NSW Police Emboldened by Anti-Protest Regime, As Blockade Australia Takes the Streets

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Blockade Australia arrests

As the nation continues to bask in the light of hope the change in federal government has brought, at the street level in Sydney, the authoritarian creep is alive and well and getting stronger as is evidenced by the NSW police response to this week’s Blockade Australia direct climate actions.

Monday morning peak hour saw around 100 BA demonstrators take the CBD streets as a cavalcade of police officers pursued them, picking off activists one-by-one. Whilst, at that same time, a Lismore climate defender blocked the North Sydney entrance to the Sydney Harbour Tunnel with a car.

Blockade began its nonviolent assault on the nation’s economic supply chains last November with two weeks of successful disruptions at the Newcastle Coal Port, while a series of actions at Sydney’s Port Botany in March, helped provoke the Perrottet government’s harsh new anti-protest regime.

Passed with bipartisan approval, the new protest laws now see sanctions that apply to obstructing a road, bridge, tunnel or major facility at a $22,000 fine and/or up to 2 years in prison. Whereas before, the maximum was a $440 fine with no potential for a custodial penalty.

The group of BA protesters gathered at the south end of Hyde Park at 8 am on Tuesday was in the dozens. And when it took to the streets, it was apparent that NSW police has been emboldened by the sanctions due to the liberal use of force its officers applied when clearing activists off the street.

Blockade Australia protesters at Hyde Park on Tuesday
Blockade Australia protesters at Hyde Park on Tuesday

Direct conflict with life on Earth

“We are here today, on stolen Gadigal land. Land where sovereignty was never ceded,” a BA demonstrator said addressing Tuesday’s rally in the park. “Climate change is here. And it’s killing those who didn’t cause it. Australia puts wealth and destruction over the future of this planet.”

The August 2021 IPCC report found that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach”, while a post-COP26 analysis outlines the globe is now heading for 2.4°C warming.

In its 2021 Sharma decision, the Federal Court recognised that if temperatures rise above 2°C on pre-industrial levels, a “planetary threshold” could be crossed that unlocks “a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions”. But a Morrison government appeal saw the ruling overturned.

As PM, Scott Morrison’s inaction on this issue led to the nation becoming an international climate pariah. And while new leader Anthony Albanese is waxing lyrical about his more robust emissions targets, they don’t cut it and he’s refusing to work with crossbenchers who want greater reform.

“We are fighting for clean air, drinkable water and a safe climate,” the masked activist continued Tuesday morning. “Australia is blocking this. Australia’s mission is in direct conflict with the interests of life on Earth. Australia’s response to climate change is a death sentence disguised as action.”

Under the Perrottet regime, the street is not public
Under the Perrottet regime, the street is not public

The sacrosanct road

However, standing 20 metres away from the group of climate defenders, the dozens of NSW police officers gathered in Hyde Park didn’t seem too concerned about the planet, the bushfires or the floods, as their sole objective was to keep demonstrators off the streets using whatever force.

As Blockade Australia activists commenced marching towards the Darlinghurst side of the park, officers swarmed around them attempting to block their path, and as the rally descended upon College Street, next to the Australian Museum, it was then the skirmish began.

For a brief moment, the climate defenders took over the righthand lane heading to William Street and the officers in blue used great force to push the protesters off the road, even taking this heavy-handed approach to a cameraman obviously working for a television network.

Protesters continued down the footpath and as a few broke through the police line and onto the road, they were dragged off and thrown in the back of vans. Officers further picked off a number of demonstrators who were on the footpath, wrestling with those who struggled.

The actions of police officers on the corner of College and William Streets conveyed that the new anti-protest regime is well underway, as any suggestion that concerned members of the public calling out the impending crisis would step upon the restricted roadway was immediately crushed.

A protester is made airborne as they’re picked from the path
A protester is made airborne as they’re picked from the path

Unprecedented repressions

The increasing severity of offences that apply to unsanctioned public demonstrations has not only bolstered the policing on the ground, but it’s signalled a heightened approach to the surveilling of climate activists prior to and post actions.

BA activists camping out at a Colo property on 19 June became aware that they were being spied upon by two camouflaged men in bushes, who turned out to be police. This led to a subsequent raid, which saw seven arrested and a warrant produced after the operation commenced.

The initial raid, which was brought on early due to the police surveillance having been sprung, was followed by a second raid on the property last Friday, which was accompanied by activists being visited at their homes or pulled over in their cars to be questioned days before any protests began.

And following both the Monday and Tuesday Sydney CBD actions, a number of demonstrators have been arrested around the city in relation to having been identified as occupying the road during the Blockade Australia direct actions.

Bleak future

Those taking part in the Blockade Australia protests are of all ages. However, a distinct number of them are young people who would usually be contemplating their adult futures but are now instead taking dramatic actions that threaten their own liberty as they see these futures growing bleaker.

The extreme weather events that evidence the mounting climate crisis are now an ongoing year-round global event. And despite the local 2019-20 bushfires and this year’s floods, Australian governments continue to delay taking action in favour of lining the fossil fuel industry’s pockets.

On Wednesday, Blockade Australia announced it was taking the day off to regroup after the significant arrests of the two days prior.

As she was locked onto the steering wheel of the vehicle she was in, the Lismore protester who fearlessly blocked the Sydney Harbour Tunnel on Monday said over a live feed that she was taking the action as a few are extracting all they can from the earth for profiteering to the detriment of all.

“None of these things are for us,” 22-year-old Mali made clear, as onlooking police officers were frantically working out how to respond to the tunnel blockage.

“We the people are going to be facing the consequences. The masses have to stand up. If we do take a stand, we can achieve so much.”

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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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