‘Draconian and undemocratic’: why criminalising climate protesters in Australia doesn’t actually work

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Police officers dispersing a protestor during a Blockade Australia rally in Sydney this week. AAP Image/Flavio Brancaleone

Robyn Gulliver, The University of Queensland

A man who drove through a climate protest blocking the Harbour Tunnel this week has copped a A$469 fine, while multiple members of the activist group were arrested. The protest was among a series of peak hour rallies in Sydney by Blockade Australia, in an effort to stop “the cogs in the machine that is destroying life on earth”.

Disruptive protests like these make an impact. They form the iconic images of social movements that have delivered many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.

They attract extensive media coverage that propel issues onto the national agenda. And, despite media coverage to the contrary, research suggests they don’t reduce public support for climate action.

But disruptive protest also consistently generates one negative response: attempts to criminalise it.

Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales have all recently proposed or introduced anti-protest bills targeting environmental and climate activists. This wave of anti-protest legislation has been described as draconian and undemocratic.

Let’s take a look at how these laws suppress environmental protesters – and whether criminalisation actually works.

How do governments criminalise protest?

The criminalisation of environmental protest in Australia isn’t new.

Tasmania provides a compelling example. The Tasmania Workplaces (Protection from Protestors) Act 2014 sought to fine demonstrators up to $10,000 if they “prevent, hinder, or obstruct the carrying out of a business activity”. Described as a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it was subsequently voted down by the Tasmanian Legislative Council.

The bill was resurrected in 2019, but also voted down, an outcome described by the Human Rights Law Centre as a “win for democracy”.

But yet again in 2022, the freedom to protest in Tasmania is under threat. The Police Offences Amendment (Workplace Protection) Bill 2022 proposes fines of up to $21,625 and 18 months jail for peaceful protest.

Activities such as handing out flyers, holding a placard or sharing a petition could fall within the offences.

Heavy police presence is often a feature at Extinction Rebellion blockades.
Julian Meehan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Tasmania is not an outlier. After the Port of Botany and Sydney climate blockades in March this year, NSW passed the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022.

Almost 40 civil society groups called to scrap the bill, which used vague and broad wording to expand offences with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine.

Similarly, the Andrews government in Victoria is introducing the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, which raises penalties on anti-logging protest offences to $21,000 or 12 months imprisonment.

Other ways Australia criminalise protest

Legislation isn’t the only tool in the toolbox of protest criminalisation. The expansion of police and government discretionary powers is also often used. Examples include:

Corporations also use discretionary powers. Adani/Bravus coal mining company reportedly used private investigators to restrict Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ access to their ceremonial camp.

It also reportedly bankrupted senior spokesperson Adrian Burragubba in 2019, sued one climate activist for intimidation, conspiracy and breaches of contract, surveilled his family, and is pursuing him for $600 million (now reduced to $17m) in damages.

In statements to the ABC and the Guardian, Adani says it is exercising its rights under the law to be protected from individuals and groups who act “unlawfully”.

Another tool for suppressing protest is the use of “othering” language. This language seeks to stigmatise activists, de-legitimise their concerns and frame them as threats to national security or the economy.

We see it frequently after disruptive protest. For example, ministers have recently described Blockade Australia protesters as “bloody idiots”, who should “get a real job”.

The Queensland Premier has described protesters as “extremists”, who were “dangerous, reckless, irresponsible, selfish and stupid”.

Why do governments feel the need to implement harsher penalties?

Some politicians have argued that anti-protest laws act as a “deterrent” to disruptive protest. Critics have also argued that government powers are used as a shield to protect corporate interests.

In its new report, for example, the Australian Democracy Network shows how corporations can manipulate government powers to harass and punish opponents through a process called “state capture”.

Non-profit organisations have also demonstrated the powerful influence of the fossil fuel industry, particularly in weakening Australian environmentalists’ protest rights.

But it’s not only civil sector groups and protesters sounding the alarm. Increased repression of our rights to engage in non-violent protest have also been voiced by lawyers, scholars and observers such as the United Nations Special Rapporteur.

Does criminalisation reduce protest?

Numerous organisations have highlighted how criminalising protest and silencing charities threaten democratic freedoms that are fundamental to a vibrant, inclusive and innovative society.

But more than that, these strategies don’t appear to work.

Courts have used anti-protest legislation to instead highlight the importance of peaceful protest as a legitimate form of political communication. They have struck down legislation, released activists from remand, overturned unreasonable bail conditions and reduced excessive fines.

Police, too, have refused to remove cultural custodians from their ceremonial grounds.

And in general, research shows the public does not support repressive protest policing.

Indeed, rates of disruptive protest are escalating, while protesters vow to continue despite the risk.

The majority of Australians support more ambitious climate action. Many agree with Blockade Australia’s statement that “urgent broad-scale change” is necessary to address the climate crisis.

Politicians may be better served by focusing their efforts on this message, rather than attacking the messengers.The Conversation

Robyn Gulliver, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading‘Draconian and undemocratic’: why criminalising climate protesters in Australia doesn’t actually work

25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested

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25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.
25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.

A group of mothers and grandmothers were arrested this afternoon while slow-marching in London in support of Just Stop Oil’s demand for the government to end new oil and gas.

33 Just Stop Oil supporting mothers and grandmothers began marching down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. Metropolitan Police kettled the group before arresting them, including a grandmother aged 79 and a great grandmother. They were detained for allegedly breaching Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023.

Since Just Stop Oil’s most recent campaign began a week ago, police have refused to respect their rights to protest and have opted for immediately arresting slow marchers, but this group of mothers refused to be intimidated.

The mothers say that they refuse to stand by while government policies continue to support the fossil fuel industry, leading to global suffering on an unprecedented scale. The marching mums carried placards explaining why they felt compelled to resist: for their children, for all the world’s children and future generations.

25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.
25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.

Gill Tavner, a mother of two daughters, aged 19 and 21, from Stroud said

We’re marching here to oppose corporate greed with maternal love. For years we’ve watched in mounting disbelief as global leaders have failed to take the necessary action to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. This government is travelling in completely the wrong direction.

“It’s crazy that in asking for a liveable world for our children we are vilified and criminalised. My heart aches when I think about the difficulties ahead for my girls, and even more so for less privileged children in the world. If we could rely on responsible leadership, this action would not be necessary, but politics is broken and so I’m compelled to take action. It’s the most important thing I can do as a mother.”

Angela Holland, 79, a mother of three and grandmother of five, from Bristol said:

I’m inspired to march and risk arrest by my grandson and whole family. Their determination has pushed me to read the research on climate breakdown, to understand the urgency for action and to try and adjust my lifestyle accordingly. As George Monbiot says, survival requires disobedience!

25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.
25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested for slow marching London 6 Nov 2023.

Her daughter, Sophie Holland aged 52, a speech therapist and also a mother of three, said:

I’m here because where else would I be? The world is disappearing before our eyes – flooded, burnt, species after species vanishing. Scientists are telling us, loud and clear, this is our last chance. The UN secretary general, the International Energy Agency, Sir David Attenborough, Chris Packham are all saying we are facing catastrophe if we continue to burn fossil fuels. Why isn’t everyone who has children, or knows children, or sees pictures of already displaced and starving children; on the streets, demanding change from our self-serving, criminal government?”

Continue Reading25 Just Stop Oil mothers arrested

Two Just Stop Oil activists have smashed the glass cover of a painting once famously slashed by a suffragette. 

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Just Stop Oil break protective glass on The Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery 6 Nov 2023.
Just Stop Oil break protective glass on The Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery 6 Nov 2023.

The Rokeby Venus was famously slashed in the National Gallery by the suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914. Richardson left seven slashes on the painting, causing particular damage to the area between the figure’s shoulders, however, all were successfully repaired. Richardson’s action was in resistance to the UK government’s imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst at the time. She explained her actions after the incident- “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Rokeby Venus damaged by suffragette Mary Richardson using a meat cleaver.
Rokeby Venus damaged by suffragette Mary Richardson using a meat cleaver.

Two young Just Stop Oil activists smashed the glass cover of a painting this morning. They are demanding the government immediately halt all new oil and gas projects in the UK. They then addressed the gallery by saying: “Women did not get the vote by voting; it is time for deeds not words. It is time to Just Stop Oil.” They added: “Politics is failing us. It failed women in 1914 and it is failing us now. New oil and gas will kill millions. If we love art, if we love life, if we love our families we must Just Stop Oil.”

One of those taking action today, Hanan, 22 a student from London, said:

“Over 100 years ago, the suffragette Mary Richardson attacked the Rokeby venus portrait for the unjust imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst. Today I have used similar methods in the fight for climate justice.”

“As a kid I saw myself growing up to be an astronaut or a singer. I saw a future, however ridiculous it was. Now, those day-dreams have ended. The future we are heading for doesn’t allow space for them anymore.”

“It’s always been down to ordinary people to tell their governments when they’ve crossed a line. Civil resistance worked for the suffragettes and it will work for us.”

Also taking action today is Harrison Donnelly, 20, a student from Nottingham. He said:

“Emmeline Pankhurst said: you have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.”

“The suffragettes are proof these methods work to achieve social change. That is why we have taken this action today. New oil will destroy everything we love. I do not want to be here, but I cannot continue to see this government fail all of us.”

A Just Stop Oil spokesperson said:

“Emmeline Pankhurst once said: ‘The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics’. Disappointingly little has changed since 1914. From governments destroying the most beautiful character in history, to governments destroying our home, our families and our institutions in order to enrich criminal oil barons and corporations. The only thing that has ever stood in their way is ordinary people, taking to the streets to demand change. We invite everyone to join us.”


Continue ReadingTwo Just Stop Oil activists have smashed the glass cover of a painting once famously slashed by a suffragette. 

Just Stop Oil supporters refuse to cooperate as 40 arrested

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Just Stop Oil protest London 1 Nov 2023. Image: Just Stop Oil.
Just Stop Oil protest London 1 Nov 2023. Image: Just Stop Oil.

Just Stop Oil supporters from the Midlands and East of England began marching on Cromwell Road in West London today. After approximately 10 minutes, Metropolitan Police officers arrived on the scene and called for backup, demanding that protestors leave the road. Within the next 22 minutes, approximately 40 of the marchers were arrested under Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023.

Slow marching with Just Stop Oil today Rachel White 53, a mental health worker from Rochford said:

“I have tried standing as a candidate for the Green Party, I have tried signing petitions, writing to MP’s, attending COP 26, but nothing’s changed. In fact it’s gotten worse, and so I can no longer be a bystander. I want my granddaughter and grandson to know I tried to do something. I want them to know their grandmother was not complicit with the crimes of this government.”

“MPs are well informed and they know that the scale of suffering that has begun is an unprecedented crime against humanity, and that the suffering will only worsen if we do not stop oil & gas emissions, yet they’ve just green-lit Rosebank, which will emit more carbon into the atmosphere than 28 whole countries.”

Rebecca Narracott, 46, a teacher from Norwich said:

“I have three brilliant teenagers who I want to see grow and thrive in a healthy and safe world, but on our current trajectory, this will not be their reality. I am taking action this week because I am privileged enough to be able to, therefore it is my moral obligation to at least try.”

“I am speaking out against our morally bankrupt and broken system of politics and governance; people have power and we must use our voices and bodies to say ‘not in our name.’ It’s time to take to the streets, join us on a slow-march, sign up at juststopoil.org.”

Continue ReadingJust Stop Oil supporters refuse to cooperate as 40 arrested


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Extinction Rebellion co-founders.
Extinction Rebellion co-founders.

October 20, 2023

This letter by Clare Farrell, Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam was published on 19th October 2023 on the Extinction Rebellion website – the original can be found here https://rebellion.global/blog/2023/10/19/reflections-5-years-on/

Telling the truth means being ready to accept when you have been led astray, got things wrong and so have to modify your views. Five years since the launch of Extinction Rebellion, this world we live in is changing so dangerously fast that it demands we revisit our assumptions and learn some painful lessons. It is now clear that 2023 is very likely to average more than 1.5 °C above a 1850-1900 baseline. Whilst emissions are still rising world wide. It is only through commitment to the truth that we might help humanity and wider life around as we enter a disturbing new era.

We got something wrong. We were misled. So, we misled you too. Aerosol pollution matters decisively to our global climate. There are other factors deserving of more serious attention such as forest cloud seeding and ocean health. Many factors were sidelined by scientists who were narrowly focusing on CO2. In addition, IPCC processes did not find an adequate way to address issues of extreme risk where data was deemed insufficient or where there was higher uncertainty *, such as aerosols, methane release from permafrost, and feedbacks from wildfires or droughts rendering sinks incapable of sustaining their role in the system. This misled other scientists, academics and activists including us.

Some of us have attempted over the years to responsibly communicate the extreme and cascading risks, and the severe consequences of not taking emergency action. Despite founding the movement on the precautionary principle we found ourselves being ground down. For years we were moderated, and moodsplained by experts from narrow disciplines who demanded we change our press releases, our lectures, and play down the reality and potential speed of catastrophic consequences. As we pass into the horrors of a 1.5 °C plus world, at least 10 years earlier than the worst official expectations, we realise we should have made a firmer stand. As we observe some top climatologists claiming we need to wait decades before accepting that the planet is 1.5 °C warmer, we also realise that silence about our disagreements is no longer an option for us, or the climate movement.

Understanding how this repression happened is important. We would welcome any career climatologists, academics and journalists who undermined our communications in public to make amends, especially as they have influenced attitudes amongst those who judge us. But more importantly, for the sake of life on Earth we must tackle this emergency with our eyes wide open to everything that we need to do from this point forward. The rapid heating and extreme events of the last year demonstrate that overall predictions of institutionalised climate science were less accurate than the conclusions of generalist scholars and leading climate activists, who better saw the frightening signals through the noise produced from siloes, hierarchies, and privilege. Notably, economists, politicians and consultants pulled the conversation in the opposite direction to what was needed. Because these people carry an identity associated with ‘authority’ they were not challenged enough by journalists, lay people, or activists.

XR was always about responding to the whole ecological emergency, not just the climate. We need to bring this back to the fore, as much for the climate as for nature. We need to prioritise preserving and growing forest cover, learning how to restore the oceans’ role in atmospheric modulation, experimenting with marine cloud brightening in the Arctic and exploring every option for climate restoration and cooling, and even consider reversing recent shipping fuel regulations if they are causing an aerosol ‘termination shock’. And at the same time we must reject the lie that high consumption societies do not need to power down equitably, with the rich going first. We waste vast amounts of energy, which is unspeakable in these circumstances. The rallying cry from here on is that we Must Stop Oil, end the fossil fuel era, and we must also urgently start the repair of Planet Earth, our only home.

We are entering a new era for humanity and the prospects are terrifying. We committed five years ago in October 2018 to live in truth. Our movements need to look directly at that truth and act according to reality. That means being in resistance, standing for peace, justice and freedom.

Signed: Clare Farrell, Gail Bradbrook, Roger Hallam.

October 2023

*A footnote in the IPCC AR6 SPM: “Warming levels >4 °C may result from very high emissions scenarios, but can also occur from lower emission scenarios if climate sensitivity or carbon cycle feedbacks are higher than the best estimate. {3.1.1}”