From Sydney to Chicago, Democracy is Essential

Statement by Workers’ Voice/La Voz de l@s trabajadores
While the spokespeople of capital always accuse socialists of being against democracy, we know all too well that in reality it is the capitalists and their governments who in actuality represent the greatest threat to the democratic rights of working people. This has been demonstrated once again in New South Wales, Australia this year as the NSW police moved to effectively end public protest in the Australian state that contains the country’s largest city Sydney. After students attempted to protest the Liberal Party government’s plans for brutal austerity in the university system, cops moved in to arrest protestors on the grounds that they were violating Covid-19 safety guidelines. While the police in NSW have had a documented history of contempt for democratic expression that goes back decades, the recent issues began with crackdowns on a Black Lives Matter rally this July 28th where five were arrested and the rally dispersed before it could begin. Three days later the police arrested two student activists at a rally against austerity. Ten further student activists were arrested at a similar rally at Sydney University on the 28th August. All activists caught up in this crackdown have been given $1,000 (AUD) fines, and activists are aware of police plans to begin to charge protesters with multiple offenses, allowing even more punitive fines. Such plans would allow the police to charge people with the maximum penalty of $11,000 and 6-months imprisonment merely for protesting in public. This intolerable situation has led to the launch of the Democracy is Essential Campaign to fight back against the anti-democratic behavior of the police.
As organizers of the campaign have noted, the police’s feigned concern for public safety is a transparent pretext for repression. The police in NSW have a long history of trying to prevent protests, whether or not a pandemic is going on. What is more, while student protesters who limited their numbers to small groups of 20 each were arrested, the government of NSW encouraged people to fill up beaches, sports stadiums and water parks in order to kick-start the economy. Covid-19 rules in NSW have even been amended to allow corporate functions of up to 300 people. As Vinil Kumar of Socialist Alternative, an organizer of the campaign, said on a recent episode of the podcast Red Flag Radio, the priorities of the government couldn’t be clearer: “if you are twenty students wanting to protest against cuts to higher education that’s not allowed, that’s a gathering for a common purpose [which] is not allowed, but if you are a corporation in New South Wales you do have the right to gather for a common purpose, and that’s the common purpose of making money.”
This kind of capitalist hypocrisy around Covid-19 is not unique to Australia, both our comrades here in the United States as well as in countries such as Chile have been facing similar attacks even as governments move to open the economy in order to preserve the bottom line of the capitalist class. In Chicago during the Black Lives Matter protests this July, Erek Slater, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver and Amalgamated Transit Union shop steward was terminated for merely meeting with his own coworkers to talk about political and safety objections bus drivers had to being used as chauffeurs for the police by the city during a pandemic. Less than a month later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot used the potential spread of Covid-19 to as part of her justification for raising the city’s drawbridges, cutting off the wealthy downtown from working class neighborhoods. Of course, the real reason for this drastic step was to contain an uprising that occurred the night before, following a police shooting of a young black man during which the “magnificent mile,” a street of Chicago’s ritziest storefronts, was ransacked. Just like in Australia, the clear hypocrisy of the ruling class and its government is obvious, when workers raise concerns about their own safety from Covid-19 they are ignored, threatened or terminated as Erek Slater was, it’s only when working class people rise up and make noise that suddenly of Covid-19 becomes a legitimate concern.
This same pattern was repeated in Chile where our comrades have been facing even more brutal repression, justified by the same false concern for viral spread. Protesters have taken the streets this month in Chile, rekindling the spark of the Chilean revolution against the criminal Piñera government. This time, the demonstrations have been led by health care workers who are demanding the incorporation of the government’s health code into their work, a measure that would protect front-line workers on the job. These protests were met with harsh police persecution carried out under the auspices of the very same health code. Of course, there was no compelling public health reason for the police to throw 16-year-old protestor Anthony Araya off of a bridge in a sickening display of police violence that was caught on camera and seen by the entire world. That kind of behavior shows the real intentions of the Chilean state. While Piñera, his ministers, and their fellow travelers may cry crocodile tears about protestors spreading the novel coronavirus, he still keeps hundreds of political prisoners in jail from the last uprising where they are at a much higher risk of getting the disease.
It is important for workers around the world to stand united in the face of this capitalist Covid-19 hypocrisy. Capitalist governments, like Australia, are more than happy to use Covid-19 as an excuse to erode the democratic rights of workers, all while rushing to open the economy, cutting corners and endangering us all, so that the capitalists who run the economy can make a few more bucks. We stand fully on the side of our comrades in New South Wales and join them in their demands that:

  • Protests be exempted from the NSW Public Health Order, in order to preserve democratic rights. This kind of exemption has already been granted to ski resorts, recreational vessels, places of worship, and netball associations.
  • The immediate end of the over-policing of demonstrations by NSW Police and an end to the use of move on orders to break up public assemblies.

Furthermore, we call for:

  • The immediate rehiring of Erek Slater by the CTA
  • The release of all Chilean political prisoners and the end of the government crackdown on protest in that country.

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