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Climate Activists Are Learning How To Protect Their Protest Rights

Above photo: Australian climate activists with Rising Tide protesting during the People’s Blockade in November. Facebook/Rising Tide Australia.

Australian climate activists have successfully navigated years of increasing protest criminalization, revealing strategies for all to follow.

In November, a significant event unfolded at the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, New South Wales when 3,000 people gathered to block coal shipments in and out of the Australian port. When activists remained on the water past the approved 4 p.m. blockade cut-off, 109 people were arrested. Rising Tide spokesperson Alexa Stuart explained the group’s rationale, stating that “If the government will not take action on climate change, the people will use civil disobedience. We wish we did not have to do this, but [Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government] needs to understand we are serious.”

Fast forward a mere three months and this mass arrest has been met with substantial judicial restraint. In mid-January, 27 of 32 Rising Tide arrestees facing court received dismissals with no conviction. Two were convicted without further penalty, and three were fined up to $260. Magistrates acknowledged the protesters as “valuable contributors to society,” and commended their “muscular good character.”

However, this judicial leniency contrasts sharply with political reaction to climate protest. Across Australia, governments are pushing for stringent anti-protest laws. Following the 2019 Extinction Rebellion week in Queensland, new “lock-on” laws were introduced criminalizing the use of specific devices used to attach protesters to infrastructure or equipment. Tasmanian and Victorian state governments have imposed harsh penalties for business interference or trespassing, while NSW’s 2022 legislation increased penalties for “major economic disruption” to up to $14,300 or two years in jail.

The Rising Tide case demonstrates the effectiveness of contesting charges in gaining institutional support for nonviolent climate protest. Yet, as long as anti-protest laws exist, activists like Adrian Birragubba, Colette Harmsen, and Andrew George — who faced bankruptcy, jail and maximum-security prison respectively for their protests — remain vulnerable. These cases highlight the limits of relying on judicial goodwill against governmental repression through legislation.

Despite these challenges, the climate movement has various strategies to resist the criminalization of nonviolent disruptive protest. In order to do so however, it is important to understand the ways in which law enforcement repress climate activism.

The climate protest repression toolbox

1. Legislation: making protest behaviors criminal offenses. Democratic states and corporate entities utilize legislation as a primary tool for repressing climate protests. Such laws are often proposed and expedited following disruptive protest waves. While they have been used to bankrupt and imprison activists, civil society groups and legal experts have been instrumental in challenging and overturning some of these laws.

For example, the Queensland district court overturned the convictions of two activists sentenced under the 2019 Queensland lock-on laws. Similarly, an activist’s 15-month jail sentence for blocking one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2022 was dropped on appeal.

Sometimes legal action can completely strike out punitive anti-protest legislation. Rising Tide arrestees benefited from the legal challenge bought by the not-for-profit group Environmental Defenders Office, or EDO, again the draconian NSW anti-protest laws. The EDO represented two Knitting Nannas activists in the NSW Supreme Court, who subsequently ruled invalid elements of the legislation as unconstitutional — specifically the sections that criminalized activities causing partial closures or redirections around major facilities, such as ports, ferry terminals, airports, oil terminals and train stations.

2. Dehumanization: stigmatizing climate activists. Denigrating, insulting and demeaning activists for their disruptive nonviolent protest enables power holders to frame them as threats to decent communities. This portrayal then facilitates support for new laws criminalizing their actions to keep political and corporate power structures in place.

Extreme examples in Australia abound. NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet described Blockade Australia climate protesters who disrupted traffic within the city as “dumb, divisive, disrespectful, and they’re bloody idiots who will face the full force of the law.”

Stigmatizing climate protesters also emboldens corporate repression of protest.

When politicians describe activists as national security threats or threats to critical infrastructure such as coal mines and ports, corporations leverage this framing to pursue strategic lawsuits against public participation, otherwise known as SLAPPs. For example, activist Ben Pennings has been relentlessly pursued in court for more than three years by the Adani coal mining company, which initially sought $600 million in damages from the activist for disrupting the proposed coal mine.

3. Expanding police discretionary power. This tool involves granting police expanded discretionary powers, often described as “expansionary” criminalization. These powers give broad latitude to police to unaccountably decide who they target, where they target them, and on what grounds they base investigations. Discretionary powers allow police to block access to public space, confine protesters in small areas, impose excessive bail conditions, use convert surveillance, infiltrate protest organizations, control spaces where protesters gather and use excessive force. The absence of enforceable guidelines or publicly available data on the use of these powers has made them both difficult to track and challenging to counter.

Australian police appear to have a heavy reliance on their discretionary powers when interacting with climate activists. Two climate protesters intending to disrupt the 2023 Annual General Meeting  for Woodside — Australia’s largest independent dedicated oil and gas company — were arrested prior to the action, charged with aggravated burglary and spent the night in police lockup after being denied bail. In 2022, around 100 NSW police preemptively raided a Blockade Australia climate camp, detaining around 40 people, charging eight with offenses, including conspiracy, and imposing extreme bail conditions. Activist Violet (Deanna) Coco stopped traffic in one lane on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and received bail conditions effectively placing her under house arrest for 21 days.

Most worrying, police discretionary powers also include the use of force. John Brinnand, an activist who has previously experienced rough treatment by arresting officers was taken aback by his treatment after his arrest at November’s Rising Tide demonstration, where he was pushed and shoved by police.

The investigations process for examining complaints of police aggression are woefully inadequate. Most complaints are investigated by police themselves, and the vanishingly small percentage of complaints upheld face few penalties, if any. There are similarly few protections against police discretionary powers. Currently Australia has few protections from surveillance, identification and tracking technologies, even while their use, including facial recognition, continues rapidly. This situation undermines public trust in police, corporate and government accountability. As Brinnard noted, I was, and remain, angry with a system that exploits, corrodes and deforms human nature, including my own, for the fundamentally violent purpose of extracting capital gain.”

The path toward protecting nonviolent protest rights

Countering legislation criminalizing nonviolent protest requires a diverse and well-funded movement infrastructure that can connect activists with legal experts. Groups such as Environmental Defenders Office, corporate lawyers working pro bono, and human rights centers such as the Australian Democracy Network play a critical role in building the movement’s capacity to respond to anti-protest legislation.

To combat attempts to stigmatize climate activists, it’s crucial to involve local communities in climate protests and prioritize the voices of those most affected by climate impacts in the media. By diversifying the movement and presenting relatable faces, Australians can see that activists — who have been called everything from “feral species” to “bloody idiots” with “tin foil hats” — might just actually be their friend, family or neighbor.

Rising Tide arrestees demonstrated the strength of this strategy for building a stronger, bigger movement while also demonstrating the breadth of support for disruptive protest among different constituencies. For example, Rev. Alan Stuart, a 97-year-old Uniting Church Minister, who was arrested by police at the blockade, was heavily featured in media coverage, as was coal miner Grant Howard who expressed support for the action and desire to be a role model for others in the mining industry.

While a diverse and well-funded movement can counter legislative and dehumanizing forms of criminalization, challenging expansionary powers in Australia presents significant hurdles. The opacity and limited avenues for redress means much of this expansionary criminalization occurs unseen and unrecorded. Therefore, illuminating the use of police and corporate discretionary powers is crucial. This could involve documenting instances of police brutality as well as systematically collecting data on discretionary powers.

Organizing gatherings that support large-scale mobilization can facilitate broader participation in disruptive actions while also increasing the visibility of police-protester interactions. In this context, the annual Rising Tide protest, drawing thousands of participants, provides an excellent opportunity for increased scrutiny and accountability.

Australia’s struggle with repressing climate protest is not unique. Activists worldwide have an array of strategies to counter such repression, independent of relying solely on the judiciary to protect protest rights. Developing a comprehensive strategy to apply these tactics is vital to ensure activists continue to effectively advocate for climate justice, even as the fossil fuel industry persists in prioritizing profits over the planet’s future.

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