By John Stapleton
Notices went up around the Epic Showgrounds telling campers they must depart midday of Sunday 13 February, 2022, that is, less than 24 hours after the march on Parliament House.
The notices claimed that the Canberra Show had been pre-booked 12 months ahead and the date could not be rescheduled. As almost every major event in the country had been cancelled for the previous two years, even church gatherings being raided, the excuse was difficult to believe.
It was signed by the ACT Government, one of the worst perpetrators of Covid tyranny in the country.
That both the Epic showground administrators and the Show people themselves were reportedly supportive of the protestors and did not want them moved on was irrelevant to the authorities, who were determined to bust the demonstrators out of Canberra.
The protestors were a political embarrassment to the nation’s leaders and the political establishment who had foisted this disaster on their fellow Australians.
The authorities should not have betrayed the public in order to oblige the will of their political masters, the overlords who had created this disaster in the first place, forging a protest movement which was not going to go away at their convenience. The protestors should have been allowed to stay until their grievances were addressed; instead of being pushed out of the camp in the most brutal, authoritarian and deceptive manner possible.
This protest was a direct response to political and government overreach, a terrible and tragically demented tyranny which had lasted two long years, and the authorities had no right to attempt to destroy the voices of the people they were meant to serve.
Instead of protecting the corporate thugs, political incompetents and grotesquely overpaid time serving bureaucrats infesting the halls of power, they should have moved to protect the public.
But to their eternal shame, they did not.
Twenty four hours after a jubilant atmosphere gripped Canberra, with one of the largest protest gatherings in Australian history, a deep anxiety afflicted the camps of protestors.
The putative and publicly squabbling leadership of the movement at Camp Epic did nothing to dispel tensions. And all of them disappeared on the penultimate day, leading to yet more fear and confusion amongst the thousands who remained on the site itself, including many with children who had no jobs and no homes to return to.
All the rhetoric from various members of the movement that they were there “until the job is done”, or “until this is over”, proved as substantial as smoke; leaving the diehards to face down the authorities on their own or roam the city streets, homeless and disorientated.
The personal crises, the internal and social chaos wrought by the blizzard of government diktats and authoritarian overreach over the previous two years were now clearly evident.
Tensions rose throughout the day; with many protestors either leaving after the rally, while others, lured out of Camp Freedom at the Epic Showgrounds to a rural property 40 kilometres outside by the promises they could set up their tents there, now had nowhere to go after police blocked entrance to the alternate camping site.
Orders were broadcast by police ringing the site that protesters must leave the campsite by midnight or face arrest for trespassing.
The atmosphere was intensely chaotic; with many protestors having no idea where they could go or what to do. There were reports that hundreds of groups were now camping along the sides of Canberra roads.
The grounds fell spookily empty, and many of those who remained were frightened, confused and anxious. Of those, many were families with children.
Significant numbers of the people we interviewed said they had nothing to go home for, they had lost their jobs and their homes and been made to feel like aliens in their own country. They wanted to stay in Camp Freedom, where they had found a new family and a new home. Some declared tearfully they wanted to stay there forever.
“Oh My God, this is a War,” exclaimed one protestor amid the increasingly confused circumstance.
At an incendiary meeting of confused campers near Gate Seven of the showgrounds various speakers put their points of view.
Faced with imminent arrest, many were disappointed at the departed leadership.
One speaker shouted through the microphone: “If you care so much about your country and your people, where are you? We are the people holding the line. They are not believers. We are the people holding the ground here and now. We are the heroes.”
Another speaker said: “People, do not be scared. I was there at the last eviction. Get your popcorn ready.”
One speaker, wearing a t-shirt blazoned with the words I Do Not Comply, said: “If we walk away we might as well not have come here in the first place. The demons have done their work and 75% have left. But we are staying.”
Another agitated camper declared: “They are all a fraud. The people are the authority.”
Yet another declared: “The sheep have left, we are the fighters. We are going to win.”
Another passionate speaker declared: “I was a builder earning $4000 a week. I lost my job to come down here. I have five kids. I am staying until this is done.”
There were signs littering the increasingly sad and fraught site, along with messages blazoned on cars and t-shirts.
On cars: “We don’t need no vaccination, we don’t need no forced control.”
On signage: “Protect The Children.” “Leave My Kids Alone.”
On t-shirts: “Unvaxxed Untested Unafraid.” “After the Tribulation Let No Man Deceive You.”
After the initial authoritarian abuses witnessed at the first camp site in the parliamentary precinct, the hands off policing approach which characterised Camp Epic for much of the week had been remarkably successful. The crowd was essentially self-policing, and there were no reports of violence, rapes, vandalism or all the other behaviours one might fairly expect with such a wildly diverse crowd.
That all ended on the 14th of February, 2022, two days after so many had marched on Parliament House in jubilant unity.
Camp Epic was already rapidly emptying on the final day when police moved in and aggressively moved every last protestor off the site.
In the inflammatory lead up, sowing yet more tension and confusion, protestors were initially told that they would have to move on by midnight.
One woman with two young children said people had come to her tent early in the evening and told her she would be bashed and arrested if she did not move on. The woman did not have a car and had no way of complying.
The next rumour in this evolving drama was that campers had until 8am to comply.
As it turned out the police arrived in force at around 11am, repeatedly broadcasting the message: “Leave Now. You are trespassing. Leave immediately. If you do not leave you will be arrested.”
Police, tolerating no resistance, worked their way through from the showgrounds from the top camping ground until every last protester had been evicted.
The irony of police aggressively moving demonstrators from the nation’s capital, ostensibly the heart of Australian democracy, was lost on nobody.
As more than 98% percent of protestors had already left, and of the holdouts most were already packing up to leave, it was a largely pointless show of force.
In one of those all too human moments, one protester pleaded with the police: “Don’t vax your kids.”
One sign, emblematic of the passionate sincerity of protestors, read: “Touch Our Kids & It’s War.”
While from a policing point of view the dissolving of Camp Freedom may well be deemed a success and end up as a textbook model for policing in highly volatile crowd control situations, it also left many questions over its inhumanity and deceptive nature.
Every last protester who was moved on had received the message: “The government is my enemy. I have no right to protest. This government would prefer I didn’t exist at all.”
Campers were told multiple conflicting stories.
One of those was that they could move to a large conference and adventure centre Caloola Farm, an hour outside of Canberra, provided free of charge by the sympathetic owner, also proved false.
Police blockaded the roads and refused to let protestors enter.
Owner Ralph Hurst-Meyers, known for his community generosity, said: “After consultation with the authorities, Caloola Farm and the Hurst-Meyers Charity Limited will allow vulnerable people affected by recent events such as the elderly, the disabled, and the indigenous community, single mothers with children, vulnerable families with children to temporarily stay at Caloola Farm free of charge while they make preparations to return home.”
The problem with that, of course, is that many of the remaining protestors had no home to return to. The other issue was, these people didn’t come to Canberra to set up a commune or a new Nimbin, they came to change the country and to restore their freedoms, most particularly the freedom to work.
The “hotheads”, that is the politically active and the outspoken who had been driven to action by the destruction of their lives, were not welcome.
Another rumour was that they were welcome to move to another Council controlled camping ground at Cotter Creek half an hour away. That also proved false, with police aggressively moving protestors on, despite the fact that they had already made bookings and paid for their visit.
The final lie was that protesters they would be safe and were welcome to stay on Ground Seven, at the top of the Epic showgrounds, because it was privately owned land.
In the dramatic unravelling, none of these stories, or deliberate falsehoods, turned out to be true.
The hundreds of people who moved up to Ground Seven on the understanding that as it was private property they would be safe to stay were easily kettled, or corralled, given no choice but to leave after more than 50 police entered the grounds with backup forces clearly evident behind them. The protestations of the farmer who owned the land against the police action were ignored.
While many wore the standard uniforms of local police, there were other heavily armed special operatives wearing masks and holding leashed dogs, adding to the fear and panic already spreading through the crowd.
Amid these surreal and frightening scenes, it was obvious that a few of the officers were enjoying their role perhaps “a little too much”; but that many others were unhappy about the duties they were being asked to perform.
In the midst of this chaos, some of the younger officers in particular, were exceptionally polite, thanking the protestors for their cooperation.
The massive numbers of ordinary Australians on their doorstep upset the smug disdain displayed towards the largely working class protestors by Canberra’s insular, well paid public servants and their political overlords.
But as the many Australians refusing to accede to the government’s vaccine mandates burn through their savings and resources, the social chaos inflicted on Australia’s working and middle classes by the Canberra elites can only intensify. As will the response.
Next time round they are more likely to blockade the capital than politely march. The authorities succeeded in moving the protesters on this time around, but this was a story going nowhere but straight into the history books.