Violence spilt over at the anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne’s CBD on Saturday as protesters claimed they took to the streets to fight against the state’s sixth Covid-19 shut down.
But Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said most of the people who turned out over the weekend were just looking for a fight and it was one of the most violent demonstrations police had seen in the past 20 years.
Specialist police, who were dressed in full riot gear and holding ballistic shields, were forced to fire rubber bullets on the crowd after they charged officers and burst through the police line.
Brunswick Greens MP Tim Read said “Victoria’s police took a worrying step towards resembling a military force on Saturday” after using the rifles firing pepper bullets for the first time.
“The Greens don’t support the protests or the violence, but once police use a tactic in one protest, we see it again in others,” he posted on Twitter.
“If police use a new weapon inappropriately, it’s investigated by …. police.
“We can’t feel safe with new weapons in police hands until we have independent scrutiny of complaints against police and the courts have full access to body-worn camera footage.”
The reference to body-worn camera footage relates to it being defined as protected information under the Surveillance Devices Act. Police can prevent access to the vision if it puts someone in danger or compromises an investigation.
Officers are also able to use their discretion to turn their cameras off in sensitive investigations. Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes has launched consultation over potential amendments to the laws.
Liberal Democrats MLC David Limbrick also backed Mr Read’s call and said the emergency powers under the state of emergency declaration had “resulted in police opening fire on civilians”.
At least 260 fines – worth more than $1m – have been issued from Saturday’s event, while 19 people were arrested and will be taken to court, with two others remanded over allegedly assaulting police officers. Nine police officers were hospitalised due to injuries sustained at the protest.
Mr Patton said police were forced to use nonlethal weapons, such as pepper bullets and OC spray, and it was “absolutely justified”.
“These people came along with an intention, and that was pretty clear from what they were armed with, to be confrontational and engage in criminal activity,” he said.
“It seemed like it was angry men between 25 and 40, it’s a generalisation, but by and large, who were intent on causing this mayhem.
“It is the conduct of these people who came into (the CBD) with an intention to confront police that has caused this.
“That’s not about protesting about freedom, that’s criminal activity … their conduct was disgraceful.
“The vast majority of those who were involved in confrontation with the police, what we saw over a lengthy period of time over a number of hours was attacks on police, flares thrown at police, flares thrown at police horses, marbles thrown, ceramic insulators thrown … glass stubbies thrown … people attack police, push police, knock them over.
“One police officer was assaulted, pushed against a wall and, when they went to the ground, were repeatedly punched and possibly kicked.”
Victoria’s sixth lockdown is due to end on September 2 but rising case number could result in another extension.