A good cross-section of NSW civil society was appalled when Violet Coco was sentenced to 15 months prison time last December, in relation to her taking part in a Fireproof Australia action that blocked one lane – just one lane – of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes last April.
During the hearing, NSW police argued that Coco and the three other Fireproof Australia activists conducting the nonviolent direct action to warn of the escalating climate crisis had blocked an ambulance trying to get across this bridge with its lights and sirens on responding to an emergency.
At the time, there had been an uptick in nonviolent climate action in Sydney, much of which involved road blockages, with the chief argument against these protests put by AM radio shock jocks and conservative politicians being they could block an ambulance responding to an emergency.
So, it was quite convenient that an ambulance had been put out by this action, as it served to validate the opposing position, just after the Perrottet government had rolled out its harsh antiprotest laws, while prominent climate defender Violet Coco was putting her liberty on the line.
But on Tuesday, when two fellow Fireproof activists, Alan Glover and Karen Fitz-Gibbon, went before Downing Centre Local Court, the NSW Police Force withdrew its false allegation that an ambulance had been blocked by their Harbour Bridge action, which has clear implications for Coco’s 15 March District Court appeal.
An inconvenient falsehood
“Initially, the police facts contained conveniently more damning statements – that an ambulance with sirens on was blocked – which upon scrutiny was not the case and this has real world implications for the protesters,” said climate defender Andrew George.
A supporter of Fireproof Australia, which is now called Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies, George told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that prior to yesterday’s proceedings the Environmental Defenders Office had pushed NSW police for evidence relating to the delayed ambulance, which wasn’t forthcoming.
NSW police then withdrew this allegation from yesterday’s proceedings. But this suggested scenario featured heavily in Coco’s sentencing.
Indeed, Magistrate Allison Hawkins was heard to chastise the activist in relation to the inconvenience caused to the non-existent patient in the ambulance.
“The updated police facts say there was no ambulance with sirens there,” George made clear. “This played a pretty big part in Violet’s sentencing, so it clearly should have big implications for minimising Violet’s current sentence.”
Silencing the messenger
In response to the rise in climate defending actions on the part of Fireproof and Blockade Australia, NSW police created climate activist-focused Strike Force Guard, while the Perrottet government enacted laws last April, establishing one of the most draconian antiprotest regimes on the planet.
These laws mean that climate defenders who conduct an unauthorised nonviolent protest that obstructs a major road, a bridge, a tunnel or a major facility can face up 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $22,000.
Glover and Fitz-Gibbon were placed on 18 month community correction orders (CCO) and fined $3,000 each for their first time offences.
Although, on sentencing, they hadn’t blocked an ambulance like Coco and fellow bridge protester Jay Larbalestier supposedly had when they were in court.
In the 12 months since the NSW antiprotest regime and the dedicated police unit commenced operations, it’s been clear that authorities are using the threat of prison and steep bail conditions to silence climate defenders, rather than attempt to address the issue of the climate crisis.
“They were using everything in their power to stop people protesting at the time,” George recalled, “and that continued into the June Blockade Australia protests.”
“They had a hitlist of people they wanted to arrest and get onto bail conditions, which included arresting someone for having some gardening tools in a car and charging them with having a concealed weapon.”
So, now it appears not only are gaol time, remand and extreme bail measures being used to silence climate dissent, but false claims are being applied in the courts in that regard.
An erosion of rights
“We have fought the slow repression of police and the state in cracking down on protest every step of the way,” said NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Josh Pallas, in a statement issued following the 7 March sentencing of Glover and Fitz-Gibbon.
“But the fight is hard when the government is protecting mining and business interests and when the mainstream media side with government and large corporates with vested interests to stifle the right to protest.”
Pallas labelled NSW police “misstating the facts” in court as “outrageous”. And he added that the incident should be addressed and those involved in the spreading of falsehoods should be held accountable.
The lawyer added that the case provides a clear example of how the NSW Coalition government has been attacking the public’s right to peaceful assembly and to demonstrate. And this further has a stifling effect on freedom of expression.
“Climate protesters are being increasingly and disproportionately subjected to punitive legal action by Australian authorities and this has taken that legal action to a new extreme,” the NSWCCL president ended.