Victoria Police are under fire for heavy handed tactics that saw officers pepper spray news photographers and an elderly woman injured.
More than 20,000 people watched a live feed of Melbourne’s weekend lockdown protest, which descended into chaos on the streets of Richmond after police barricaded Melbourne’s CBD and closed down public transport.
Veteran news photographer Luis Ascui, who works for Daily Mail Australia and some of the nation’s other top news publications, was ruthlessly targeted by a young officer, who sprayed pepper foam directly into his eyes.
Veteran news photographer Luis Ascui, dressed in white and brown, is targeted by police while covering the lockdown protest on Saturday. Ascui believes police suffer from a culture problem
Police officers arrest another news photographer at Saturday’s lockdown protests in Melbourne
Luis Ascui was alongside an elderly woman who got pepper sprayed while on the ground moments have they attacked him
Ascui, who has covered conflicts across the globe, had been positioned next to an elderly woman who was knocked over moments after he was attacked and pepper sprayed in the face as she lay sprawled on the road.
Daily Mail Australia has been told the police response was thrown into disarray when up to 100 dedicated members of the riot squad were caught in the wrong location.
Instead, rank and file officers were left to clean up the ugly protest, which saw about 1500 people confronted by police.
At one point, the crowd rushed police on Barkers Road, Kew, with multiple officers knocked to the ground and trampled.
Five police members had to be taken to hospital, several others were injured and at least one police vehicle was damaged.
While Ascui said it was deplorable police were injured at the protest, he said photographers had the same right to safety on the job as them.
‘We are there to do a job as well. I know we’re going to get hurt, of course we are, but as a side result, not the direct incursion towards us,’ he told Daily Mail Australia on Monday.
Ascui said he had never been targeted by police at any other conflict across the world while working as a news photographer.
‘What is the point of getting media accreditation from them if they themselves are not going to respect it,’ he said.
While the Police Association has reached out to the photographer, Ascui said no-one from force command had yet contacted him to offer an explanation.
‘The culture needs to be changed,’ Ascui said.
‘I’m sick and tired of everytime something happens to a police person we understand they have a right to go to work safely. Well so do we.’
Luis Ascui had taken his goggles off because his mask had fogged them up. He would later regret the move
Photographers were targeted by police at a protest in Melbourne last weekend
Photographers cop a face full of pepper foam from police on Saturday
Ascui had been carrying three cameras, press accreditation and was wearing a bicycle helmet as protection against projectiles when he was instead attacked by police.
‘You can’t give me the excuse I didn’t look like a press person. Come on. I was carrying three cameras,’ he said.
Video captured on the day showed police spraying foam in the direction of numerous photographers, with one arrested on the spot and placed in handcuffs.
Rukshan Fernando, who had more than 20,000 viewers watching his live Facebook stream, was also targeted by police with pepper foam.
The protest had been planned for a week in advance, with organisers once again using encrypted messaging apps to coordinate the march.
Police had hoped to get the drop on organisers and went to extraordinary lengths to stop people congregating in the CBD.
Public transport was halted altogether and a virtual ‘ring of steel’ implemented in and around the city.
But cunning protesters outsmarted police again, catching them on the hop as they shifted the protest into the narrow streets of the inner city suburbs, which resemble a maze.
Protesters seemingly caged onto a street by hordes of police on both sides were seen busting through a side gate and making their escape onto Bridge Road in Richmond unhindered.
While the protest was again marred by a small section of militant protesters, many in the crowd said they had attended the protest after losing their jobs or concerns over the effect of lockdowns on their children.
Protesters gathered in Richmond after police stopped public transport and barricaded the city
News photographers had shadowed the protest across the inner suburbs. Luis Ascui believes police knew he was a press photographer when they attacked him
Demonstrators were left outraged after footage showed two officers deploying pepper spray at a woman during violent protests in Richmond, Melbourne, on Saturday
On Monday, police defended their use of force at the protest, but confirmed the attack on Ascui would be investigated internally.
‘We acknowledge the media plays an important role in covering events of significant public interest. We understand they have an important role to play in reporting on these matters and liaise with the media to assist where we can,’ police told Daily Mail Australia via a statement.
‘(Saturday) was a highly dynamic and hostile situation and at times it can be difficult to distinguish between protestors and media representatives. The matter has been referred to Professional Standards Command and will be investigated.’
Force command has also referred the incident involving the elderly woman to its internal watchdog.
‘Police anticipated a highly volatile situation on the weekend and had strongly urged people to refrain from participating in protest activity,’ it stated on Monday.
‘Despite warnings an estimated 700 people protested in clear breach of the Chief Health Officer’s directions. The incident circulating on social media has been referred to Professional Standards Command and will be investigated.’
Police refused to say what, if anything, went wrong on Saturday due to ‘operational reasons’, but assured Victorians it would review its operational response to Saturday’s protest.
Daily Mail Australia understands Victoria Police is under intense political pressure to close down lockdown protests.
Luis Ascui is a respected news photographer. He has covered conflict zones across the planet
Luis Ascui (left) during a job in war torn Myanmar
A woman, reported to be in her 70s was knocked to the ground during the violent clashes between protesters and police in Melbourne
Police arrested more than 200 people during Saturday’s protest, with force command maintaining it was ‘well prepared’.
‘Several groups of protestors emerged throughout the morning but were unable to converge due to the significant police presence,’ police stated.
‘The largest group of protestors walked along the streets of Richmond and as far as Burnley before crowds dispersed.’
Police officers suffered injuries including a broken elbow and broken nose, a broken finger and torn muscles. Six officers were taken to hospital.
‘Police were subject to violent, hostile and aggressive behaviour,’ police stated.
‘Numerous officers were assaulted while others had projectiles including glass bottles hurled in their direction.’
Ascui told Daily Mail Australia while he saw plastic water bottles being hurled at police, he witnessed no such projectiles being thrown by protesters.
‘There were certainly groups of troublemakers there … but there were many young people there just sick and tired of the lockdown,’ he said.
Ascui said some officers who worked on Saturday appeared to enjoy the stand-off with protesters.
‘It’s the attitude. They way they just jumped on some of them from behind … these people are being obnoxious of course, but does it warrant this kind of force? I don’t think so,’ he said.
Hundreds of anti-lockdown demonstrators took to the streets in Melbourne on Saturday, sparking violent confrontations with police
The injured protester is seen writhing in pain as she’s helped to her feet by police
Demonstrators were blocked from marching further by a wall of police along Burnley Street in Richmond
An anti-lockdown protestor screams at police on Burnely Street in Richmond on Saturday
While many viewers called for the officers who doused the woman with pepper spray to be punished, others said demonstrators should have stayed at home