Police in Melbourne, Australia, fired pepper balls and large-sized projectiles at unarmed civilians on Sept. 22, seeking to disperse crowds that took to the streets to protest against the government’s vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions.
This is the third day of demonstrations by construction industry workers and others in Melbourne against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and the extended lockdown in Victoria state.
Videos in the morning showed police firing shots at small groups of people in Melbourne’s central business district (CBD), with photos of the projectile rounds appearing to be half the size of a fist. A separate video showed a policeman tackling a woman onto the ground.
Starting in the early afternoon, groups of protesters, ultimately totaling about 2,000, converged from various areas and marched from around the Melbourne headquarters of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) towards the Shrine of Remembrance, a war memorial, ultimately gathering there later in the afternoon.
Riot police deployed pepper spray to disperse the crowd as they marched down Elizabeth Street, after which they scattered across the city before regrouping on Victoria Street and continued onwards to the shrine, the Herald Sun reported.
At the shrine, they chanted multiple slogans against vaccine mandates and against Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. They also sang songs including the national anthem, and the crowd held a minute’s silence for those who died from suicide amid the CCP virus pandemic.
Numbers dwindled at the shrine throughout the afternoon amid back and forth negotiations between the crowd and the riot police, who said they could peacefully leave the area without getting arrested.
Police surrounded the area at about 2:20 p.m., the Herald Sun reported. At the time, the vast majority of the group remained on the steps of the memorial.
A man on a loudspeaker called on police to stand down. “Protesting is a human right. … We must be allowed to walk,” he told the surrounding officers, the outlet reported. “You still have a chance to do what you signed up to do and have children who look up to you.
“We are here to be peaceful. We don’t have weapons. … We need you, like you need us,” the man said.
The standoff reportedly lasted over three hours, during which the crowd was heard chanting “hold your ground.” A video showed police officers taking select people away to arrest them amid the standoff.
By approximately 4:20 p.m., a police loudspeaker told the crowd they were “free to leave” via St Kilda Road. Heavily armed officers began to move in on the unarmed protesters, eventually surrounding a smaller number of protesters on the steps of the Shrine.
Video from independent journalist Rukshan Fernando, also known as The Real Rukshan on social media, showed protesters scattering in all directions in a frenzy amid sounds of shots fired. Riot officers aimed their weapons at the unarmed crowd. A desperate cry of “Stop!” can be heard amid the shots. It’s unclear how many people in the crowd were injured as they fled the area.
The crowd was dispersed just before 5 p.m.
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Ross Guenther said that foam baton rounds and capsicum spray were being fired to disperse the unarmed civilians, The Age reported. There were about 400 people in the area at the time, and police arrested more than 200 throughout the day, he said.
Guenther said that people had thrown flares, golf balls, tap handles, and batteries at police officers. Two officers sustained head injuries after bottles were thrown at them, and another officer went to hospital with chest pain and is under observation, he said at a press conference Wednesday.
He acknowledged that there were “small breakaway groups that see benefit in hijacking” the event, but that more intelligence is required for police to determine who these groups were.
He said that police tactics differed from the day prior, and that on Wednesday, police were “very successful” in breaking up groups of protesters to prevent large gatherings—at least until they gathered at the Shrine of Remembrance, where police managed the situation in what he called a “very safe and effective way.”
Guenther urged people to not come into the city in the future, threatening potential arrests and AU$5,000 fines. He told reporters, “It was completely disrespectful that the crowd ended up at the shrine, which is such hallowed ground in this great city.”
Protest Coverage to Be Delayed
New rules were introduced late Wednesday that will compel media outlets to delay the publishing of aerial video footage of the protests in Melbourne.
Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), at the request of Victoria Police, temporarily banned media helicopters from flying over Melbourne to cover the protests. Following backlash on social media by several media members over the no-fly zone, the ban was rescinded.
Temporarily restrictions from CASA remain in Melbourne’s airspace, whereby media outlets will have to apply for approval from Victoria police to operate their aircraft over the area.
“Media outlets will also be required to delay publishing any livestream footage from the air by 60 minutes or at the conclusion of the operation,” a spokeswoman said. “This is because protesters were actively monitoring aerial livestreams, compromising the police operation and putting the safety of members at risk.”
The restrictions are effective until Sunday.
How Protests Started
Construction workers had initially gathered on Sept. 20 outside the Victorian office of the CFMMEU and called for its Victorian state secretary, John Setka, to stand down.
They accused Setka of having failed to do anything to support them in their calls to end vaccine mandates for the construction industry, which take effect Sept. 24.
The Victorian state government announced on Sept. 20 that construction will shut down in metropolitan Melbourne and four other local government areas for two weeks, citing “continued concern about case numbers, transmission risk, and reduced compliance.”
The move met with widespread condemnation, and thousands of Victorians marched to protest the situation on Sept. 21 around Melbourne CBD. The protests continued on Wednesday, with people vowing that they would demonstrate “every day” until they see some changes.