Victoria police have warned they will crack down on people organising anti-lockdown protests, as they defended Wednesday’s home arrest of a pregnant woman.
Assistant commissioner Luke Cornelius admitted footage of the arrest of the 28-year-old pregnant woman made for “terrible optics”, but defended the heavy-handed approach, warning that hundreds of officers would be deployed to make arrests on the weekend.
Police arrested Ballarat resident Zoe Buhler on Wednesday after she created a “freedom day” event on Facebook encouraging people to protest against lockdowns in the regional town on Saturday.
The arrest added to reports of misconduct by Victoria police and concerns from legal experts that Victorians in several instances were being “wrongly fined”.
“Many people have been issued fines when they are not breaching public health directions,” said Ariel Couchman, the chief executive of Youthlaw. “The police aren’t making proper enquiries to determine why the person is not complying.”
Cornelius confirmed that three additional people had been arrested and charged with incitement for planning an anti-lockdown protest at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, also on Saturday.
“We remain very concerned, and in fact, outraged is probably a fair word, to say there are still people in our community who think it’s a good idea at the time of this deadly pandemic that we’re all fighting, think it’s a good time to leave home and protest on our streets,” he said on Thursday.
Cornelius said that protesting, which is not allowed under stage three or four restrictions, put frontline health staff and police at risk of contracting the virus, and would make easing restrictions harder in future.
“I would be the first to acknowledge the optics, for want of a better description, arresting a pregnant female, it’s never going to look good. The optics of arresting someone who is pregnant is terrible.”
But the commissioner said that he was “satisfied” that police had acted reasonably, and said Buhler’s handcuffs were removed once police were sure that “the premises was secure”.
“Once the handcuffs were removed and the situation was safe, she was allowed to get changed and then she was taken back to the station for questioning … I’ve seen the footage, and you know, in my assessment, the members have conducted themselves entirely reasonably.”
In response to a journalist who drew comparisons between the anti-lockdown protests and a Black Lives Matter protest held in June, Cornelius said there was a clear reason for the difference.
The Black Lives Matter protests were held under stage two restrictions, and the protest planned for Saturday was under stage four, he said.
“There’s a huge difference,” he said. “During the Black Lives Matter protest, we were operating under a very different set of rules. Under the Black Lives Matter protest, leaving home to protest was a permitted activity. There were restrictions on it, so the restriction was you can leave home to protest with a group up to 10 people, and in multiple groups, so long as there’s a 100m distance between each of those groups.
“Now, in stage four, and also in stage three, which applies to regional Victoria, when those restrictions came in, public protest was removed as a permitted reason. That is the rule that applies now, and that applies to the individual arrested yesterday … those rules did not apply during the Black Lives Matter protest”.
He added that the organisers of the Black Lives Matter rally had told protesters to abide by the restrictions at the time.
“Here’s the thing – the organisers of the Black Lives Matter protest were on record saying we’re telling people who are coming to protest to comply with the [health] directions.”
Cornelius told reporters that police had visited more than 80 people this week, and warned them that if they attended or organised protests, they would be arrested.
“If you do take the selfish option and leave home to protest, we’ll be ready for you … We have hundreds of police ready to respond, including our general duties and specialist police, such as the public order response unit, mounted branch and the highway patrol. They’ve all been rostered and will be deployed to support this operation.”
Source: The Guardian