Anti-COVID mandate protester Ashley Charles Watson convicted over Caneland Central march

Children became separated from their parents and security guards feared for their safety as an anti-COVID-19 mandate protest in January turned into chaos at a North Queensland shopping centre, a court has heard.

Navy veteran Ashley Charles Watson, 38, was convicted in the Mackay Magistrates Court on Monday on charges of public nuisance and obstructing police.

Watson was among a couple of dozen protesters who descended on Caneland Central shopping centre in Mackay on January 22, just weeks after Queensland’s borders had reopened and during the state’s first Omicron variant wave.

Watson, who represented himself at the half-day hearing, pleaded not guilty to the two charges.

More than a dozen supporters watched on as video footage was played to the court from the day of the protest.

The court heard protesters blocked entries to the food court and children were being separated from their parents.

Shopping centre security guard Rosalin Birch told the court the group was loud and aggressive.

A group of people walking down a city street holding freedom signs and Australian flags.
The protesters had a permit to march, but it did not extend to Caneland Central. (Facebook)

‘You don’t have the authority’

Under questioning from police prosecutor Sergeant Linden Pollard, Ms Birch said within minutes of the protesters’ arrival she was pushed up against windows as she tried to close the doors.

But those already inside went to fire exits to let more protesters in.

Ms Birch said she was afraid of the marchers until police arrived at the scene.

A man with a voluminous beard and dark, close-cropped hair, wearing a blazer and smiling.
Watson told the court he believed police were trying to provoke him, but the magistrate rejected that claim.(ABC Tropical North: Lillian Watkins)

In another video played to the court, police officer Constable Brayden Lacey was seen telling Watson he was not wanted at the centre and pushed him back, upon which Watson yelled “you work for me!”.

“You don’t have the authority … you’re assaulting me,” he said in the video.

Watson told the court he did not know he was not allowed inside the shopping centre and believed police used “excessive force”.

“I believe [the police officer] did it on purpose to continue to aggravate and try and get a reaction,” he testified.

Watson was subdued with pepper spray and taken outside to clean his eyes.

Police block the entry to a shopping centre, facing off with men in T-shirts emblazoned with the Eureka flag.
Police blocked the protesters from entering the Caneland Central shopping centre in Mackay. (Supplied)

‘Emotionally charged’

But Magistrate Bronwyn Hartigan said Constable Lacey had acted “entirely appropriately” given the circumstances and noted that Watson did not have a right to be at the private shopping complex.

Magistrate Hartigan sentenced Watson to 100 hours’ community service and recorded a conviction against him.

Several men and women walk down the steps at a court complex.
Ashley Charles Watson, second from left, leaves Mackay Magistrates Court with his supporters.(ABC Tropical North: Lillian Watkins)

She took into account Watson suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I see your convictions are strong and you’re not a bad person,” Magistrate Hartigan said.

Magistrate Hartigan said the incident was “emotionally charged” and warned Watson to avoid similar conduct in the future.

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