• Kristin Perissinotto

On the right to protest

Every Australian has the right to protest. But is it right to breach public health orders to do so?

Every Australian has the right to criticise our elected officials. But is it right to personally threaten them with violence?

Every Australian has the right to oppose a proposed piece of legislation. But is it right to chant about killing the premier who proposed them at their workplace?

We're in a dangerous political climate. The Trumpian style of protest has made its way over the Pacific Ocean to Australian shores, along with reams of disinformation about COVID and so-called 'human rights violations.' Protests are powerful. They get media attention, they highlight issues, and they send a message to the powers that be. Being at a protest can be empowering, recharging, and can leave you with a sense of satisfaction knowing your voice has been heard.

But where do we draw the line between a protest and a violent demonstration, or a riot? And where does calling for the death of an elected official sit on that scale? There's a difference between demanding an elected rep resign and calling for blood. Aggressive messaging on placards are quintessential for a protest, but using them to demand targetted violence is not.

I will always fight for Australians right to protest because it's an important part of our democracy. It's vital to have our voices heard. It's powerful to send a message to government or the powers that be. And when you fight for the right to assemble, you can't be discerning. Either we all get to protest or none of us do. As someone who jumps at the opportunity to protest for a cause important to me, I find it hard to articulate my view on the tyrannical actions we've been seeing since the pandemic first hit.

If I'm allowed to protest for climate action and refugee rights, the alt-right is allowed to protest against vaccine mandates. But do they get to openly threaten violence on individuals? Do they get to carry signs citing inaccurate and unfactual statements? Do they get to co-opt progressive slogans like 'pro-choice,' and 'I do not consent,' and 'love wins'?

Part of my disdain for the violent rallies we've seen is the sheer volume of people. Partially because I'm horrified to see the number of people who believe the misinformation and disinformation peddled by conspiracy theorists, but partly because I'm saddened that issues based on genuine breaches of human rights are not attended in massive droves like the anti-vax (etc) protests are. I can't help but wonder what kind of shape the world would be like if that number of people attended a protest for Australia's treatment of First Nations People or settling refugees and people seeking asylum.

The issues these protests bring out are complicated for progressives. I can only speak for myself, but I wholeheartedly oppose police violence against protestors. So must I vocally dissent when an anti-vax protest sees police brutality? I support the right to protest, but do I have to continue that support during a lockdown for public health? How does a supporter of protests articulate condemnation for what we're seeing on the streets this year?

The pandemic, and, more importantly, the reactions to the pandemic, have brought turmoil. Illness, death, mental ill health, economic devastation, job loss, deeper political divides, record levels of disinformation and conspiracy theories, you name it. It's also threatened the efficacy of a protest, and the strength of our fight for the right to take to the streets. COVID-19 has been devastating, but the threat to our democratic system it will leave could be worse.