Free Violet Coco: Sydney Retakes the Streets Calling for an End to Perrottet’s War on Protest

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Protest in Sydney

A huge turnout of Violet Coco supporters rallied outside NSW Parliament House at 1pm on Monday, calling for the climate defender to be released from prison after she was sentenced to 15 months goal time for blocking a lane of the Harbour Bridge for a little over a quarter of an hour in April.

Under the provisions of the Perrottet government’s new anti-protest regime, the nonviolent protester who, since 2018, has devoted her life to campaigning for climate action was almost sent away for a month inside for every minute she caused peak hour drivers to have to change lanes.

In late March/early April, the NSW roads minister and the state attorney general oversaw the passing of laws which make activists who conduct peaceful protests via the unauthorised blocking of a road, bridge, tunnel or major facility liable to up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $22,000.

And it was a glassesless NSW premier Dominic Perrottet, who told reporters on Monday that Coco’s sentence was “not excessive”, but rather it was “pleasing to see”, adding that if “protesters want to put our way of life at risk then they should have the book thrown at them”.

However, as two hundred plus ralliers defiantly took over Castlereagh Street without prior authorisation as they marched from parliament down to the Downing Centre Court on Monday, they were not arrested by law enforcement officers despite blocking a CBD road.

The protesters out the front of Downing Centre Court yesterday afternoon
The protesters out the front of Downing Centre Court yesterday afternoon

At odds with the community

Climate defender Shannan Langford Salisbury told the crowd gathered out the front of state parliament that the snap action was called on early Monday afternoon because the Downing Centre Local Court sentenced Violet to 15 months imprisonment last Friday.

And with non-parole set at 8 months, Coco was sent away for having blocked vehicles, been in the possession a bright light distress signal and for refusing to comply with police directions on 13 April this year.

This was part of a Fireproof Australia nonviolent demonstration that blocked “just one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge”, in an effort to see the government to take greater climate measures. And while Coco was arrested with three others, she’s the only one having to do time.

“Violet’s bail hearing is on Tuesday December 13, and we’re demanding that she’s released from Silverwater on bail,” Salisbury continued. “Her appeal court date is March 3, in three months’ time.”

The action was supported by a long list of grassroots community groups, such as the Knitting Nannas, School Strike for Climate, Water for Rivers, Extinction Rebellion, Workers for Climate Action,, Wage Peace, Pride in Protest, Socialist Alliance and the Martine Union of Australia.

“The police and the courts are using gaol as a deterrent to peaceful protest, and this has to stop,” added Rachel Evans from the Sydney Climate Coalition. “Our count is that up to ten environmentalists have been placed in gaol over the last two years across Australia.”

Climate defenders Rachel Evans and Shannan Langford Salisbury address the rally at state parliament
Climate defenders Rachel Evans and Shannan Langford Salisbury address the rally at state parliament

Shooting the messenger

The NSW premier’s assertion that Coco has been putting our “way of life at risk” is at odds with the reality on the ground, as its clear that the continued expansion of fossil fuel extraction and use is threatening the regular everyday lives of all people living in this state and, indeed, the planet.

That is what Violet has been campaigning against. Whereas Perrottet, on 18 November 2016, hinted at the fact that he – at least at that point – was still questioning “man-made climate change”, as part of a Facebook post in which he was praising the election of Donald Trump to US president.

And despite 20 percent of mainland forest having burnt down over the summer of 2019-20, and continuing extreme weather having been occurring globally ever since, when it came to the first mass flooding event in NSW this year, Perrottet put it down to a “one-in-a-thousand-year-event”.

This statement was soon proven wrong in July when the floods were repeated in Lismore and other areas. But it is still representative of the coverup tactic that his government is a party to when it comes to the mounting climate crisis.

The premier was attempting to put the extreme weather down to an aberration rather than something that’s happening more often and in an escalating manner, which can only be abated via a transition away from fossil fuel use, as acknowledging this puts his type of politics “at risk”.

So, what the Perrottet government has decided to do is threaten those who continue raise public attention to the climate crisis in a nonviolent manner with prison time, and for those who are adamant about it, they’ll be sent away.

As one Fireproof activist pointed out at the rally, in sentencing Coco, NSW Magistrate Allison Hawkins explained there was a need for a “significant element of deterrence” to her and others like her “who pursue their political ends by forcing a significant level of disruption on the community”.

Protest in Sydney

A political prisoner

Prior to the rally marching and spilling out onto the road to occupy it, Amnesty International Australia’s Veronica Korman reminded those gathered at the rally that the “climate crisis is the greatest ever threat to human life”.

The Indonesian lawyer, known for her support of the West Papuan cause, explained that the draconian protests laws that NSW kicked off are now being rolled out in other Australian jurisdictions such as Victoria and Tasmania.

Korman raised the premier’s comments regarding Coco and suggested that he hire a human rights law expert as an advisor, as the actions of the state against the climate defender are “completely disproportionate and against international human rights law”.

“What we are seeing right now is that the right to protest in Australia is under attack, and climate protesters are being demonised,” said Korman. “Why? Because the people in Australia already realise that it is time to fix the climate crisis.”

Bad laws, the lawyer continued, are made by people in power to protect their own power, and that’s what Perrottet’s anti-protest regime is all about. And these bad laws are “their last desperate attempt” to carry on with fossil fuel expansion, even though it’s “leading to the climate crisis”.

“The Australian government is still going to open more than 100 new oil and gas projects across Australia and that’s what they are trying to defend,” Korman clarified.

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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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