In an exclusive interview, climate activist Violet CoCo, who won her appeal against a jail sentence this week, details what she has learnt about the ‘theatre’ of politics. By Royce Kurmelovs.
Climate activist Violet CoCo and protest laws
As District Court judge Mark Williams read his ruling this week on whether or not Violet CoCo would serve a 15-month prison sentence for blocking the Sydney Harbour Bridge during a protest, the 32-year-old climate activist, head in hands, cried with relief.
Four months earlier, Magistrate Allison Hawkins described CoCo as “childish” and “emotional”. In sentencing her, she relied particularly on submissions by police that alleged CoCo’s protest had blocked an ambulance.
“You have halted an ambulance under light and siren,” Hawkins said. “What about the person in there? What about that person and their family? What do they think of you and your cause?”
Only, the ambulance never existed. New South Wales Police Force had been so eager to make their case, they had embellished their account with what Williams described as a “false fact”. Reviewing the evidence, he said: “How did that find its way in?”
Footage recorded by Channel Seven of the protest, played for the court by Crown prosecutor Isabella Maxwell-Williams, was set aside. An assertion that CoCo had been motivated more by scorn at the treatment of her partner in a separate protest rather than climate change was also rejected. So, too, was any suggestion the protest was “not peaceful” or that CoCo should be punished harshly based on her “criminal history”.
Williams upheld CoCo’s appeal. Convictions were recorded for blocking the bridge, resisting arrest and using a flare, but no jail time was imposed. CoCo was given a 12-month conditional release order.
“I don’t accept the Crown submission that she is a danger to the community,” Williams said.
Outside court, on the footsteps of Sydney’s Downing Centre, CoCo told the assembled reporters that she will consider pursuing the police for compensation.
Her lawyer, Eddie Lloyd, who was among those rescued from a rooftop during the Lismore floods, described her as “the first victim” of the NSW government’s “fascist” anti-protest laws.
“Our democracy is under attack. It was Violet today but it could be anyone tomorrow,” Lloyd said. “The NSW police have got a lot of questions they need to answer and our politicians have a lot of questions they need to answer. It’s them that are the radicals. It’s them that are the extremists.”
CoCo grew up in a Liberal-voting, working-class family. Her uncle, Alister Henskens, is a senior minister in the Perrottet government and voted in support of the laws that would have sent her to jail.
A child of divorced parents, she lived between Newcastle and Sydney. Her mother worked for a bank and her father was an electrical engineer who built weapon systems for fighter jets.
As a teenager she discovered theatre, and to pay for drama classes she worked in fast-food and retail jobs. After high school, she took a job at the bank where her mother worked.
When she turned 18, she voted Liberal in her first election and landed a job working for a Murdoch-owned advertising company selling search engine optimisation to small businesses.
It was a job she was “ridiculously good at”, she says, and bonuses meant she was quickly earning six figures. She could also “see the toxicity” in what she was doing and quit to study philosophy at university.
“Philosophy cooked my noodle,” she tells The Saturday Paper at her home in Lismore. “It is really intense. Even Descartes says you should only really study philosophy for three months every four years because it’s so mental.”
CoCo still hasn’t finished that degree. She took time off to travel and eventually landed in Melbourne, where on the first night in the city she attended a rally – a counterdemonstration against a march by a group of neo-Nazis.
“I was like, ‘What? Nazis are still around?’ I thought we learnt: no Nazis, never again. So, I was like, ‘Hell, yes, let’s go!’”
Her introduction to climate change came later. Around the time a mass fish kill in the Menindee Lakes was making national news, CoCo heard about Extinction Rebellion.
At the first meeting she listened to other women in the room talk about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis and the need for nonviolent direct action. She immediately volunteered to help.
“I was very politically illiterate before joining the climate movement,” she said. “I thought the Adani mine was the only mine in Australia. The people in the climate movement don’t realise how illiterate on the issue the general public is.” CoCo participated in several actions with Extinction Rebellion, including burning a pram outside Parliament House in Canberra. Later she broke away to become involved with Fireproof Australia, a group that eschewed the theatre of Extinction Rebellion in favour of more disruptive actions.
All of it culminated on April 13 last year, when CoCo and three other activists stopped a light delivery truck on the Harbour Bridge, climbed out, lit a flare and began live streaming to the world.
CoCo would spend 13 days in jail. During that time she was held in solitary confinement due to Covid isolation policies and industrial action by prison guards. It wasn’t until several days after her arrest, when she was allowed a phone call, that she realised how impactful the protest had been. Her arrest had been news around the world.
“I don’t think even now I’ve fully grasped what happened,” she says. “People keep saying I’m famous, or whatever, but I wasn’t there for it so it doesn’t count.”
Asked about her time in prison, CoCo said the hardest part was “being away from the people that you love”.
“And also being treated [as] subhuman,” she said. “The people who work in the prisons don’t really respect the prisoners very much. They’re working with limited resources, as well. So, you’re often begging for basic things like shampoo and conditioner or hot water for tea.”
Today her family votes Greens and CoCo lives in Lismore, where she moved to help with the reconstruction effort following the floods.
Standing in the East Lismore General Cemetery, on the one-year anniversary of the 2022 flooding that killed five and displaced thousands, she pointed to the neat row of houses that were inundated during the disaster. “On this day, one year ago today, people all through here and the rest of Lismore were being evacuated from their homes,” she said.
“It still looks like a war zone here. There are 6000 people who a year ago lost their homes to the floods in the Northern Rivers and not a single person has been cared for by the government yet in that respect.”
It was this reality – the human cost of climate change and the destruction of whole ecosystems – that CoCo says drove her to engage in acts of protest in the hope that authorities might take meaningful action.
At the time, she was apprehensive about the possibility her appeal might fail and she would be sent back to prison. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that but it was a “sacrifice” she was willing to make.
“Politics is theatre,” she said. “Directing a nonviolent direct action is like directing a theatre show.
“You have all your roles and everyone’s got a script. You’re going to bump in and bump out, but I guess the major difference is the guns are real.
“Politics is really just a pantomime, a popularity contest. Everyone is just playing the role of the person they think they are.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2023 as "‘The guns are real’".
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