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Cops disapprove of free speech in Lakemba

On Wednesday 24 September, five Sydney anarchists were harassed and intimidated by over 20 cops and banned from Lakemba station for six hours. (Yet they wouldn't allow us to catch a train there to leave the area.) Our crime? Demonstrating solidarity with Muslims in Lakemba.

There was a meeting organised to make placards showing solidarity with Sydney's Muslim community, which was and is feeling the heat. The Abbott regime had announced a heightened terror alert and the capitalist media helped out with sensationalist coverage to induce public paranoia about Islamist terrorist attacks. Abbott had declared ominously that some freedoms will have to be sacrificed for the sake of security. It was quite alarming.

Those of us with some knowledge of history were reminded perhaps of Hitler's dissolution of parliament following the mysterious burning down of the Reichstag in 1933. "Our country is under attack," was the gist of his declaration at the time. This served to justify in the public mind the introduction of repressive measures. Evil intentions of a mysterious enemy necessitated suspension of democratic freedoms long taken for granted. The slide into outright fascism happens more easily than you might expect.


With these three placards, five of us caught the train to Lakemba via Redfern from Newtown, displaying them to the public on the way. As we waited to cross the road to the station two young white guys in a car made Islamophobic comments in response to the messages on our placards.

We were apprehensive going out there on the train but knew we had to act. It was a small gesture but we couldn't sit back and do nothing as Abbott and Co. ramped up the fear factor. They seemed to be hoping and waiting for an atrocity such as a public beheading so that they could swing into action with a big clampdown on everyone's civil liberties and human rights.

After arriving at Lakemba we went and stood beside a small park next to the station. We displayed our 3 signs to the passing traffic and pedestrians. People were looking at us. We attracted a fair bit of attention.The first comment we had was from a young guy passing by, "What's wrong with Muslims?" He'd seen the sign saying 'I'M AFRAID OF...' but perhaps didn't read the whole thing. Hearts sank at the prospect of our message being misunderstood in this atmosphere of tension.

We felt conspicuous. We walked around the corner into the shopping precinct of Haldon St. People read our signs and took photos. We found a new position on the footpath and stayed there for perhaps 20 minutes or half an hour, facing the road and showing our signs. Two young men drove past in a car. "THAT'S what I'm talking about!!" exclaimed one after reading the H8 COPS NOT MUSLIMS sign.

A couple of people came up and thanked us. One even said we'd made his day. We gained confidence as we realised that people understood our message and appreciated the support.

One 'respectable-looking' local community member, perhaps a small businessperson, opened up to us. He told us that his wife was eighth generation Australian but he'd suggested she stay home today as she wore a Muslim head covering. I began to realise the pressure people in Lakemba had been under and Muslims in Australia generally, after the recent well-publicised raids on the homes of Muslims by a federal government that denied it was feeding public prejudice against Muslims.  When in actual fact that is exactly what it's been doing.

The guy who'd organised the protest did a spiel on camera, explaining why we were there. He was filmed by another member of our group. I talked too and was filmed. The protest organiser conducted a short interview with the member of the Lakemba community who had approached us. I believe all this footage was to be put on youtube.

We wound up our protest and went to a nearby restaurant to buy some takeaway falafel rolls for a late lunch. People were friendly towards us, and appreciative once they realised we were on their side, not the government's.

Eating our falafel rolls (delicious!) we returned to the station. Turned out we had only nine minutes to wait for our train back to Newtown. All of a sudden I caught sight of five or six uniformed police approaching. Uh oh. I realised they wouldn't like our signs. Especially the one that said H8 COPS NOT MUSLIMS. Nevertheless I was confident that there was nothing they could do to us as we'd done nothing wrong or illegal. We had merely exercised our right to free speech.

The cops surrounded us, harassing and intimidating us, particularly the woman with the H8 COPS sign. She defended herself well, explaining that she was a Muslim. The police were angry. They spoke of the young Muslim man who'd stabbed 2 police officers before being shot dead in Melbourne the night before. One of them told us we should be grateful to be living in this beautiful country. We certainly weren't grateful for the harassment!

There was heated argument. A member of the public, possibly a Muslim, came to our aid on the station platform. One of the cops asked the man whether he needed any help, trying to intimidate him and drive him away. But the man stood his ground and remained among us, exercising his right to observe the public debate.

Our train arrived but the cops forbade us to board it. More uniformed cops emerged from one of the carriages. The argument raged. A cop asserted that there had been 147 acts of terrorism in Australia. I asked him to name one. He said nothing. One of our group mentioned the bombing outside Sydney's Hilton Hotel in 1978 and said that it had been the government that had carried out that one. Still more cops came down the station stairs towards us. It was unbelievable. (Even now I cannot believe the State's reaction to five peaceful protesters with three placards who were leaving anyway! Yet I saw it. It did happen!)

A second train pulled into the station. Again we were prevented from leaving. People got off, others got on, looking at us and probably wondering what was going on. I held up my placard so that people on the train could see it: GOVERNMENTS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS. The police demanded our identification, one person at a time. They were aggressive.

I felt like calling their bluff and refusing their orders. They had no right to harass us when we'd done nothing wrong or illegal. They threatened us with fines and court action. I produced my ID and a cop took down my details from my driver's licence. We didn't feel like getting arrested. One of our number was accused by a cop of being a 'professional protester.' The cop reckoned he recognised the guy's face.

The cop returned my ID and ordered me out of the station, telling me I was banned from there for 6 hours.

A woman who'd been standing watching with a young daughter from the footbridge over the station said she'd started counting the cops but stopped at 20. There were more than that, too many to count. Around 30 maybe.

Walking with my placard on the roadbridge over the railway I was called an idiot by a white woman with a child. She told me not to come stirring up trouble with a provocative sign in her community. Before I could respond a man, possibly Muslim, who'd overheard her, told me he'd lived in Lakemba for 20 years and that I was welcome.

Frustrated at not being allowed to catch a train, our group decided to catch a taxi back to Newtown instead. We got into a cab beside the park where we'd started our demo. We asked to be taken back to Newtown. The cab driver said it would take too long to get to Newtown in the evening peak hour traffic. He suggested catching a train from Belmore, the next station along towards the city. He took us to Belmore station.

We told him what we'd done and what had happened. He mentioned harassment by 800 cops and told us that nobody was allowed to say anything, there was no free speech. The community had suffered the oppression of saturation policing. Anyone speaking out would be targeted. He warned us to be careful. The authorities could lock you up in an institution, give you a tablet and say you're crazy, then you would be f***ed. He had children and didn't want anything to happen to them so he felt powerless to change the situation.

On the train from Belmore, would you believe it, more cops! They came through the train checking people's tickets. We all had tickets. However the cops discovered that one member of our group had a concession card that was out of date. So they gave him a hard time over that. There were six or eight cops.

On Sunday 5 October there was a bigger event organised. A speakout in that small park next to Lakemba station on NRL grand final day. Canterbury Bulldogs supporters drove past waving flags, noisily proclaiming allegiance to their team. There was an atmosphere of excitement. We listened to a succession of speakers. There was an open mike. Many people got up and had their say. It was a hot, sunny day.

When the speakout ended a small group of us went to Belmore, where mobs of Bulldogs supporters had taken over the main street near the station. The police wouldn't allow us to march with our banners, but march with them we did once we were out of reach. Cops chased people through the crowds to stop them displaying the banners.

Some Bulldogs supporters didn't like the banners. I got the feeling they thought politics shouldn't be mixed with sport. I saw a young guy snatch away a big banner being displayed and throw it to the ground.

We realised there was potential for dangerous misunderstanding. A big banner reading STOP STATE TERRORISM could be misinterpreted. Muslims could take that as an accusation that they were terrorists. When anarchists talk of the State we mean the government, the (repressive)apparatus of the nation state. Other people might think it means stop terrorism in the state of New South Wales. Or people might think we're tarring Muslims generally with the brush of the Islamic State extremists.

Some of the Bulldogs fans agreed with our message and we chanted energetically together with them, "Side by side!" It felt awesome to be in cross-community solidarity against racism, bigotry and government repression.

The police eventually managed to disperse the small number of political activists in the crowd and pushed some of us down a side street. From there eight of us retreated down a back lane, only to have a drone hovering above us. Whether the machine belonged to the police and was keeping us under surveillance, or whether it was controlled by someone else entirely I don't know, but it was a bizarre and unsettling experience. I for one had never seen a drone before.