“Professional protesters” have been blamed by the NSW Police Commissioner for chaotic clashes between a pro-Palestine rally and officers overnight.
A child was carried to safety through the crowds as chaotic scenes unfolded in Sydney’s Port Botany on Tuesday night, with protesters accusing police of “heavy-handed” treatment.
Officers arrested and charged 23 people from the 400 who had gathered at the port’s shipping terminal to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and protest the arrival of a container ship owned by an Israeli company.
“I would say broadly that most or a great large number were professional protesters who currently are protesting about the Gaza conflict but next week, they’ll probably protest about something else,” Commissioner Karen Webb told reporters on Wednesday morning.
Acknowledging the “combustible situation” prompted by Israel launching attacks on Palestine’s Gaza Strip in response to a Hamas attack on October 7, Ms Webb said police had been working to manage dozens of protests across the state that had been conducted peacefully.
“What we need to do is manage the right to protest while protecting public safety and cohesion and ensuring people don’t breach the laws,” she said.
“I’m not saying anyone’s performing that perfectly, but when it comes to the rest of the world, certainly in the last six weeks, NSW Police have been working hard to ensure that we don’t have violent demonstrations on city streets.”
At one point, protesters lifted a pram with a child inside through the masses as its mother tried to escape the scuffles between protesters and police.
“A child in a pram having to be crowd-surfed by protesters to get it out of a violent scuffle caused by police removing people at the blockade at Port Botany tonight,” one protester wrote on social media about the incident.
Vision of the protest later into the night showed police clashing with some members of the group.
One video shows four officers scrambling to pin a man to the ground to arrest him.
“Let him go, let him go,” the protesters chanted as they yelled at them to stop.
Other video shows officers pulling up protesters who were sitting on the ground and leading them away as they struggled.
Police on horseback also charged through the crowd, pushing and corralling them towards the exit.
Some protesters described the actions of police as “sickening”.
“Violent, unjustified thuggery from NSW Police towards a peaceful crowd which included children,” one wrote.
A NSW Police spokesperson said officers had issued multiple move-on directions to the group and individuals that were “not complied with”.
They said officers began arresting people when the group blocked cars from moving through Foreshore Rd in Port Botany.
“After a number of people continued to refuse police direction, 23 people were arrested before all people left the roadway about 9pm,” the spokesperson said. “All 23 people were taken to several police stations, where they were charged with the offences of fail to comply with move on direction and damage or disruption to a major facility.”
The protest action has been met with dismay by Jewish groups, with Council of Australian Jewry chief executive Alex Ryvchin arguing the latest incident shows that the pro-Palestine movement is “about hatred and destruction”.
“Whether they are organising boycotts of Jewish businesses, screaming at ships or manipulating schoolchildren to support them, these actions are a threat to public safety, and they incite violence and hatred,” Mr Ryvchin said.
“There is a co-ordinated effort to marginalise and endanger Jewish Australians and rip our society apart and it must be stopped.”
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil weighed in on the protest on Wednesday morning, saying protesters who had “targeted violence at police” were “utterly despicable”.
“We have law enforcement officials who put on a uniform every day to keep your family safe and my family safe and to subject to them any form of violence is inexcusable,” she said on the Today show.
“What I know is that we can get through this because we get through a lot of hard things as a nation and we do it by wrapping our arms around each other and showing each other respect and empathy and tolerance.”
She was then pressed on the matter by the show’s host Karl Stefanovic, who said the government’s calls for cohesion were “failing”.
“I don’t agree with that, I think for the most part people are being really respectful of each other. Yes, we have these flare-up incidents where there is violence and I do condemn this and I ask please don’t let it get to that point,” she said.
Nationals deputy leader Perin Davey defended the actions of police, saying that they needed to ensure that the port could continue to function “to keep freight moving and industry moving”.
“Police are in a difficult situation – they will need to move in and clear the way because that is their role,” she said on the Today show.
“They will need to clear the way for things to get through, but any time they go near a protester they will be accused of some heavy-handed tactic, I do feel for them here.”
She criticised the actions of protesters, saying that laws needed to be respected.
“It was anti-Semitic against an Israeli company that wanted to stop trade, we need to call this out,” she said.
“People who are saying we should boycott pro-Israeli businesses, what they are really saying is we need to boycott Jewish businesses and that is anti-Semitic and we need to call it out from the get-go.”