Sydney Demands the Criminal Charges Against Climate Defenders Be Dropped

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Climate defenders

Recent weeks have shone a light on the outcomes of the NSW Liberal National government’s crackdown on climate defenders, which commenced with the establishment of NSW Police Strike Force Guard in March and further saw the enactment of a new breed of extreme anti-protest law.

Indeed, while the rollout of the state’s anti-protest regime upped the ante in terms of the suppression of those raising awareness to climate, this is a process that began in Queensland in 2019, was replicated in Tasmania and Victoria in August and is also taking place in the UK.

The civil society campaign against the imposition of the NSW laws became more defined following climate defender Violet Coco becoming the first individual to be penalised under the Perrottet government’s new regime, which saw her sentenced to 15 months prison time on 2 December.

But Coco is not the only climate activist to have gone before the Downing Centre Local Court of late, as two Blockade Australia activists, who took part in a five-day-long blockade of Sydney’s Port Botany which spurred the government to enact the laws, went before local magistrates last week.

This onslaught of punishing the messenger has led to a sea of activists converging at the court in support of protesters going before it, and further led hundreds to gather at Sydney Town Hall last Saturday to call for an end to the authoritarian laws and for related criminal charges to be dropped.

Convenience is killing us

Last week, we saw climate activist Violet being taken to gaol, others threatened with prison, and we’ve got another activist going before the court next week,” climate activist Wenzel Auch told the weekend crowd of protesters.

“The argument that they’re using is that we’re selfish, that we’re causing inconvenience to the public and that we find a better way of lawfully protesting,” he continued.

“How can it be that the convenience to go to work is more important than the convenience of having a safe future?”

Climate defender Wenzel Auch has been sentenced to an 18 month community correction order
Climate defender Wenzel Auch has been sentenced to an 18 month community correction order

Auch appeared in court last week, charged in relation to his part in the days-long Blockade Australia shutdown of Port Botany in March, while fellow participant in that series of coordinated actions, Emma Dorge, is to be sentenced this Thursday.

The Blockade Australia shutdown of Sydney’s most important seaport took place at the same time as fellow climate defence group, Fireproof Australia, was carrying out a series of road blockages across Greater Sydney. And both these campaigns led to the bipartisan clampdown on protest.

“The fact is that the convenience that we have in the system is killing us,” added Auch, who has been sentenced to an 18 month community correction order. “These conveniences, like private jets, fast food and fast fashion, are leading us to an environment where we have dead rainforests.”

Restore the right to protest

The anti-protest regime consists of a series of amendments and the enactment of additional offences that now see civilians that block a road, a tunnel, a bridge or a major facility, as part of an unauthorised demonstration, facing up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $22,000.

“These anti-protest laws are harsh, draconian and they’re a serious sign of the authoritarianism that we are now subjected to,” said NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson. “We must work together, maintain our resistance and, in no uncertain terms, we need to repeal these laws.”

“We now know that what we have seen is that we need to enshrine the right to protest without asking for permission, without the fear of imprisonment,” she made clear. “It is our right to stand up to protest, where we want, how we want and take nonviolent direct action wherever we see fit.”

NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson calls for the right to protest to be enshrined in law
NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson calls for the right to protest to be enshrined in law

The rising climate actions taking place in NSW over the last 12 months are no anomaly, as this is increasingly occurring nationwide, as well as globally, due to the extreme weather events that are fast becoming routine on this continent and are never ending across the planet.

The IPCC has long warned that temperatures need to be kept below 1.5°C or 2°C on pre-industrial levels, however a United Nations Climate Change report released in October outlines that Earth is on track to see a 2.5°C rise.

And rather than attempt to take adequate action to curb the mass of greenhouse gases pouring out into the atmosphere, governments of the Perrottet ilk, prefer to enact laws to stamp out those raising the climate crisis in order to protect the profit of the fossil fuel industry.

“What we are seeing right now is the second iteration of terrible anti-protest laws,” said Higginson, who used to be principal solicitor at the Environmental Defenders Office.

“The first one came after 2014, when then Coalition premier Mike Baird stood before the Minerals Council annual award ceremony in our Parliament House… and said that any anti-mining protesters will have the book thrown at them.”

NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson calls for the right to protest to be enshrined in law
NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson calls for the right to protest to be enshrined in law

Our warming planet

The sentencing of Coco to least 8 months over her part in an April nonviolent direct action that blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes shocked the general public.

And after she was initially denied it, the activist has been released on bail pending an appeal of her sentence in March.

“These laws affect all of us. It’s not just me and my life. It is all of us and our capacities to stand up to injustice,” Coco stressed at Saturday’s rally.

Climate defenders

The 32-year-old activist further drew a correlation between disruptive protests that have played a frontline role in forging social change in the past and what’s happening now in regard to the climate movement.

Citing the Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, and the push for an 8 hour working day, which was first established in Australia, she raised the point that past civil disobedience campaigns led to changes that we now take for granted.

“We are facing the greatest injustice we have ever faced, which is the collapse of our liveable planet,” Coco told the ralliers who’d gathered in the Sydney CBD to call for her prison sentence to be overturned.

“If we do not take immediate action right now, then we are not going to have a healthy planet to feed our children, to survive, to have a democracy or to have art.”

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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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