After tens of thousands of Sydneysiders protested peacefully against police brutality and black deaths in custody, the day ended with NSW Police pepper spraying a crowd of protesters in a confined part of Central Station.
When the protest ended, police began clearing people off the road where the march had ended. However, protesters quickly found themselves surrounded by a human blockade of officers, and say they were forced into Central.
“They wouldn’t let you leave, if you asked to leave, they said no and held the line,” Courtney Law told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
The 20-year-old Aboriginal woman had been protesting for justice for her cousin, Michael Black, who died in custody in April. She said she was particularly upset that policed used force after a protest against police brutality, of all places.
“It was still peaceful and they didn’t really know what to do,” she said.
“While we’re protesting they’re using excessive force – I was honestly disgusted.”
Police formed a human blockade and gradually pushed back against protesters. Although there was a short period where protesters could leave, they were eventually cornered into the ground-level entrance of Central Station on Eddy Ave.
People who tried to leave via the main exit were grabbed and pulled back by police.
Eventually, police forced people inside the station. Protesters say they showed little concern for public health, despite attempting to ban the protest days earlier on similar grounds.
“As we got pushed in, all the cops were shoulder-to-shoulder, none of them had masks, they were grabbing onto each other, they were grabbing onto us, and they were pushing us closer together,” said a 21-year-old protester, who asked only to be identified as Reuben.
Protesters say they were then trapped at the ground entrance of Central for roughly an hour.
During this time, a black 21-year-old was grabbed and held down by three officers before being arrested. He can be seen holding his hands in the air while they restrained him with force.
He was later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting police.
At some point, the Opal card gates opened. Police then pushed protesters deeper into the station, shoving them through the gates.
Around this time, several people fell to the ground, and at least one person was trod on.
As police kept pushing, male officers started inspecting the women’s bathroom.
After passing through the gates, police stopped, before an altercation broke out.
“The police stepped back and we all thought they were leaving and letting us go,” Reuben said.
“Cops just started hitting people and spraying people. I got hit in the head.”
That was when two officers started spraying pepper spray indiscriminately into the crowd.
“I looked back to be like ‘where where can I go?’ There was nowhere to go,” 18-year-old Damon Bertolissio told P.TV.
“Next minute, we’re getting pepper sprayed.”
“My face was on fire, like someone had boiled up a jug hot water and just splashed it on my face,” he added.
“It was honestly the worst pain I’ve ever felt.”
One woman who got pepper sprayed was on crutches. An officer laughed as another protester carried her away.
However, in an overcrowded and confined space, many protesters felt as if there was nowhere to run.
“Everyone was just running blind,” Reuben said.
“I tripped over, I could open my eyes for a flash and could just see people falling over.”
Inside the station, protesters used milk and water to soothe their eyes and faces.
“The crowd was helping each other, we were peaceful,” Law added.
Lucas Apollonov, 21, described being pepper-sprayed at point-blank as like having his whole face bitten by a bull ant.
“I felt so absolutely helpless,” he told P.TV.
“The pain was completely uncontrollable, I was smacking the floor and rolling around.”
Five people were treated at the scene for pepper spray injuries, while others told P.TV they took themselves to hospital afterwards. Many protesters spent the rest of the night applying milk to their eyes.
On Sunday, NSW Police Acting Commissioner Mal Lanyon told reporters he stood by the force’s use of pepper spray and alleged that protesters were “inciting police”.
“I support the use of capsicum spray and the way police responded in order to ensure that there was not further violence,” he said.
Pepper spray is banned by the Geneva Convention for use in warfare, but that doesn’t apply to police. During this insistent, police sprayed it within confined and poorly-ventilated areas of Central Station.
In response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, American doctors have said pepper spray could potentially accelerate the spread of the coronavirus. Nearly 1,300 medical providers and public health experts have signed an open letter urging police not to use it.
Shortly after using pepper spray, police yielded and allowed protesters to leave via the main exit.
All the protesters P.TV spoke to said their eyes hurt severely for several hours after the incident. Even a day later, their eyes were all still irritated.
Contrary to police claims, protesters say they were completely peaceful, which is supported by footage posted all over social media. Many even tried to leave but weren’t let through by police.
“None of us wanted the conflict,” Reuben said.
“We were all pushed and forced into that space, we were trapped.”
Videos: Zac CrellinImage: AAP / James Gourley