Court’s Tripling of Climate Defending Duo’s Prison Sentence Is a Sign of Things to Come

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Protester prison sentence

Victorian County Court Judge David Sexton outlined on Tuesday that Violet CoCo and Brad Homewood might have been “well-intentioned” in raising the climate alarm, but their method of blocking lanes of a bridge to do so, “caused a significant risk and disruption to the lives of others”.

The pair of Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested over the 5 March action and were sentenced to three weeks in gaol.

Hard time for nonviolent protest is controversial. And Sexton’s decision to triple the pairs’ time on appeal, has taken the nation into a new stage of the climate movement.

The irony in Sexton’s announcement is that fossil fuel corporations are getting away with disrupting lives all over the planet, as people are dying of heat, towns are being washed off maps, large tracts of land are burnt to a cinder, and all because industrial activity is sending temperatures soaring.

Homewood and CoCo, both seasoned activists, blocked three lanes of morning peak hour traffic on the West Gate Bridge, leaving two open for emergency traffic, using a truck.

But the prosecution put it to the court on 19 March that 13 emergency calls to police and three to paramedics had been affected.

The threat to emergency services vehicles is the go-to claim of authorities wanting to sully the purpose of protesters.

Indeed, when CoCo went before the courts in Sydney last year, NSW police accused her of delaying an ambulance trying to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this was later shown to be a lie.

And the new stage in the climate movement’s attempt to get governments to act on the escalating crisis, is one where the prisons begin to overflow with climate defenders whose only crime is nonviolent agitating. And this is a development many such activists have long foreseen as coming.

XR climate defenders Violet CoCo Joe Zammit and Brad Homewood blocking traffic to sound the climate alarm on 5 March
XR climate defenders Violet CoCo Joe Zammit and Brad Homewood blocking traffic to sound the climate alarm on 5 March

Climate defending as required

CoCo, Homewood and a third activist, Joe Zammit, drove a truck onto Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge at 7.45 am on a Tuesday earlier this month, blocking three lanes out of five heading in one direction. And as a banner atop the hire van explained, they were doing it “as business as usual equals death”.

The action came just weeks after the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that the planet was, on average, 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than on preindustrial levels all last year, and breaking this critical barrier has taken humanity into higher temperatures than ever before.

Homewood told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last month that, due to the neglect of governments in taking adequate climate action in the past, the situation to avert the climate emergency escalating further requires “a small army of climate defenders”, so it’s “important to mainstream what we do”.

Judge Sexton’s throwing the book at the activists, as he upped their three week sentence to two months inside, was a decision many climate defenders consider necessary for the movement’s success and, in that sense, making an example of them, ultimately encourages more to take action.

And the general consensus amongst activists, like CoCo, who’s repeatedly asserted her desire to have children but reluctance to do so because the future being guaranteed by governments is none, is that the greatest inconvenience of all is industry players necessitating the opposing movement.

Climate defender as terrorist

The authorities in this country and in other comparable nations have been gradually demonising climate defenders with the assistance of the mainstream media.

These individuals are mocked as being deluded by false facts, or at worst, as somehow posing a safety threat to the community.

A gun was pulled on a climate defender by an undercover police officer last year in WA. Several drivers have driven through road protest blockades in Sydney, endangering activist lives, but they’re not punished. And NSW police staked out an activist meeting on a Colo property and then raided it.

These sorts of overreach and excessive force incidents lend credence to a scare campaign that posits climate activists as threatening society, and at times, this hints at the threat of violence posed by purposefully nonviolent actors, which is a theatre only compounded by media mocking of activists.

And the climate of fear propagated by government and the mainstream media serves to dehumanise activists in the public mind, despite the fact that these individuals are regular people from all walks of life, who are concerned about society, the planet and future generations.

These individuals don’t seek to propagate terror. They seek to abate natural horrors that will result if the government made up of major party pollies completely captured by the fossil fuel industry, and it’s subservient propaganda machine, aren’t brought to a halt in their wanton destruction for profit.

Doing time for planet

A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion Victoria Jane Morton told SCL following the imprisonment of the pair over taking the action, that, on imprisonment, climate defenders generally feel “a sense of relief and pride at having the courage to do something that is proportionate to the danger”.

“Our honest opinion is that if people knew how serious this is,” the long-term climate advocate continued, “they’d be grateful for our tactics. We know no other way of actually putting sufficient pressure on the politicians and the media to get the kind of emergency action that is now required.”

Extinction Rebellion supporters were gathered at the court on Tuesday, as CoCo and Homewood were served more time. The climate defenders had sought to appeal their initial three-week sentence, whilst the Office of Public Prosecutions filed to appeal for a lengthier punishment.

And whilst activists might seek to disrupt society to garner attention in a manner that risks arrest, climate defenders, being normal people, with a strong showing from the sciences, don’t consider being incarcerated as trivial: they’re well aware that for some in the community it can spell death.

“The reason we blockade in public is to sound the alarm. It is about letting people know that we’re in an emergency,” Violet and Brad said in a joint statement at the time of their 5 March arrest.

“As much as we don’t want to disrupt the public, they have a right to know how urgent the issue is. Government must declare a climate and ecological emergency.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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