A protest staged by university students opposing the Australian federal government’s proposed deregulation of university fees descended into violence when police turned to pepper spray as a form of deterrence.
A group of approximately 60 students gathered outside the Masonic Center on Goulburn Street, where education minister Christopher Pyne was scheduled to give an address before the Australian Council for Education Leaders at 11am. Chanting “no cuts, no fees, no corporate universities”, the youths attempted to enter the Center.
Police guarded the entrance to the building, trying to keep the crowd at bay. When protesters increased their efforts to surge into the building’s foyer, the authorities were compelled to use capsicum (or ‘pepper’) spray to “avoid an imminent crowd-crush”, officers said in a subsequent statement.
Once the students had dispersed and moved away from the building, five were treated by paramedics, who used water and milk to soothe their faces.
Legally-blind Anna Amelia, who is currently studying at the University of New South Wales, said that the aftermath of being hit by the spray “felt like there was an actual fire in [her] lungs.”
“We make no apologies for wanting to march into the building but the idea that we were dangerous in any way… We’re unarmed, with nothing more than banners and placards and a megaphone,” Erima Dall, a tutor and researcher at the University of Sydney, commented.
Ridah Hassan, an Education Officer at the National Union of Students, added: “This demonstrates the lengths the [police] will go to to defend the Education Minister Christopher Pyne from the people he rules over.
“It was a peaceful protest to protest the government’s deregulation agenda and we were pepper sprayed when making that point. We are determined to keep protesting.”
Another pepper spray victim, University of Sydney student Brigitte Garozzo, said that she was simply holding a sign and was actively avoiding any form of confrontation.
“We were chanting and I was holding a sign. I’ve been to protests were police are rough before so I deliberately didn’t yell because I didn’t want to get involved- but it still happened,” she said.
The police force has defended their handling of the unauthorised protest in an official statement, which states:
“The NSW police force will not tolerate breaches of the peace or criminal offences being committed by persons who attend unauthorised demonstrations or public assemblies.”
Christopher Pyne’s office declined to comment.
Yesterday, Pyne warned universities to improve their standards or risk losing the accreditation that allows them to run teacher training and education courses.
“If the courses don’t measure up… they will not be accredited. If they are not accredited, they will close,” he announced.
The Education Minister acknowledges that the proposed changes may lead to a drop in the number of students qualifying as teachers.
“If that’s what happens,” he said, “I don’t think it will be a particular problem.”
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