The police: never supporters of Mardi Gras

Yesterday, this footage appeared on YouTube of police brutality against a party-goer at Mardi Gras (WARNING: this footage is disturbing).


The video was accompanied by this article in Same Same, and this article in the Sydney Star Observer, both of which detail even more disturbing reports of police brutality over the weekend.

AFP Advertisement in Sydney Star Observer
AFP Advertisement in Sydney Star Observer

The comes after a week of praise for the police from many in the queer community. In the latest edition of Sydney Star Observer, the AFP ran a half-page advertisement declaring that they had been ‘supporting Mardi Gras for 15 years’ (see image on the right). As police officers marched in the parade in uniform, there was once again cheers about how, after such a sordid history, the police are now ‘supporting’ Mardi Gras.

If this video proves anything though, it is that the police have never, and will never really be supporters of Mardi Gras.

The police, just like with all social movements/events have a pretty awful history with Mardi Gras. Here is what I wrote about the history in a piece from a couple of years ago from FUSE Magazine:

The police at the first Mardi Gras
The police at the first Mardi Gras

On the 24th of June, 1978, approximately 2000 people took to the streets of Sydney to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969. This march, or Mardi Gras, was the final event in a day of political action in the city. Its aim was to bring people onto the streets in a peaceful way, not only to commemorate Stonewall, but also to show that queers in Australia were starting to fight back against discrimination in the country.

Entering its final stages trouble began to brew. It began with police harassing a truck driver operating a PA system and chanting messages onto the street. When the driver refused to stay silent, he was pulled out his truck and it was confiscated. This was followed by a full scale assault on the march, with police pushing the crowd, closing off streets and blocking the way of marchers. Once the crowd had reached the end, the situation got worse. When some marchers tried to leave the route, being unsure as to what was about to happen, police began laying into them. What followed was a full scale physical assault. Soon paddy wagons appeared and 53 protestors were arrested for no apparent reason.

The attack on Mardi Gras lead to a rebellion by queer people around Australia. Fed up of being beaten and marginalised people took to the streets. In Sydney more protests were organised, with over 100 more people being arrested in the coming months. Marches were also held in other big cities, not only to protest what happened at Mardi Gras but to signal that the Australian queer community was starting to rebel against the oppression in society.

In the end, the 53 arrested on the original Mardi Gras were released with all the charges dropped. The following year, Mardi Gras was held again, continuing a tradition that has lasted until this day.

And whilst today Mardi Gras has taken a more commercial path, and the police force may not be as openly homophic as it was once before, this awful history continues. Mardi Gras is still at its heart a political event – the act of the parade itself is a challenge to the heteronormative system. And as enforcers of this system, the police can never be true friends of the very movement challenging it.

When I went to Mardi Gras last year, I saw this first hand. For those of you who have never been, after the parade finishes, many revellers head to the main party, ‘MardiGrasLand’. Last year (and I suspect this year too), the police stationed themselves outside MardiGrasLand with dogs and a ‘drug truck’. If a dog even stopped near someone they were quickly whisked away, on their own, into a truck, where I have no idea what happened next. The treatment of people was brutal – no questions asked, no opportunity to talk – just a quick and swift shift into a truck to be searched.

While this instance may have been specifically about drugs, nearly anyone who has interacted with the police at Mardi Gras will tell you that this sort of treatment is not isolated, and the stories coming up now show how bad it can get. Dealing with the police there is not a particularly pleasant experience – they are their to ‘keep order’, and they have little respect for those at the parade or the party. A group of queers acting out of the norm is still clearly a group that needs to be kept in lne.

And so, although this brutality does not exist in the form of mass beatings and arrests as it did in the 1970s, it it is a continued, institutionalised, form of oppression.¬†And it is a form of oppression that goes well beyond just ‘keeping order’. If this video shows anything, it is that the modern police force are much more violent than that. Whilst it may not be written in the rules, violence like this is part of the modern police culture. The police are a physical, and violent, arm of the modern state – an arm with a culture of keeping order at all costs.

And that is the deal about the police marching in Mardi Gras. Whilst it might be a nice gesture, in the end that is all it is. Once those police get back on duty, they are police officers first, and Mardi Gras supporters second. And what that means is keeping queers in line – ensuring that there is order on the streets, and being physical about it.

That leaves me with one final thought about the march and its history. Think about this carefully – what would happen if the modern parade reverted back to a march, a march to protest the oppression of queer people? What side would the police be on then? I’m pretty sure I know what side of the barricades they would end up on.

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