A day at the anti-lockdown rally
When your only observations of protest marches are from television news reports, it’s easy to think of them as pointless rituals. All that chanting and waving of banners never changed a single television viewer’s opinion. Why do they bother?
The answer to that became blindingly apparent to me as I approached Victoria Park, Sydney, to join the freedom march at noon last Saturday.
People of all types were streaming alongside me. Everyone was smiling and talking to each other. It felt like a festival. It’s never conveyed in the news reports, but the overwhelming feature of a protest march is a powerful feeling of friendship and camaraderie, which is something we need now more than ever.
I had been tipped off about the march by a friend who had invited me to maybe half a dozen others over the past year. I declined them all, and never really lamented it when I saw they wound up being small gatherings in Hyde Park. But this time I was going, even if it was only to join a few hundred protesters, which is what I expected.
It had been a strange week. We had been told by chief health officer Kerry Chant that we should not talk to our neighbours if we bumped into them at the shops. Health Minister Brad Hazzard said Covid was ‘the most potent virus we’ve had probably on earth’. And Premier Gladys Berejiklian told us to ‘not leave the house unless you absolutely have to’.
It was clear that we were being manipulated by fear, and politicians were resorting to ‘emergency powers’ to take away rights over which they had no authority. Their edicts were causing more hardship than they prevented.
The crowd at Victoria Park was huge. Trees obscured large parts, but far more than a few hundred people had received the same message I had. I met up with Anna, a friend from my long-ago partying days who was now, like me, as excited to be among Covid libertarians as we once were to be dancing all night to doof-doof music.
Soon, as per the email, the crowd shuffled towards Broadway with the intention of marching to Town Hall. Cops initially blocked our path but, for whatever reason, stood down. Instead they provided an escort and blocked off the side streets. There were at least 10,000 of us, stretching the full length of Broadway.
The mood was ecstatic. Cars tooted their horns in support. I saw a diminutive old woman in a purple hijab, walking alone and smiling. I met Jesse, from Bankstown (whose residents were not allowed to leave their suburb), who said he feared his kids would grow up not knowing what freedom was. People held signs saying ‘We are the 99.7%’, ‘The media is the virus’ and urging scepticism about both the virus and the ‘vaccines’.
Police blocked us at Town Hall, forcing us to turn right onto Bathurst St. One street up, however, this too was blocked by a line of riot cops backed by mounted police.
This is when things started to get heavy. A bunch of about twenty aggressive young male protesters shoved their way to the front. I could see they were hoping for a confrontation, but the police line was too formidable. After a minute or so of chanting ‘You serve us’, the crowd was turned back to Town Hall.
This time, the cops were letting us through. Thousands of people were crammed into the square, just waiting for something to happen. I saw several people cuffed and arrested, always by at least four officers. One of them was a well-dressed old bloke who looked no younger than 70. Anna kept asking cops what these people were being arrested for and the standard reply was, ‘He assaulted a police officer’.
A protester ran past me through the crowd. A cop chased him. The crowd closed in behind the cop, who soon realised he was isolated and in trouble. The heavy-looking dudes who had pushed their way to the front at Bathurst St rounded on him. He was pinned up against a shop window and disappeared behind the mob. One brave man jumped in as others yelled ‘Don’t bash him! Don’t bash him!’ Anna and I also joined the group standing in front of the cop but by then the thugs had blended back into the crowd. I felt someone shoving my shoulder from behind and saw it was a police horse. The mounted cops rescued their colleague but not before being pelted by the crowd. Someone found a plastic pot plant and lobbed it at a female police officer’s helmet. The crowd cheered as the cops beat a retreat.
It’s remarkable how standardised these scenes have become. For the next half hour, we milled about watching a few more people get arrested, including a bloke who was committing the heinous crime of entertaining the crowd with fire sticks. Each time, it was like watching footage of a scene from London or Paris, albeit without the water cannon.
I wouldn’t have liked to be a police officer in that situation. Their work was dangerous and volatile. Most of the crowd was friendly towards them, but they had to be vigilant against aggressors who were sprinkled liberally throughout. One wrong move and they could find themselves in the sort of trouble for which they are woefully underpaid. To their credit, they didn’t pen people in. Leaving the scene was easy, which is what Anna and I eventually did.
We walked through Chinatown, sadly deserted when it should be bustling with yum cha diners, to her car. She dropped me at my bike and I rode to my local Westfield to buy stuff for dinner on my way home. It was, as usual, depressingly dehumanised, frightened masked shoppers keeping quietly to themselves and looking sad and alone. It was a dispiriting contrast to the conviviality I felt with 10,000-plus people as we marched up Broadway only two hours earlier.
It takes a certain type of politician to want to take that camaraderie away from us. Sadly, such politicians are the norm these days.
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