How is COVID-19 shaping the right to protest and demonstrate in Australia?
With the banning of any group gatherings, the ability to protest in the street is yet another casualty of COVID-19. It’s important to ask ourselves how this pandemic is shaping the right to protest and demonstrate throughout Australia, and what we can do to continue people-led movements from isolation?
During 2019 alone, we witnessed a slew of street protests across the country, most significantly led by young people in the fight against climate inaction. While protesting has been a consistent part of human history from anti-war and anti-nuclearisation, to labour rights, asylum seekers rights, Indigenous rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights, more recently it has been a potent tool for young people to express their concern about the lack of action by governments on climate change. Protesting is a key tool to express disagreement with authority, governments or any powerful decision-maker, to call for change, and to give a bigger voice to vulnerable and marginalised people and hold governments accountable.
Most recently, a protest was organised to advocate for the rights of refugees during COVID-19, where protesters came together in a car convoy. While social distancing, they still received fines, and one man was arrested, as they were in breach of the restrictions for going out in public, currently in place.
Clearly, the physical restrictions we now face because of the current pandemic are uprooting the power of protest This begs an important question about how young people can protest and demonstrate during COVID-19.
To find out, we spoke with 23-year-old YOUNG Campaigns Volunteer Organiser Jasmine Walker, who has had to respond to the challenge of organising without physical contact.
What are the current issues young people are organising around?
Young people are organising around the same issues as before COVID-19 hit; primarily climate change, economic justice, racial justice and more. COVID-19 has simply highlighted the severity of a lot of these fights, with racism and economic injustice particularly exposed.
Young people are angry, and have good reason to be; we really are the first generation that is going to be worse off than the previous. We’re facing a climate crisis and now economic recession with potentially decade-long consequences and our government is supporting big business rather than young people.
Young people are the largest group in the casualised workforce, and have been hit hardest by the economic fall out of COVID-19. We have lost jobs, have little savings and are struggling to negotiate rental-relief with our landlords. Right now, we’re organising around rental rights, the rate of Youth Allowance and Jobseeker. But ultimately, young people are organising around creating a better future for all of us, dreaming big and fighting the forces that try to divide us.
Now that we are restricted in our physical freedoms, what do you think this means for traditional forms of protest/organising?
Organisers are thinking creatively and campaigns are supported heavily online. Groups are organising online phone banks and working bees, targeting strategic decision-makers. We are also seeing an emergence in mutual aid and community building, even without physical presence. There will always be a place for traditional forms of protest and organising but it is vital to remember our power as protestors, even online.
I would also like to note that traditional forms of protesting have increasingly been targeted by draconian laws in the past years. Our right to protest has been progressively attacked and brought down in the past years, by a government captured by big business. It is vital that during this period we continue to fight for our right to protest.
What do you think are the negative impacts of not being able to continue physical protests/demonstrations?
A lot of community care is lost without physical protest, it is difficult to train and facilitate new leaders in an environment with strong culture.
An in-person protest or demonstration is often invigorating and inspiring for new and experienced folk. Seeing a community gather together often gives me strength and motivation for the coming months. Many young people are feeling isolated and hopeless, often online actions cannot convey the same hope, inspiration and sense of community. Additionally, physical protests often garner more media attention and while they are difficult to organise, they are often more effective at targeting decision-makers and winning power.
Are there any positive impacts/opportunities that have developed out of these physical restrictions (for protesting)?
With restrictions in physical freedoms, there are many young people with more time and anger to direct to these campaigns. While there is also a lot of grief, people are coming together and working in new ways to create change. Many young people have lost work or other commitments and therefore have more time, myself included. While we need to take care of ourselves, young people are using this extra time organising their communities, joining online training and webinars and taking action online.
There are a number of ways to actively engage in campaigns without heading to the streets. Right now, you can express your concerns through online surveys, signing petitions, joining a movement, or even hanging a banner in your window. Right now, you can tell the government what you think about young people and COVID-19. Tell your story and help shape a different future for young people everywhere by getting involved with the National Youth Commission Australia here.