The thin green line

According to protesters, the two men were armed and dressed in full camouflage. They did not identify themselves as police. When confronted near a camp in the Colo Valley outside Sydney, the only words they said were: “We’ve been compromised.”

Eventually a black car arrived and the camouflaged men retreated into it. Two more armed men were inside. “We asked the persons to identify themselves but none of the four occupants spoke with us,” Blockade Australia said in a statement. “The vehicle then accelerated and sped towards people standing on the road. Two people were struck by the car and injured.”

Several protesters clung to the bonnet of the car. When it stopped, they let down its tyres. Eventually a police helicopter arrived. The riot squad was there with dogs. Activists estimate 100 officers swarmed the camp.

Seven protesters were charged with affray and assaulting police. The acting assistant commissioner, Paul Dunstan, said “those police that were attacked by that group this morning feared for their lives”.

Four days later, Tasmania passed laws that will grossly restrict the right to protest. The bill is focused on mining and forestry interests and threatens jail terms and extraordinary fines for anyone who “obstructs” workers. In practice, it basically outlaws protest.

Similar laws introduced in Victoria will fine or imprison people who attempt to disrupt native forest logging. In New South Wales, laws passed in April will imprison for up to two years any protester who blocks a road or railway line. The state’s Attorney-General Mark Speakman says he is cracking down on “a handful of anarchist protesters who would wish to bring this city to a halt”.

All of these laws are about one common factor: the growing urgency with which activists are confronting the climate emergency. These laws are about protecting business. They are about lock-ons and blockades.

It is wrong to call them anti-protest laws. They are pro-pollution laws. They exist to enable industries that the science says must be shut down. If protests have intensified, it is only because their aims have become more pressing. The window to halt catastrophic climate change is closing and governments are trying to jam it open with bogus laws about “workplace protection”.

The extraordinary police operation in NSW is evidence of how state governments will defend mining and forestry. Other laws are already in place to prevent animal rights activists from filming inhumane farming practices. The rhetoric paints protesters as terrorists. Of course, the opposite is true. Without protest, there seems no will for the action that is necessary: for the country to stop exporting coal, to stop its reliance on fossil fuels.

The federal government should begin by unpicking some of the laws that criminalise activism and neuter charities. It should accept protest as key to democracy. After that, it should listen to protesters and move to urgently cut the country’s emissions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "The thin green line".

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