The Hi Vis
In the eastern ‘Australian’ state of Victoria, Legal Observers have increased their presence in reaction to continuing legislation and policing behaviour aimed at quelling or extinguishing the right to protest. To aid their work they have separated themselves from Legal Observers in other places by choosing fluorescent pink Hi Vis or PPE as a point of distinction. This has made volunteers attending events less anonymous... as well as easy targets. [^1]
For example, when Police—sanctioned by the State Government—targeted a select group of housing commission towers, in order to enforce a particularly stringent form of Covid-related lock-down in 2020 [^2]. Many of us looked on, through our screens, in sympathy and horror at the treatment of our neighbours at the hands of the state. These events were often viewed over the shoulder of a pink vested Legal Observer, who risked illness and arrest to provide a watchful (recorded) eye, ensuring tower residents had a voice within these, otherwise covert, proceedings.
Their avid, and very welcome, monitoring of colonial policing strategies has been so effective and continuous that, since lock-down—when police, and those donning Hi Vis, were often the only visible public—Legal Observers found themselves the target of the sort of behaviour they set out to monitor.
In one particularly distressing case, the local roads authority, VicRoads, decided to take advantage of the relative invisibility ‘lock-down’ afforded road construction workers to ramp up already highly destructive practices around the removing ancient trees, for highway widening and fire clearing projects. Focus was given to a grove of around 3000 trees, near a place called Ararat outside of Melbourne, that had been ear-marked by colonial authorities to be cleared. These were ancient trees of particular significance to local Aboriginal groups… [^3]
An encampment known as the Djap Wurrung Embassy was set up to help protect this area of significance. The Embassy website describes the site and VicRoads plans: “These beautiful trees include an 800 year old tree that has seen over 50 generations born inside of a hollow in her trunk, and a 350 year old directions tree that has been shaped to resemble a Woman. This area is part of the song line, the series of sacred trees and artefacts we find here regularly prove it’s significance. VicRoads plan to create a 4 Lane Highway. If this 12km stretch goes ahead 3000 trees will be gone, including the sacred trees and their protected habitats. All this devastation is in the name of cutting 3 minutes off the existing highways travel time.” [^4]
Throughout lock-down Djap Wurrung Embassy members continued monitoring the site, adhering to Covid protocols as they evolved [^5]. They also continued to post updates and alerts. And all seemed relatively quiet until one day in October. For those in lock-down Nerita Waight, co-chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service and CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service released this statement: “We have received reports that police blocked road access to the sacred Djab Wurrung trees early this morning and they have refused access for lawyers, saying they are non-essential workers. There is mounting evidence of racial discrimination from Victoria’s COVID-19 policing, and now at least 50 activists protecting this sacred cultural site have been arrested, with many receiving $5000 COVID-19 fines.” [^6]
As with any Police action surrounding protest Legal Observers were on site to monitor police behaviour, only this time—away from journalists, formal legal associates and a ‘general’ public—the Police in attendance saw the attending flash of Fluorescent Pink that has proved significant in holding them to account and responded with violence and arrests…
One legal observer, a second-year law student, said she was sitting near the sacred grandfather tree when police started to arrest people without properly cautioning them. “They started making really violent arrests, grabbing people by the head; four cops on top of one person. They approached the other legal observer first, who was arrested and went peacefully. They came up to me and told me I would be arrested if I didn’t move on. I agreed to move on. They arrested me immediately despite my compliance. They walked me out, away from my position as a legal observer, holding both of my arms. I was wearing the clearly marked legal observer vest throughout the whole ordeal.” [^7]︎
A version of this text also appears in:
[‘Hi Vis: Toxic Trades, Constructed Masculinity & The Vibrance of Anonymity’ via Futuress]
[^1]: To date the origin of the ‘Legal Observer’ remains unclaimed although many articles (including this one originally featured in the Huffington Post [via are.na]) trace the destination back to the 1930s and the creation of Liberty, an organisation based in the U.K. concerned with Human Rights and observing the Right to Protest [libertyhumanrights.org.uk].
[^2]: Since this text was initially written a report into this incident, focussing on Tower residents, was commissioned by the State Ombudsman who admitted “the detention of residents ... appears to have been contradictory to the law” although the State government has refused to issue a formal apology, let alone any compensation for the ongoing trauma this decision has caused [ombudsman.vic.gov.au].
[^3]: Sophie Cunningham wrote extensively about The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree and the siurrounding area an this article for The Monthly. [themonthly.com.au]. Please note: Referring to this artcile in no way endorses publishers of The Monthly and the stance they have taken in regards to their reportage (or lack thereof) of conflict in Palestinian.
[^5]: An example of protocls around protest during Covid ‘lock-down’, as deployed by Djap Wurrung Embassy members can be found here... [via Google Drive]