Victorian police attack non-violent boycott rally

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” If Gandhi was right about this progression of a non-violent movement, then the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is well on the road to victory.

On July 1, approximately 150 protesters converged on the steps of the Victorian state library before marching to where a Black Pearl/Jericho stall in Melbourne Central used to be located. Black Pearl/Jericho is an Israeli cosmetics company that uses minerals extracted from the Dead Sea.

While the company profits from the Dead Sea, the Palestinian people who live on the land surrounding it are regularly denied access by Israel’s military occupation. Restrictions on the Palestinian people are enforced by a network of apartheid and occupation policies, including military checkpoints, exclusion zones and Israeli-only roads.

Black Pearl/Jericho’s Melbourne Central stall, however, is no longer there. Its absence was no doubt influenced by regular demonstrations against the Israeli business. These protests not only shut down the store itself, but the police presence at demonstrations obstructed other stores from operating.

Having had a victory at Melbourne Central, activists released helium balloons, streamers and banners in the store. Marching out of Melbourne Central partially victorious (partially because Melbourne Central is still the home of other Israeli corporations), we marched on to the Queen Victoria building, where we protested outside the Max Brenner chocolate store.

Max Brenner is owned by Israel’s second largest food and beverage company, the Strauss Group. Strauss has boasted on its website of providing care packages for the Golani and Givati Brigades of the Israeli military. Both brigades were part of the military assault on Gaza, which killed more than 1300 people, including 350 children, between December 2008 and January 2009.

Repeated attacks

Determined not to allow protesters to have another success, the Victorian Police attacked the non-violent demonstration, using excessive force. The police attacked the non-violent picket several times, but protesters linked arms and continued to protest. Unable to break up the picket line, the police then began to arrest anyone with a megaphone, while clearing the square of both protesters and bystanders who were not part of the picket.

With most of the crowd gone the police were able to use extra force to arrest the remaining demonstrators. Finally, those of us who remained voted to leave the area. This didn’t stop the police from making more arrests of activists, including myself.

I spent several hours in police custody. Approximately one hour of that (my phone and other possessions including my shoes were taken off me) was spent on my own in the back of a police van. There was a tiny slit from which I could look out at scores of police patting themselves on the back and drinking water (something they denied me). After that first hour, I was escorted to a desk where they presented my charges of riotous behaviour and resisting police in carrying out their duty (their duty being to arrest me). They wanted me to sign bail conditions stating that I was not to enter Melbourne Central or the Queen Victoria building until my court appearance on September 5. Knowing that I had done nothing wrong, I refused to sign.

This angered the police greatly. I was taken into a larger van where several other activists were being held. Three of us refused to sign bail conditions and were detained for an extra hour. Police came in and threatened us with being kept in custody for the entire weekend. We were told if we didn’t cooperate we would be taken into remand “with all the murderers and rapists”, and that the police couldn’t be held responsible if anything happened to us.

I told the police I would think about their “offer” but that I would like to make a phone call first. The police informed me I had no right to make a phone call and that that was “the stuff of Hollywood”. So my fellow protesters and I stayed in the van not knowing if we were going to spend the weekend in prison.

Finally the police decided to release us without us having signed bail conditions. After the demonstration, it became clear that 19 of us had been arrested. Other charges included trespass and besetting (obstructing people). The charges were fairly arbitrary. As one of the other activists set to appear in court noted, “When I was first detained, I was told a different charge to the one they ultimately gave me”.

The aim of the bail conditions imposed on the majority of those arrested was to undermine further demonstrations in the two areas. In a show of defiance in the face of these attempts to silence the campaign, there was a 300 strong BDS protest on July 29 in Melbourne. In the face of a large police presence designed to intimidate the protest, a march was once again held to Max Brenner for a sit-in, speakers and sprited chanting. Further protests are planned, with the next one being scheduled for September 9.

Labor MPs to Israel’s rescue

The Zionists have gone on a media offensive about the campaign, with Labor MP Michael Danby and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd sipping hot chocolate outside Max Brenner and calling us anti-Semitic. They alleged that we were targeting Jewish businesses and that our actions were similar to the German Nazi regime’s boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933.

This attempt to fool people into conflating Judaism and Zionism shows how weak their argument is. The Palestinian-initiated BDS campaign does not target Jewish businesses. It calls for a boycott of both Israeli and international businesses that are complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation policies.

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid, the BDS campaign is conducted in the framework of international solidarity and resistance to injustice and oppression. It calls for non-violent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.

The campaign, which was initiated in 2005, is supported by Palestinian civil society and calls on Israel to comply with international law by (1) ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; (2) recognising the right of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Those arrested outside Max Brenner have now formed as the Boycott Israel 19 and are running a defence campaign that has received international support, including from prominent academics like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky. For more information visit the Boycott Israel 19 website.

[James Crafti is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who has spent time in the occupied West Bank as an international human rights volunteer.]