Three years ago, Greta Thunberg initiated a new international movement: school walk-outs drawing attention to the need for urgent climate action. In Australia, these walk-outs became enormous protest marches—some of the biggest ever protests that have taken place in this country. There’s another march scheduled for May 21. taking aim at the government’s planned “gas-led recovery”. But in a tone-deaf move that should shock any climate activist, the event’s organisers have threatened to call the police to “move on” activists—for the crime of setting up tables or handing out unauthorised leaflets.
In an email sent to Socialist Alternative, the self-appointed rally organisers, who operate under the name School Strike For Climate (SS4C), warned us that “police will be moving along any groups” who do not “comply” with SS4C’s order to not set up tables at the event. It’s not clear whether other activist groups have received this ridiculous threat.
To put it mildly, this is not the way it should be. In fact, protest organisers in Melbourne have had to fight for their right to not be “moved on” by the police for setting up tables without permission. That right has been established now—in large part due to the actions of protesters against the Vietnam War, who were “moved on” and defied the police. Now, SS4C’s organisers are banking on reversing that right and reestablishing police power to ban speech in the city.
Over the last eighteen months, activists have rightly become more aware that the police are not allies of any progressive movement. This was a key line of debate in Extinction Rebellion before its collapse; as Australia’s police brutalised Aboriginal people and helped incarcerate refugees, some in Extinction Rebellion insisted on presenting the police as potential allies for a campaign supposedly based on the principle of civil disobedience.
And the police have brutalised climate activists directly, right here in Melbourne. When I was involved in organising a blockade of the climate criminals’ IMARC mining conference at Melbourne’s exhibition centre, protesters were hit with batons, shoved and pushed and covered in toxic pepper spray—and then many of us, including me, were hit with an array of charges.
So why would climate activists call Victoria Police to “move on” anyone at a demonstration? We should be demanding the police move out from activist spaces, and encouraging free discussion and circulation of ideas in the climate movement—most of all at protests, which are collective gatherings of activists with different worldviews around a shared goal, and an expression of ordinary people’s right to express their anger at the system and affect change. Protests should be an expansion of democracy. Protest organisers should simply never threaten to call the cops on attendees. It’s dangerous and undemocratic.
Luckily the police simply have no right to carry out this threat, so it’s also laughable. But it signals an unacceptably authoritarian, conservative approach from the self-appointed organisers of the action. Sadly, conservative politics are still too dominant in much of Australia’s climate movement: even as ordinary activists radicalise, the so-called “leaders” are often obsessed with maintaining close relationships with the mainstream political parties, Labor and Liberal, when common sense dictates that mainstream politics is the problem. That conservatism has sunk to new lows with this threat. We were warned by email that organisers had sunk so low that they hoped to call police on anyone who defied them; imagine any attendees who showed up and naively expected to be able to exercise their normal right to free speech, only to have the cops descend on them on the orders of the rally organisers themselves!
We need a mass climate movement to face up to the crisis. We need to demand immediate action, not wait for 2050. We can’t allow a gas led recovery. For this we need a strong, radical mass movement that creates a political crisis for governments. Already climate activists in Australia and around the world are dealing with the question of civil disobedience, whether blockades of conferences or locking onto mining equipment. All of these actions will likely be met with force and arrests by the police. That SS4C would fathom supporting the police shutting down activists shows the paltry state of the climate movement leadership in Australia.
Socialist Alternative is committed to being part of the fight to save the climate. We’ve had to do this in defiance of the “official” movement before—like when we organised the massive protests against the horror bushfires, against the wishes of environment NGOs who saw it as too controversial. We’ve already been promoting the May 21 climate strike, organising contingents and doing the on-the-ground work necessary to make any protest a success. And yes, we’ll be setting up information stalls at the protest, and no, we won’t be “moved on” by the police. You should come too, and help build a wing of the climate movement that doesn’t think Victoria Police are the answer to the world’s problems.