Vashti Kenway, Mondoweiss, July 24, 2012
Australian pro-Palestine activists have had a major victory in their year long court battle with the Victorian state government. A Melbourne magistrate has dismissed the substantive charges against the protesters known as the Max Brenner 16.
The activists were arrested last July 2011 at a demonstration against the Max Brenner chocolate shop; a company owned by the Strauss group which is renowned for its financial and moral backing of two of the most murderous brigades in the Israeli military, the Golani and Givati. These units are notorious for their malicious attacks on Gaza in the assault in 2008/ 2009 and more recently as the shock troops for the Israeli colonies in Hebron.
The charges, ‘trespass in a public place’ and ‘besetting’, were pursued by the Victorian police in a 17 day case, which saw 26 police witnesses, 4 civilian witnesses called to the stand and mounted an estimated 1 million dollars in court costs. The time, money and effort devoted to the case reveals the determination of the Victorian police and the Australian Zionist movement to criminalise dissent and to crack down on pro-Palestine voices.
This judgement is a slap in the face to all those who want to silence the Palestinians and their supporters. Renowned civil liberties lawyer Rob Starry, who acted for some of the accused, said the decision had wide-ranging ramifications. “This case is really a landmark case in the annals of the criminal justice system because what it represents is people have a right to express themselves politically,” he said. Indeed this decision is a part of the mounting roar of defiance against Israeli apartheid across the world.
The pro-Palestine campaign in Australia has been mounting steam since the war on Gaza three years ago. Vibrant student groups have developed on many campuses and many major cities have embraced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. In Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, regular demonstrations of hundreds curl through major shopping centres targeting companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Unfortunately, these demonstrations have been met with repression and hostility. Time after time, hundreds of Victorian riot police had been mobilised to shut down the city and to intimidate protesters. The Max Brenner protest on July 1st 2011 saw the police use violent tactics. One young man blacked out as the police used pressure point tactics on him. Another had his arms locked behind him and his glasses ripped off him. A woman had her shoulder dislocated as she was pushed away from the front of the store. The final verdict by Magistrate Garnet said that certain police officers had used “heavy handed tactics”.
What is more, the court case revealed that there was a very deliberate policy on the part of the police hierarchy to ‘behead’ the movement by arresting prominent activists. Indeed four of these activists had their homes raided in dawn raids after they broke bail conditions which stipulated they were not allowed to return with fifty meters of Max Brenner. One of these activists Damian Ridgewell said at the time, “These were anti-democratic conditions and we were right to break them.” Ridgwell was released after paying a $2000 surety while I was made to pay a $10,000 bail or face longer time in prison to “teach me a lesson for my defiant attitude.”
This hostility from the Victoria police does not materialise out of thin air. High levels of collusion between the pro-Israel forces in Australia was revealed in the court case. Indeed the Police confirmed that a decision had been made to arrest the protesters before the demonstration. This decision was made after meeting with Zionist organisations, the Victorian government solicitors office, shopping centre managements and the management of Max Brenner federally. What is more, the anti-Max Brenner protests prompted a parade of politicians and apartheid-loving celebrities, including ex Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to launch pro- Israel demonstrations while drinking Brenner hot chocolate. These demonstrations while poorly attended, revealed something significant about Australian politics: the centrality of supporting Israel to the political establishment. Australian support for Israel has historically been tied up with its support for US imperialist aspirations in the Middle East. This political support extends from left to right. Prominent Labor politician Michael Danby has called activists “Prejudiced fanatics” while Greens member for the seat of Melbourne distanced himself from the Palestinian cause by saying, “The Greens have never supported BDS, and in fact our National Conference and party room have rejected it as a police. We have also been clear that… we do not support the targeting of the Max Brenner stores.”
The decision of Magistrate Garnet is a welcome antidote to these kind of attitudes. Not only is it a victory for freedom of speech and the right to protest, it is also a blow to those forces who back Israel and all its atrocities. This decision has revealed that the Victoria Police, Israel-supporters and the corporations who back them cannot act with impunity against those who raise their voices against injustice in Palestine.