It’s a sign of how cops are using new powers under the coronavirus crisis to clamp down on political activity.
School teacher Chris Breen had organised a car cavalcade for 2pm on Friday, demanding the release of refugees being held at the Mantra Hotel.
“Police turned up at my door at lunchtime,” Chris told Socialist Worker. “They asked whether I was one of the organisers of the protest and I said yes. They said in that case you’re under arrest and took me to Preston police station.
“They weren’t following social distancing – there were three of them in a car. I spent nine hours in the cell while they got a warrant and then they drove me back to my house to raid it.
“I had six police officers in my small house. They took my phone and all of my computers, including a work laptop and my son’s computer.
“The aim is intimidation – to say to people, if you take action, we will do this to you.”
Chris described the arrest as “ridiculous”. “People are allowed to drive to holiday homes but we can’t drive round the block,” he said.
And he explained why there is an urgent need to free refugees.
“We think it’s only a matter of time before Covid-19 hits detention centres,” he said. “They are like cruise ships on land. A Serco guard has already tested positive in Brisbane, and guards go all over to different centres.”
Chris added that some of the 72 refugees held at the Mantra hotel have underlying medical conditions, including diabetes, Crohn’s disease and lung problems.
“They were held offshore on the Manus and Nauru islands for six years and went through hell,” he said. “They have now been held for a year onshore. Politicians have spent seven years playing politics with people’s lives. It’s abhorrent.
“Covid-19 makes this a more urgent situation. Even before Covid-19, they spent 19 hours in their room. They can’t go out for exercise.
“Refugees sleep up to three to a room, they are not able to socially distance. One centre in Brisbane has markers that are 65cm apart because there’s not enough room for people to be further apart than that. For the rest of us, it’s 1.5 metres.
“Our protest was safe, it’s the centres that are not safe.”
The 26 people who joined the cavalcade were issued with fines of $1,652 each. That’s a total of $42,952 (£21,500). Chris warned that the clampdown could have a dangerous effect.
“This has a lot of implications for the unions and wider social movements,” he said. “We’re in a deep economic and health crisis. Unions will now be more nervous about taking action.
“We need to find ways to protest. There needs to be a response. The racism from our Tory prime minister, who told international students to go home the other day, needs to be challenged.”
And he said the treatment of activists is part of an “ideological offensive” to blame ordinary people for the virus. “They want to say that if we don’t observe social distancing, we are spreading the virus,” he said.
New laws in Australia ban people from being outside in groups of more than two. People are only allowed to leave home for four reasons – for food, medical supplies, work or for “compassionate reasons”.
Chris explained how his arrest is linked to these new powers.
“The law I am charged under is a 1958 anti-protest law of incitement,” he said. “But the incitement is to break the huge new health powers that police have.
“Police can issue on the spot fines of $1,652 for individuals and $10,000 for organisations if they decide you are breaking the rules.
“It seems that police are using the laws more in working class and migrant areas.”
The police clampdown has sparked a furious reaction among other activists. An online petition gained 700 signatures in just one day.
“Everybody in the refugee action collective and the broader refugee movement is outraged,” said Chris. “There is agreement that we’re not going to pay the fines, we’re going to challenge them.
“I put up a Facebook post about it that hit a nerve – it’s been shared over 500 times. I can’t keep up with the messages of support that are coming in and people offering money for legal support.
“I’ve had support from my workmates and also one or two messages from unions, which is good as that will carry some weight.
“We will be going to union branches and councillors to build a defence campaign. And we want the Labour premier to say the fines should be dropped.”
Refugees are holding daily protests at Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane, complaining they are not kept safe from the virus. There are hunger strikes at detention centres in Sydney and Brisbane, as well as a rooftop protest at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.
“The refugees should be released,” said Chris. “And we have to stop the Covid-19 laws being used to stamp out political protest.”