We were demanding community control over public space, so for the first Break the Boundary we made the decision to notify local residents and businesses instead didn’t of the authorities. We door-knocked residents in the nearby st and dropped into the local businesses to inform them of our planned non-commercialised public square.
After the success of the first Break the Boundary, Right to the City members were passionate about keeping the momentum going by holding another protest party. But since our last Break the Boundary was ended prematurely by disgruntled police officers inquiring to where our permit was and we had discovered that we actually have quite strong rights under the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992. We thought why not give the legal route a go for Break the Boundary 2.
The second Break the Boundary was planned for 16 September 2016. We submitted our notice of assembly to the West End Police. It was knocked back, unless we complied to the condition of staying on the footpath and not using the road. We were dismayed, squishing on to the limited public space that is the footpath defied the entire purpose of Break the Boundary. We decided not to go ahead.
Following this read up on our rights and realised that the police are actually unable to deny our protest or impose restrictions without first taking us to court.
The Peaceful Assembly Act 1992 is quite clear on this:
“(1) A public assembly is taken to have been approved for the purposes of section 7(c) if, after the giving of the assembly notice for the assembly—
(a) the required notice of permission for the assembly has been given to the organiser of the assembly; or
(b) if the assembly notice was given not less than 5 business days before the day on which the assembly is held—a Magistrates Court has not made an order under section 12 refusing to authorise the holding of the assembly; or
(c) if the assembly notice was given less than 5 business days before the day on which the assembly is held—a Magistrates Court has made an order under section 14 authorising the holding of the assembly”
This law came about as a response to Queensland’s history of police abusing their power and was a specific outcome of the Fitzgerald Inquiry: “It is highly questionable whether the Government or the police should have any role in regulating such expression, including the holding of street marches and demonstrations” (p359). Concerned that the police seemed to be reverting to Bjelke-Petersen era intimidation tactics, we wrote them an open letter expressing our dismay. We decided to reschedule the Break the Boundary 2 for Saturday 19 November and gave notice on 26 October.
About a week after giving notice we were asked to meet with the local police to discuss our peaceful assembly. They originally tried to get the person who had signed the notice to come alone which we refused for obvious reasons. We met on Friday 4 November. During this meeting the police tried to have us hold the event on the sidewalk or pay council to close the road. The first of these would defeat the purpose of the protest and the second is a dangerous act of privatizing protesting such that only those with money could afford to protest. Their main reason was that the police couldn’t provide traffic control to a protest which is obviously a lie as the police provide traffic control for every march we have ever been on including those through our busy CBD. The Peaceful Assembly Act also clearly defines a road as a public place where we have the right to protest. A second reason the police gave was concern for public safety. However, their actions on Saturday made clear that this was not the case as we will explain later.
The police sent us an offer with the conditions explained above on 7 November which we rejected via return email on 8 November. During our meeting it had become clear that the police had not actually read the Peaceful Assembly Act and we endeavoured to explain the law to them and even gave them a copy of the act to read themselves. We made it clear that as we understood it, they would have to take us to a Magistrates Court if they wished to impose conditions on us that we did not agree to. They assured us we would hear back from them but after our final email we received no further word from the police.
Once 5pm on 18 November had rolled around, the police had not taken this to the Magistrates Court, nor engaged in official mediation (they made this very clear to us that our previous meeting did not count as mediation). From the informal legal advice we had received and a careful reading of the act, we believed we had an approved public assembly and proceeded. Preparations continued in full swing.
On 19 November we arrived on location at around 3pm. Shortly after we started unloading our gear the police started to gather. Knowing we had an approved peaceful assembly under the act, we took no note of this and assumed they were there to help with traffic control.
When the ute carrying our barricades arrived at 3:30pm we were confronted by the first police officer and told to remove our stuff from the road. We tried to explain to this officer that we had an approved peaceful assembly but he did not care and threatened us with arrest if we did not comply with his orders. After several minutes of negotiations he told us that he “was just a dumb cop, what would he know” and so we asked him to call his supervisor.
It is scary to think that this police officer had over 20 years of experience and was going to arrest us even though he had just admitted to not understanding the law and we had read the relevant act to him. If we are honest, this kind of felt like a power trip.
This was a family friendly event, here were children present during these initial negotiations so we tried to lighten to the mood. Some of us pulled out instruments and made music to try and keep morale up while we continued negotiations with the police. Our negotiations went nowhere. It felt as though we were having manipulation tactics and threats against us.
During this time we set up our PA by the lizard statue. Poetry was performed, negotiations continued. One of the organisers managed to get the local councillor for the area, Jonathan Sri, on the phone and the police sergeant eventually deigned to talk to him but at this stage it was clear that the police were obstinate in their refusal to adhere to the law. Cr Sri’s advice was to inform attendees of their rights if placed under arrest and if we decided to attempt to go ahead with our approved peaceful assembly to ensure that anyone involved knew and was comfortable with the risks involved. Those who were not keen to get involved were asked to take out their phones and record the events that were soon to unfold.
One of our organisers took the mic and got the crowd up to speed on the events of the day. They also informed the crowd about an incident at a protest the day before where the police had threatened a person with arrest but then did not follow through on the threat. We believed that, given our standing under the act, maybe the police were bluffing us. Unfortunately this was not the case. After asking those who were keen to go help move barricades onto the street we started unloading the ute. Soon after this the police pointed to one person, seemingly at random, and placed them under arrest. This began the unnecessary harsh and punitive police reaction that left us dumbfounded.
We quickly moved the PA system so the crew from Voices of Colour could stand on the edge of the street and perform the slam poetry they had just written about the day's events as we began to move the barricades onto the street. Six of us placed our traffic barricades on the street and then were promptly arrested. With the street safely protected from incoming traffic by the barricades, a number of people then took chairs onto the newly created public square and occupied the space. In a display that made us question the police’s feigned concern for public safety, police officers began removing all the barricades and allowing cars onto the road before ensuring the people sitting on those chairs were safely off the street.
Right to the City Brisbane want to give a shout out to all those who were arrested or fined for standing up for their rights on Saturday, this was incredibly brave. We have engaged with civil liberties lawyers and will be contesting all the charges in court where we believe we have a very strong case. We’d also like to extend a thanks to everyone who turned up to our protest party, we are deeply sorry that it did not go ahead. We had bargained on the police following the law and were not prepared at all for this turn of events. We will not be so trusting the future.
By shutting down an approved peaceful assembly, the Queensland police directly undermined democratic free speech (which you know, actually turns out to be a ‘human right’ while the right of a driver to take a shortcut is totally not). As the Fitzgerald Inquiry found: “The right of public assembly has traditionally been regarded as analogous to the right of free speech, and a touchstone of the respect given to other civil liberties within a society” (p143). It seemed like the police felt the need to shut down Right to the City Brisbane before we are able to spread our ideas. We have been talking a lot about democracy and a kind of democracy that means power to the people. This is a direct threat to the police’s authority which may explain why they cracked down on us so hard. Whatever the case, the police’s abuse of power has only made us more determined to stand up and fight for our collective rights as citizens, residents, neighbours, and friends.
With this in mind we have plans to hold another Break the Boundary. We will not be intimidated by a petty assertion of undue power. Stay tuned for details.