Last week, a 22 year old climate activist was sentenced to 12 months’ jail time for participating in the disruption of Australia’s busiest coal export chain. The harsh sentence illustrates the stark difference between the justice system’s treatment of activists putting their bodies on the line to avert climate catastrophe, and of the rich and powerful people whose environmental crimes are rapidly destroying our planet.
On 10 November Eric Serge Herbert, a member of the direct action group Blockade Australia, climbed onto a train travelling along the Hunter line in New South Wales and glued his hand to the carriage. This simple act of peaceful civil-disobedience immobilised the train for two hours and delayed a further 15 coal trains destined for the Port of Newcastle. Blockade Australia chose the port—one of the biggest coal export ports in the world—as the site of a series of actions coinciding with the COP26 conference in Glasgow. The Hunter rail line that Herbert disrupted is estimated to have transported 150 million tonnes of coal to the port in 2020 alone, a cargo worth close to $19 billion.
The NSW state government, panicking at the prospect of further disruption to the flow of profits, quickly moved to defend the coal companies against Herbert and his group. NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean demanded police “throw the book” at the protestors, and the police duly set up a special unit—“Strike Force Tuohy”—specifically to target Blockade Australia. NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller threatened to charge the group under an arcane law pertaining to the obstruction of railways—a law carrying a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail.
Herbert and many of his fellow activists were arrested by the strike force. He was subsequently charged with impeding the operation of mining equipment and obstructing a railway locomotive. His crime—attempting to disrupt an industry that is hurtling us towards global climate catastrophe—saw him given a one year prison sentence, bringing into stark relief the fact that under capitalism, there’s one law for ordinary people, and another for big business and the rich.
Earlier this year, Canadian oil giant Enbridge made headlines when it was revealed that it had given US$2.4 million dollars to the local police department in the US state of Minnesota in exchange for its use as a private security force. Enbridge funded riot gear, officer training, wages and overtime so that local officers could surveil and crack down on activists blocking construction of the company’s Line 3 oil pipeline—which cuts through pristine wetlands and which, by increasing the availability of heavily polluting tar sands oil on global markets, is predicted to generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as 50 coal power stations.
Ordinarily, fossil fuel companies don’t actually have to buy police protection in this way, for the simple reason that the entire capitalist justice system—from the politicians who make the laws, to judges, right down to the lowest ranking police officers—is set up to serve them. And this “service” goes well beyond just cracking down on activists. Particularly in countries like Australia, where fossil fuel extraction is one of the most important and lucrative sectors of the national economy, it extends to a level of immunity from the normal standards of behaviour that apply to the rest of us.
This is precisely what played out last year, when mining giant Rio Tinto blew up 46,000 years of Indigenous history in a just a few seconds. The Juukan Gorge sacred site in the Pilbara region of Western Australia was extinguished by a corporation worth $81 billion dollars so its owners and shareholders could squeeze a little more profit out of an area already ravaged by an industry that has poisoned its waterways and devastated its ecosystems.
Rio Tinto’s CEO at the time, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, was forced to resign in disgrace, as were two other top executives. The three were made to forgo their end of year bonuses—$5 million for Jacques and $1 million each for the executives. But that’s where the punishment ended. Jacques isn’t languishing in prison, stripped of his power and status. And while he may have lost his top position at Rio Tinto, he’s certainly not queuing up at Centrelink, struggling to pay rent and forced into humiliating meetings with job providers.
No, Jacques is enjoying a break from the hustle and bustle of CEO life. He’s splitting his time between his luxury apartment in Walsh Bay, Sydney, and his “charming Pittwater-facing weekender” in Avalon Beach, worth $3.5 million. He’s started two new “private corporate vehicles”—no doubt financed by his eye-watering $13 million Rio Tinto payout. In other words, he’s faced no real consequences at all for presiding over the destruction of a globally recognised Indigenous heritage site, a crime akin to someone blowing-up a section of the Louvre in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome.
Compare Jacques’s treatment with Eric Serge Herbert’s punishment for briefly stopping a coal train. Compare it with the fate of activists in the US who disrupted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, some of whom were sentenced to 8 years’ jail. Compare it to the 227 environmental activists who were murdered in 2020, the deadliest year on record for those who put their lives on the line to protect our planet.
At the time of writing, Herbert is currently out on bail and will appeal his sentence. He may not end up serving his full 12 months in jail. But his sentence is a clear indication of the lengths the state is willing to go to protect the profits of the fossil fuel industry, and the kind of reception climate activists can expect as the need for protest and direct action becomes ever more urgent. Across the world, from the UK to the US, states are stepping up their capacity to harass and silence activists in anticipation of large scale unrest.
When faced with the barbarity of capitalism, Berkeley student activist Mario Savio in 1964 urged, “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop”. We need to build a climate movement strong enough to bring the drills, the trains and the machines to a screeching halt, and we need to challenge not just the fossil fuel industry but the whole network of governments and courts and companies that will fight us every step of the way.