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Jack Latimore is a Birpai guri who writes regularly for The Guardian, Koori Mail and IndigenousX.
While there’s been plenty of questions over decisions regarding the entry of athletes in Sunday night’s closing ceremony of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, something which occurred outside the stadium involving a group of valid ticket-holders has largely been neglected by commentators and critics. Much has been made of video posted to social media of event-goers streaming out of Carrara Stadium well before the show had finished. Also available on social media is video of the harassment and intimidation by Queensland police of around 15 Aboriginal people for up to two hours before they gained entry.
The group who endured two rounds of body searches – both of which involved the removal of clothing and repeated invasive pat-downs – were affiliates of the vocal protest group who utilised the Gold Coast’s hosting of the games to draw attention to the issues that continue to affect Indigenous people within Australia today. Marching under the banner of Stolenwealth Games, the group included representatives from First Nations communities, groups and organisations from around the continent who made it clear that they were continuing a legacy of resistance to what the Commonwealth still represents for many disadvantaged people.
Missing from the contingent who sought entry on Sunday night were two of the more publicly prominent figures within the protest group. Ruby Wharton, 21, and Dylan Voller, 20, sat in police detention at the Southport Watch House waiting to face a magistrate come Monday morning on charges of breaching bail conditions that were set after being arrested outside the opening ceremony of the Games. The details of that incident – like numerous other incidents that occurred between the Stolenweath Games group and Games officials, city council officials, police and the media throughout the past fortnight – have gone unexamined and under-reported.
The disruption of official Games proceedings began on day one after the protest group delayed the special baton relay for around an hour with a blockade of the road that ran right by the designated site of the protest camp. It is inconceivable that officials and police did not anticipate the likelihood of this occurring when Doug Jennings Park was selected as the location for the protest base camp during negotiations that took place over 18-months in the lead up to the commencement of the Games.
The agreements that were put in place following those negotiations included: Games organising officials facilitating a special camping permit for the park; the provision of water stores and portable toilet and showering facilities; temporary fencing and some security; media coverage and meetings with key figures, such as the Games organising committee boss Peter Beattie. Protest camp organisers also provided an undertaking that their demonstrations would not interfere or disrupt Games events. The special camping permit was conditional on these and other provisions and up for review midway through the Games period. If the agreed conditions were not observed by the protestors, the permit would be nulled and revert back to the Gold Coast Waterways authority. One member of the camp involved in those negotiations expressed concern that the blockade of the baton on the morning of day one breached the conditions of the agreement strategy.
Later that day, three protestors –including Wharton and Voller – were arrested for public nuisance outside the opening ceremony at Carrara Stadium. The arrests were made after a confrontation arose between a group of 10 representatives of the protest group and stadium ticketing officials. Confusion still surrounds the incident. The protestors say Games negotiators promised them 10 gratis tickets to the ceremony in a meeting with the protest group that occurred moments before on an empty sporting field opposite the stadium. They say the group nominated 10 leaders, who were then escorted by police to the stadium, but upon arrival at the gates they were denied entry. Pushing ensued, which resulted in the arrests. Wharton, Voller and the third protestor were released on bail the same night.
When questioned specifically about the incident, Queensland police provided few details in an official statement that reiterated their intolerance of disruptive behaviour during the Games and associated events. Within the camp, many protestors speculated whether the promise of the tickets had been a deliberate ploy by police to identify and seperate nominated leaders from the group, who remained effectively detained by a police cordon in the rain-sodden field opposite the stadium until well after the opening ceremony had concluded.
Nine days of demonstrations without any arrests ensued. These included a rally outside the Palazzo Versace resort where Prince Charles was rumoured to be staying; a march along Surfers Paradise beach and through the Cavill Avenue mall; silent protests outside Southport Catholic and Anglican churches; repeated disruptions of live broadcasts of the Sunrise television program; and a rally inside the Australia Fair shopping centre that developed into a brief obstruction of the main road outside the centre.
Leaders within the protest group say that the attitudes of the police changed after the Australia Fair demonstration. They report that police engagement with the protest group became more confrontational and that police surveillance and intelligence gathering on the protestors intensified. There were accounts of police intercepting cars that contained affiliates of the camp and surprise raids on the dwellings of local allies. Video and photographs of the police surveillance taken by camp residents and posted to social media supports some of these claims.
The protestor’s relationship with police deteriorated even further on Friday 13th, two days out from the closure of the Games after police intervened in a march through Broadbeach mall that was returning from yet another beachside demonstration that disrupted the broadcast of Seven’s Sunrise program. Police and protestors say marchers were ordered to proceed in single file through the mall so as not to impede public and traders. Protestors add that once they complied with the directions, police began picking off and arresting leaders within the group. Four arrests were made in the mall for obstructing police and contravening a direction. A fifth arrest – that of Dylan Voller – was made shortly afterwards in parkland opposite the mall for breach of bail conditions.
A 9.49am tweet from the personal account of a Seven journalist reported that an Aboriginal protestor had tried to hang himself in the back of a police van after the arrests had been made. The post was retweeted by 7News official accounts and swiftly picked up by other dominant news outlets. A police statement over an hour later said one of the men arrested attempted to harm himself whilst in the back of the police van, but officers prevented him from doing so before calling for medical assistance which then transported the man to hospital. Protestors confirmed that the man was Dylan Voller.
Initially, Joanne Voller was denied contact with her son while he was in hospital. This quickly led to speculation that other factors than what was being reported by police had contributed to Dylan’s hospitalisation. As the four other protestors were charged and eventually released on bail, Dylan remained detained. That evening, his mother was permitted to visit him and shortly afterward issued a statement asking the public to call upon the Queensland government to free Dylan for his own safety. Sometime during the night Dylan was once again released on bail.
The following morning, police diverted a car driven by Ruby Wharton and containing Voller and a third protestor onto a detour route at Currumbin, a suburb about 25kms south of the main section of the Gold Coast strip. Video footage taken by Voller from inside the car suggests the trio were headed south on a trip unrelated to any Stolenwealth Games demonstration. After being diverted, police stop the car. Shortly afterwards, Wharton and Voller are arrested for breaching their bail conditions by entering a Major Events Area (MEA) It is the third arrest in eleven days for Voller. The pair are taken to nearby Palm Beach police station and charged. Neither is released. Instead they will spend the remainder of the weekend in police custody.
Meanwhile back up the coast, fire, health and hygiene inspectors gathered with police at the gate of the protest camp in Doug Jennings Park. They inform the protestors that the camp site must be vacated within the hour. One agent tells anxious protestors that child protection officers are on their way. One elderly lady is reportedly strip-searched during a tense stand-off that lasts for over an hour. During this time, leaders within the camp repeatedly ask the inspectors and police to withdraw, pointing out that the elderly and the children within the camp are becoming distressed. When the inspection squad finally relents, they fall back to the closest perimeter – an arms reach from the southern end of the camp. In video posted to social media, some officers can be seen smirking as the camp leaders remonstrated.
Questions remain unanswered about the necessity of dispersing the protest camp one day before the closure of the Games. Claims that it was unsafe don’t square up with a renewal of the special camp permit only days earlier, or a commitment by the chief of the Commonwealth Games Federation himself, during a visit, to have the camp’s water stores for the portable toilets and showers resupplied. There were also claims that the camp’s small ceremonial fire presented a safety concern. It had been burning since before the Games commenced.
On the final day of the Games, hours before the closing ceremony, the Stolenwealth Games group issued a rallying cry on social media for people to join them at the base camp. Some replied, said they were on their way. Shortly afterwards came the alerts on social media that the police had locked the access gates to the park and closed the stretch of road that runs in and out of the camp. As the police aerial wing circled overhead, the protesters found they had again been detained.
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