Fighting for civil liberties is fast becoming inseparable from the fight for the planet. The new climate movement in Australia is being subjected to some of the most gratuitous state repression against protests in years. Activists must condemn these attacks and resist the state’s attempts to make them the norm.
The crackdown against activists blockading the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne shocked many. Police batoned activists who were retreating with their arms held up. They doused people with oleoresin capsicum spray (a chemical weapon). The mounted division rushed crowds (which resulted in one woman being hospitalised) and around 75 arrests. This was the state’s response to a peaceful environmental protest. The repression did not come out of the blue. There has been a steady and disturbing escalation of police attacks against the right to protest, aimed in particular at the climate movement. Just two weeks before IMARC, around 300 protesters were arrested across Australia during the Spring Rebellion. The actions were organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) – a week of protests that included short road-blocks, flash mobs and marches. As is the trademark of XR, the culture of the week was explicitly and hyper-vigilantly non-violent.
XR leaders encouraged arrests: in some actions, they waited for hours in major intersections and even asked the police to take them away. But 300 people detained for low level traffic disruption is an extreme level of repression in Australia. While it’s bad enough that protesting is being criminalised, the arrests have come with routine kettling and ludicrous police mobilisations. As Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s (MALS) account of a bridge blockade organised by XR Melbourne noted: “The team observed several hundred police working in different Public Order Response Team (PORT) units, arrest teams, the Mounted Branch, plain clothes police prosecutors, the Evidence Gathering Team and witnessed up to forty-four arrests by police”.
The account described the police establishing a cordon around the action within 15 minutes and preventing anyone from joining the protest – a clear breach of the right to assemble. “Media representatives, journalists and camera operators were directed by police to leave the cordon ‘protest area’ from 13:00”, MALS observed. “This restriction on media ability to film, interview and cover the protest event was without a clear lawful basis.” These tactics were without recent precedent in Melbourne. In several cities, police have attempted to heavy those arrested into signing extreme bail conditions that include a prohibition on from entering central business districts and associating with XR for several months. Socialist Alternative member and XR Sydney activist Lily Campbell refused to sign away her rights to free association and movement. As a result, she was held in a cell without food for more than 17 hours. When a magistrate ordered her release, she was held for a further six hours.
It has also come to light that several activists in Melbourne and Brisbane were strip searched after being arrested. This is not about discovering contraband, it is about sexism, intimidation and the criminalisation of protest. Debbie Kilroy, founder of Sisters Inside, a prisoner advocacy organisation, describes strip searching as “sexual assault by the state”. She points out that this and several other brutalising tactics have been normalised in relation to the most oppressed sections of the community:
“It’s predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are criminalised, it’s predominantly very poor people, it’s homeless people, it’s people with mental illness. They already know what the experience is like. The more we see young people and people on the streets protesting ... there’s going to be more and more people exposed to police brutality. We’re going to see middle- and upper-class people on the streets who are concerned about the climate crisis. We are seeing already laws enacted to criminalise them.”
You might think that police repression would be especially harsh under conservative governments for whom climate denialism still has purchase and “greenie cultural Marxist political correctness” is intolerable. Certainly, the Liberal federal government is agitating for a harsher response to climate activism, including banning business boycotts. But repression has been most severe in Victoria and Queensland – ALP controlled states.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in parliament said that the police did “every one of us proud” during the IMARC blockade. And in what is one of the biggest attacks on civil liberties in decades, the Queensland Labor government has passed anti-protest laws in response to XR and the new climate movement. These laws give police “search and seizure powers” if they reasonably suspect someone to be carrying a lock-on device. The rationale is spurious. When explaining the danger of lock-on devices, the government gave examples of devices that haven’t been used at a protest since 2005. These laws are not about restricting specific methods of protest They are simply a green light for the police to harass and detain anyone getting in the way of business as usual. Especially when that business is coal mining. And doubly so when it relates to the new Adani mine in the Galilee Basin.
“Here we Joh again”, read a placard at a rally against the new laws, in reference to the Joh Bjielke-Peterson government (1968-87) and its prohibition of street marches. The Bjielke-Peterson regime sparked one of the biggest civil liberties campaigns in Australian history. The climate movement is similarly going to have to defend and win back our civil liberties. To do so we must move beyond the slogan that has become popular with climate activists: “We’re all in this together”. While this might be true at the highest level of abstraction, it is much more useful – and accurate – to recognise that our struggle for climate justice is against powerful enemies.
Our enemies are the big coal bosses, but not just them. They are part of a class of people whose only objectives are making profits and exercising power. This class, the capitalist ruling class, is made up of business elites, politicians, high ranking state bureaucrats, the police chiefs and the military top brass. Governments everywhere are demonstrating that they are “in it together” with the climate criminal class and that they will do whatever is necessary to protect them. So they are trying to stop the global climate movement from spreading and deepening. They are using a variety of tactics to do this, such as co-opting activists into well-paid and ineffectual bureaucratic positions, declaring climate emergencies to make it look as though they are acting, and using the brute force of the police to weaken our movement. When the police attack protesters, it makes sense to say that they are “just doing their job” only if we understand that their job is to defend the climate criminals and the system taking us ever closer toward catastrophe. The main way that police do this job is by quashing popular resistance and preventing us from exercising our democratic rights.
The right to protest is not guaranteed in liberal democracies. It is something that was fought for, against the wishes of the ruling class. They readily dispense with our rights when they believe that their system is under serious threat (just look at the response to mass working class protests in Chile, a long established democracy). They will also attack our rights if they sense that our side is weak. Sometimes this comes in the form of anti-democratic legislation passed under the guise of protecting us from “monsters”: jihadis, bikies and union thugs to name a few (Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s environmental “extremists” can now be added to that list). But they can also attack our rights by using force to stop us publicly protesting and waiting to see whether they get away with it. This has little to do with what is legal. Police officers are not there to, as the Victoria Police website says, “to serve the community” or even to “uphold the law”. Their job is to control and intimidate the population. They can decide what “crimes” have been committed after the fact.
Forty-five of the 111 arrested in Melbourne during the Spring Rebellion were charged with obstructing an emergency services worker – a charge carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Apart from the severity of the penalty, the charge is galling because protesters never did such a thing. It was a point of pride and jubilation at several moments when the crowd parted in unison to let ambulances through before then resuming our protest. It is hard not to suspect that the charge of obstruction was chosen deliberately to mock our movement.
The Victorian police became cockier and more aggressive throughout the Spring Rebellion. During the week of protests, Whistleblowers, Activists and Community Alliance (WACA), an activist group, organised a refugee rights protest outside Border Force headquarters in Melbourne. The protest was calling attention to the plight of climate refugees. WACA has organised similar actions for years, protesting for several hours before being moved on by the police. This time, within five minutes of occupying the road, we were surrounded by pincher squads of riot cops and divvy vans welcoming us with open doors.
Part of the reason that police thought they could get away with mass repression is because XR explicitly calls for arrests and believes them to be a positive, in fact essential, component of its strategy. Though it is positive that people want to break rules in the fight for climate justice, it is a problem that there is such a fixation on arrests. The Brisbane branch of Socialist Alternative, which has been heavily involved in organising XR activity and the Stop Adani campaign, recently wrote an open letter to XR Brisbane criticising this approach:
“We consider that the police and the prison system are tools which exist to uphold, with force, the existing unequal status quo. They are not, and will never be, on the side of the oppressed. It shows a tremendous bravery and desire for action that hundreds of people have been willing to put their bodies on the line, face the cops and shoulder arrest for the environment. We believe activists should be prepared to hold their own and be arrested if necessary in the process of participating in actions which take the struggle forward. However, we do not think that arrests in and of themselves should be the goal of a political movement, and neither that arrests in and of themselves are a good thing.”
Making arrests such a central tactic works against XR’s stated aim of building a mass movement. It privileges those who are unlikely to be seriously brutalised by the state (white middle class people) and relegates to bystanders those who do not want to be arrested. More concerning is that XR’s approach helps to normalise the criminalisation of protests. This is not because activists who come into conflict with the state are responsible for state repression but because, in the case of XR, their tactical approach is linked to a problematic political position regarding how to understand and relate to the police. Many leading activists within XR believe that we should be appreciative of and sympathetic to cops – especially when they are carrying out repression against us. Some in XR believe that we should tell officers how much we love their children when police grab us, cuff us, move us off the road, interrogate us and prepare charges and fines against us for the crime of protesting. Some believe this will win cops over to our side. Others see it as a pragmatic tactic that will highlight our virtue.
Either way, it is thoroughly misguided. The approach reflects disregard for the experiences of the most oppressed at the hands of the police and illustrates a blind spot for the social role of the police. One of the left wing chants that many in XR have objected to is “Too many coppers, not enough justice!” They argue that this chant is violent and hateful. I first heard this chant at a rally to commemorate the murder of 17-year-old TJ Hickey, who was killed by police in Redfern, Sydney. His family has demanded justice ever since. Not one police officer has been charged for his murder, nor have the police ever acknowledged any wrongdoing. And to add injustice to injustice, members of the Hickey family are regularly prevented by the police, their son’s murderers, from having a memorial march on the anniversary of his death.
That this chant is used at protests across Australia highlights the solidarity between oppressed groups and various social struggles. But it also articulates a reality: every time we fight for a better world and inevitably face state repression as a result, there literally are too many cops and not enough justice. In every struggle for a better world, there are two sides. The police are on the other side. They are not “just doing a job” that can benefit our side. Every time they succeed at their job, our side takes a hit.
This doesn’t mean that police repression will irreparably damage every campaign. Indeed, police violence can sometimes provoke outrage and bring more people into the streets. And we should try to build our campaigns every time cops try to intimidate us. But the only chance we have of doing this is if we respond by condemning every attack on our civil liberties and every excess by the police. Hopefully, the assault on peaceful protesters at IMARC will open more people’s eyes to the real role of the police, which is to defend the world’s biggest climate criminals and to deny our demands for action on climate change and justice for its victims.
More than just understanding the role of the police, we need to campaign to defend our civil liberties. It is inconceivable that the climate movement will continue to grow and inspire people without the state also continuing its repression against us; every time this happens, we need to fight to prevent a new normal of repression from being established. Defending our movements and those we stand in solidarity with against the wrath of the state is inextricable from the struggle for climate justice.