A huge crowd gathered before the Downing Centre courts on Tuesday morning at 9 am in support of Violet Coco, who is the first climate defender to have been convicted and imprisoned under the Perrottet government’s recently established authoritarian anti-protest regime.
But the rally further served to strengthen the climate movement as different groups – First Nations, unions, students, activists and scientists – united under the same banner, conveying the message that grassroots NSW won’t roll over and allow authorities to stamp out nonviolent protest.
NSW District Court Judge Timothy Gartelmann granted bail to the climate defender, pending her March appeal against the severity of the 15 month sentence handed down on 2 December by Magistrate Allison Hawkins, over charges which include disrupting one lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes in April.
Coco is not the first climate protester to have been sent away though, as there’s been a growing use of incarceration on the part of NSW authorities aiming to silence those drawing attention to the climate crisis, as government and industry prioritise profit over taking adequate climate action.
So, while locking up Coco, and the recent police attack on protester Danny Lim, may have dashed hope for a moment, there was rising determination amongst those joined in protest over the common goal of resisting the bipartisan project to stamp out dissent at the 13 December rally.
Early on at the rally, union representatives took centre stage to signal that the movement was uniting with climate defenders in opposition to the anti-protest laws that NSW attorney general Mark Speakman and roads minister Natalie Ward oversaw the enactment of in April.
The new regime sees those charged over conducting unauthorised nonviolent demonstrations that involve blocking a road, a bridge, a tunnel or a major facility, now facing up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a $22,000 fine.
“This fight for justice for Violet is our fight,” Maritime Workers Union (MUA) Sydney branch secretary Paul Keating told those gathered at the Downing Centre. “The fight and struggles of all working class people are connected.”
Keating explained that civil disobedience campaigns – whether that be fighting for workers, for First Nations justice, for women’s rights or the “overthrow of a system that systematically condemns the working class to a system of exploitation” – are all union struggles.
“To the environmental groups and activists, your struggle is our struggle,” Keating made certain.
“These campaigns are the campaigns that are interwoven with the labour movement, and we will not stand by and see any part of our communities” targeted, he continued. “Workers will stand up and defend our interests. We will be here. We will campaign and we will act.”
Paying for destruction
As she called Jay Larbalestier to the mike to speak on Tuesday, NSW Legal Observers’ Anastasia Radievska reminded the crowd that there are many other people facing punishment under the new regime, which includes Blockade Australia’s Emma Dorge and Wenzel Auch, who go before the courts this week.
Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies supporter Jay Larbalestier was part of the Fireproof Australia nonviolent direct action that blocked one lane of Sydney Harbour Bridge peak hour traffic in April, which was the same action that led to the imprisonment of Coco.
Larbalestier explained that he’d spent four days in custody on being arrested over the action, two of which were spent in Silverwater Gaol, which is where Coco was currently being held. He then spent 42 days under house arrest. In reference to Coco’s unprecedented sentencing, Larbalestier said, “For those in power this was a judicial system working exactly as intended, protecting the rights of those working in extractive industries to continue to make obscene profits.”
“These corporations are pouring money into the pockets of both major parties, so that no matter who wins government, these companies can be sure that the system will continue to work in their favour,” he explained.
The climate defender further pointed out that the Australian oil and gas industry has made a total of $76 trillion dollars in income after production costs since 1970, while taxpayers are handing over $22,000 per minute in subsidies to these companies as “they destroy the world around us”.
Vote both majors out
The move to authoritarian anti-protest laws has been impacting around the nation, as other jurisdictions, like Victoria and Tasmania, have passed laws aimed at seeing climate defenders punished for taking nonviolent action to such an extent that it deters others from participating.
However, right now, across the nation, these extreme measures are not serving to dissolve the movement. Rather what’s occurring is that different community resistance groups are uniting to fight the silencing of voices and the destruction of planet.
On addressing the crowd on Tuesday, Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge said the rally for Coco was sending a clear message to politicians nationwide that the people are going to organise, protest and vote to send the message that there will be no compromise around the right to protest.
While the Harbour Bridge was blocked for 25 minutes, the Greens justice spokesperson continued, laws which have been passed by the Coalition and Labor ensured that more than half a million dollars’ worth of subsidies were handed over to fossil fuel companies.
Shoebridge further outlined that the rising climate movement ought to be focused on the coming state election, as the same politicians who passed the laws are going to be seeking votes. He added that there are three and a half months to organise and mobilise in this regard.
“Vote any politician out who passed these laws. Vote for parliaments who represent people and planet,” Shoebridge said in conclusion.
“Let’s finally get a democracy where we not only have the right to protest but we can look forward to a safe future, walking in collaboration with First Nations people to save the planet and to save the future.”