and policing are consistent with democratic freedoms and human rights.

Orders introduced by governments in response to COVID-19 have understandably led to temporary restrictions of freedoms to safeguard public health across the country. However, these restrictions must be proportionate, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and addressed towards a legitimate aim under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Australia is a state party.

“Governments at all levels must avoid imposing non-proportionate, wholesale bans on protests, and explore alternative measures that can balance public health safeguards with the freedom of assembly,” said Isabelle Reinecke, Founder and Executive Director at Grata Fund. 

The New South Wales and South Australian police forces have taken divergent approaches to Black Lives Matter protests in their states.

“The South Australian Commissioner Stevens has shown that it is possible to balance public health safeguards and the right to protest on issues of significance to the community, “ said Reinecke.

Regarding the planned protest in Adelaide tomorrow, Commissioner Stevens told ABC News:

“This is a unique and extraordinary event. There is a sentiment that suggests people should have a right to protest on significant matters. We acknowledge that. We do not want to see confrontation with people who are deliberately breaching a direction under the Emergency Management Act. The decision has been taken to eliminate that factor by providing the exemption so this can occur as a peaceful protest, and we are very keen to work with the organisers.”

NSW Police have taken a different approach this afternoon, by seeking an order from the NSW Supreme Court to prohibit the Black Lives Matter protest planned tomorrow in Sydney. Justice Fagan did not make an order prohibiting the protest as requested by police, but did decline to authorise the protest. 

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller responded to the decision by warning, “Police will have a strong presence tomorrow to ensure the law is obeyed...If people choose to disobey the Supreme Court ruling and attend the planned protest regardless, they need to be aware they are doing so unlawfully and police will respond accordingly”, reported on the NSW Police Facebook page.

“The Black Lives Matter protests are highlighting structural racism and violence within the justice system. The policing of these protests must not further criminalise or cause violence to First Nations people. In particular, issuing fines to First Nations people for participating in protests will only further entrench the systemic injustices faced by the community,” said Reinecke.

“South Australia has shown that it is possible to balance public health safeguards with the right to freedom of assembly. We encourage all other governments to do the same,” said Reinecke.