By: Josh Taylor and Caitlin Cassidy
Police have shut down an almost three-hour standoff with protesters at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, moving in and making a number of arrests as hundreds dispersed towards the city center.
Officers had surrounded protesters at the war memorial, south of the city’s CBD, since about 3 pm on Wednesday on the third day of protests in Melbourne. The protests come during a two-week shutdown of the state’s construction industry over Covid concerns.
The protests started with members of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) resisting a government mandate for compulsory vaccinations in order for them to continue to work on building sites. But they grew to include anti-lockdown and so-called “freedom” protesters.
Shortly before 5 pm, police moved in after issuing the protesters with several warnings to leave the shrine via an exit the riot police had cleared for them.
Some left, but others stood their ground, arguing they wanted an alternative way out.
Victoria police earlier declared a no-fly zone over the CBD. It is understood they asked news helicopter crews not to fly over the protests, concerned the footage was providing intel to the protesters.
More than 200 people were arrested. Two police were injured by bottles thrown at them, one officer was hospitalised with chest pains.
Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds of police, including officers from the riot squad, lined city streets.
Despite callouts on social media channels, initially only a small number of people were seen outside the CFMEU’s office in the central business district. There had been five reported arrests as of 11am AEST.
The numbers swelled during the day, but were far lower than on Tuesday. Police in riot gear moved through the city throughout the morning, breaking up the protesters into smaller groups. At around midday, the protesters left the city down St Kilda Road towards the shrine, where they sat on the steps outside the memorial.
Police soon followed, and formed a line in front of the memorial blocking the protesters.
Just before 3pm, police were urging those gathered to leave back through St Kilda road.
RSL Victoria slammed the protest, saying the site was “sacred, not a space of protest”.
What do we know about the protests in Melbourne, and how did the numbers grow?
“Under no circumstances, ever, should the Shrine be a place of protest,” an RSL spokesperson said in a statement.
“If any individuals or groups choose to express their political views, positions or ideological theories in the grounds of the Shrine at any time, they are completely disrespecting the sanctity of this time-honoured space.”
The Victorian premier Daniel Andrewscondemned the “ugly scenes”, warning Victoria police would “take action” against protesters who did the wrong thing.
“I think there were some people there who you would say were from the building industry. There were others who were not from the building industry,” Andrews said.
“What we saw yesterday is an insult … to the vast, vast majority of tradies or people in the building industry who are not about wrecking, they’re about building.
“They did not reflect and should not be seen to reflect an entire industry. They’re not there to protest, they’re there for a fight.”
“Today there are more coronavirus cases in construction than there are in aged care,” he said.
“There are more cases of coronavirus in the construction sector than there are patients with coronavirus in hospitals across the whole hospital system.”
There have been 350 Covid-19 cases in the construction sector – which employs 320,000 workers – in the past two months, across 150 different worksites.
The police minister Lisa Neville said Victoria Police would deploy “whatever tactics” they needed to in response to a third protest planned for later this morning.
“They have my full support in deploying whatever tactics they need to ensure these thugs, these violent thugs, are unable to cause further harm to our city and to our community,” she said.