An investigation by the Victorian Ombudsman has found that the July lockdown of public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne “was not compatible with the residents’ human rights, including their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.” Ombudsman Deborah Glass said the lockdown “appeared to be contrary to the law”, and recommended an apology by the state government.
The hard lockdown was made possible by the state of emergency powers. In early July, people in Flemington and North Melbourne were under stage 3 pandemic restrictions, meaning that they could only leave the house for work, school, caregiving, daily exercise, or to get groceries.
But in nine public housing towers in these suburbs, residents had to stay inside their units for days with no possibility of leaving. The Ombudsman’s report said, “Some people were without food and medicines. At the tower at 33 Alfred St, the focus of the investigation, residents waited more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision for fresh air.”
This involved an unprecedented police operation, with more than 500 police involved in shutting down the towers. This is the same police force with a history of terrorising the communities in these towers. They have routinely carried out unwarranted stop-and-searches on black youth around the estates. African and Middle Eastern youth in North Melbourne and Flemington are ‘randomly’ stopped 2.5 times more often than the average.
There is a history of police brutality in this area, with Victoria Police paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-court settlements to victims of police violence. In one case a young man lost part of the sight in one eye after being hit with a police torch. Racial abuse and death threats from police officers are common.
The community has a history of pushing back against police. After a spate of police shootings in the 1980s, community activism forced Victoria Police to revise rules around the use of force. In the last decade, people on the estates have organised to go down to the station as a group and demand the release of young people being held for no reason.
In 2017, far right figure Milo Yiannopoulos was hosted at a forum across the road from the Kensington public housing towers. He was met by a mass protest, including residents of the estates. After the protest was over, police conducted an operation through the gardens of the estates, enforcing a state of fear against any residents drawn to the protests. But residents refused to accept this treatment, and organised a protest of 300 people against the police operation.
This is the relationship Victoria Police has with these communities, and the Andrews government placed them in control of the movements of every resident of the estates. People returned from shopping trips to find police standing outside their homes. One resident said they were “turning the estate into a prison.”
The community organised to distribute food and other supplies while official government assistance fell short. The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t issue food supplies until 52 hours into the hard lockdown. Residents waited on phones for up to 45 minutes attempting to get assistance through official hotlines. But community food distribution was blocked at times by emergency services, with comments made about “food contamination”.
All of this unfolded only a month after a massive Black Lives Matter demonstration in Melbourne which saw tens of thousands on the streets against police brutality and racism.
Despite highlighting the violation of resident’s rights, the Ombudsman also described the lockdown as warranted. The softer lockdown over the rest of Melbourne has played a key role in stopping the spread of covid-19. While there have been calls to have no lockdown at all, most people have seen the devastation that this approach has caused overseas in places like the US and Sweden.
But residents opposing the hard lockdown still agree with the need for public health measures. The community clearly showed their ability to manage things when they tried to arrange food and other supplies. Democratic committees could have been established by tower residents to oversee the safety of the towers. Instead they were hampered by authorities. Victoria Police should not have been involved – during the hard lockdown, resident and activist Mahir Muhammad called for healthcare workers and support such as counsellors instead of police.
Restrictions on movement went beyond what was necessary. With access to resources, safety equipment, and testing, they shouldn’t have had to go through “prison”-like conditons. At the time of the lockdown it was often pointed out that private apartment towers in the same postcodes did not receive such treatment. The hard lockdown had less to do with public safety than with the paternalistic and racist treatment of public housing residents.
While the Victorian Government has been praised for implementing lockdowns where others haven’t, the way they have gone about this has been to increase police powers and direct blame on ordinary people for system-wide failures.
Capitalism ultimately created this disaster, and it has shown itself incapable of managing it. Even in Victoria, where the outcome has been better than most of the world, hundreds have died unnecessarily. We need to get rid of this system, and fight for the democratic control of society by ordinary people.
By David Elliott