When Chris Breen posted a Facebook event for the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) in March last year he didn’t anticipate he would end up spending nine hours in the cells of Preston police station.
But on the morning of Good Friday, 10 April 2020, he was arrested at his home. Police seized not only his mobile phone and computers but his teenage son’s laptop. By the time he was released from custody that evening he was facing a charge of incitement.
Chris is a high school teacher, a workplace delegate for the Australian Education Union and a member of the AEU state council. He has also been an active member of RAC for the best part of a decade.
The Facebook event was for a car convoy to drive around the Mantra Bell City hotel on Bell Street in Preston a number of times, to raise the morale of more than 60 refugees locked up there and draw attention to their situation.
The refugees were all men who had been brought to Australia from Nauru and Papua New Guinea in previous months under the now-repealed Medevac Act.
They had already suffered almost seven years in detention because of the Australian government’s refusal to allow refugees who arrived by boat from 19 July 2013 to settle in Australia.
Many of them had developed physical and mental health conditions that could not be treated in Nauru or PNG. The Medevac Act said that if doctors deemed it necessary, refugees could be brought to Australia for treatment.
By March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, few in the Mantra had received even basic medical care. Now they were trapped in a “vertical cruise ship” – locked up on the third floor, in their rooms 23 hours a day and with windows that opened just a few centimetres for fresh air.
Supposedly this was to protect them from the virus but Serco guards were constantly in their personal space, including “security checks” in the middle of the night – and the guards rotated in and out of the building on shifts, making the chance of an officer introducing the virus to a sick and trapped refugee population all too real.
“If the police say that workers are committing an offence, the delegate, organiser or official who made the speech, sent the email or posted the Facebook event could be charged with incitement.“
RAC activists had been calling for the men to be freed from their first arrival but the COVID crisis made the issue even more urgent. RAC decided to hold the car convoy on Good Friday.
It was completely COVID-safe. Everyone was to stay in their cars at all times, with a maximum of two people from a household in a car, in line with health directions. There was no plan to stop – just drive laps around the hotel with slogans on cars and horns tooting.
This was a time when wearing masks was not compulsory and shops were open. If you got in your car and drove to Bunnings for a wander around, you were legal. But the police treated the convoy very differently.
Chris was arrested and didn’t take part in the protest. Thirty other RAC activists were issued fines of $1652 each for sitting in their cars as the police ran a breath-test style operation – except every car got pulled over.
The fines totalled almost $50,000 and most people are contesting the fines in court later in coming months.
It was a cynical and hypocritical use of police powers to crush dissent and send a message that thanks to the pandemic, the cops ruled the streets.
In the name of enforcing “health directions”, the police operation ignored the fact that detention was (and is) a health risk, while a car convoy was not.
Chris faced court on 27 January and 10 February and is back in front of a magistrate on 17 March for final legal arguments and the verdict.
If he is found guilty of incitement, it could affect his job.
Just as worryingly, a guilty verdict would undoubtedly encourage Victoria Police to charge more activists with incitement, a little-know clause in the Crimes Act 1958.
Paragraph 321G of that law states that:
Where a person in Victoria or elsewhere incites any other person to pursue a course of conduct which will involve the commission of an offence by—(a) the person incited;(b) the inciter; or(c) both the inciter and the person incited—if the inciting is acted on in accordance with the inciter’s intention, the inciter is guilty of the indictable offence of incitement.
This is a threat to every union activist who has ever organised a picket, a rally or a strike.
If the police say that workers are committing an offence, the delegate, organiser or official who made the speech, sent the email or posted the Facebook event could be charged with incitement.
That is why unions have been at the forefront of the RAC defence campaign, with motions of support from:
• Maritime Union of Australia
• United Workers Union
• Australian Education Union, Victoria
• Health and Community Services Union (HACSU)
• CFMEU Construction & General Division, VIC/TAS
• NTEU, Victoria
• ETU, Queensland and NT
• Ballarat Regional Trades and Labour Council
• Hume Central Secondary College AEU (Chris’s workplace)
• RMIT University NTEU branch committee
• Federation University NTEU branch committee
When Chris appeared in court on 27 January, delegations from the AEU, NTEU and HACSU joined the solidarity protest outside the courts, with a message of support from the MUA. On his second appearance, on 10 February, there were banners from his AEU sub branch and the CFMEU.
Standing up for refugees is union business and so is opposing police standover tactics. That’s why all workers should be demanding the charge against Chris is dropped.
How you can help
There will be a solidarity speak-out when Chris returns to court on 17 March. Rally from 9am at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, 233 William Street, city. Bring union flags and banners.
Send your support for the defence campaign –
Join the next major rally for refugees: Palm Sunday, 28 March. Check for details at: facebook.com/palmsundaywalk
Get involved with RAC: facebook.com/racvic
or Unionists for Refugees: facebook.com/unionists4refugees
David Glanz is an activist with Refugee Action Collective, Solidarity and is a member of the MEAA.