Halt in the name of the law, drop those shoes!

Shoes were thrown at George W. Bush and Hilary Clinton. Photo by Peter Boyle.


(Published in the Sydney Hub.)

This is a cosmopolitan 21st-century city in a liberal democracy, isn’t it? Folks are allowed to express themselves freely, dissent and protest against the powers that be, right?

Not if we don’t insist on it, it seems.

The Sydney Stop The War Coalition planned a symbolic “Shoe away the war criminals” action outside the US Consulate to coincide the AUSMIN war talks between the Australian Government and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Melbourne on November 8.

The plan was for protesters to throw shoes at cardboard cut-outs of Gates, Clinton, PM Julia Gillard and foreign minister Kevin Rudd. Totally coincidently, this plan was decided on the same night that Hunter Valley activist Pete Gray threw his shoes at former PM John Howard on the ABC TV Q and A program.


Photo by John Immig.

Both actions were inspired by the example of the Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi who threw his shoes at former US President George W. Bush in 2008.

The AUSMIN talks discussed Australia hosting more US military bases, more stockpiles of US military supplies in Australia, more joint training exercises on Australian soil, greater access to Australian ports for US ships and planes, and more joint military patrols throughout the Asia-Pacific region. So the anti-war activists had something serious to protest about.

The shoe-throwing action was to be a peaceful, fun protest, but it alarmed the NSW police.

Photo by Peter Boyle.

The police tried to impose bizarre conditions.

“Under no circumstances are participants to throw any object towards any person, building, structure or thing”, the organisers were told, in writing. “Under no circumstances are participants to throw any object into the air.”

According to police, any such acts would be an “arrestable offence”. On the face of it, this would have made juggling an arrestable offence!

On advice from civil liberties lawyers, the anti-war activists refused to agree and went ahead with their action. They were prepared to be arrested, but on the day the police backed off and the peaceful protest passed without incident.

There is an important lesson to this story. If we don’t speak out against injustice, and insist on our right to protest, it will get harder and harder to do so.

We can’t take for granted the freedom to protest. In many parts of the world, if you protest against the ruling establishment you risk getting beaten, arrested or killed.

Nearly four decades ago, when I first became a political activist, the police in Australia did not respect people’s right to have a peaceful street march. It had to be fought for and won, and many activists suffered beatings and even spells in jail to win this right. Veterans of the early marches that inspired Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney can testify to this.

I witnessed the winning of this right in Perth, WA in the early 1970s, as a young student. A large number of anti-war protesters were making their way from the (more radical) “over East” to protest US bases in the North-West coast. The WA police put the word out that anyone who marched on the streets would be arrested. But we defied them and took to the streets in thousands. The police backed off their threat and from then on the right to march in protest in the streets was won.

Roll forward a couple of decades and this and other basic rights are under threat. Post-9/11 the police have gained many new powers and are constantly seeking to narrow down the right to protest.

Recently in Sydney, the police have prevented anti-war activists, refugee rights activists and this year’s Reclaim The Night protest against violence against women, from taking to the streets. If we don’t stand up to this threat to a basic freedom, we could lose the right to protest altogether.

(Peter Boyle has been preselected by the Socialist Alliance to head up a 21-strong ticket for the Legislative Council in the March 2011 NSW elections.)

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