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As Blockade Australia concludes a week of climate protests in Sydney, police are using extraordinary tactics against the group, arresting and rearresting dozens of people. By Wendy Bacon.

Inside the police crackdown on Blockade Australia

Blockade Australia protesters at a rally in Sydney on Tuesday.
Blockade Australia protesters at a rally in Sydney on Tuesday.
Credit: Flavio Brancaleone / AAP

This week, the New South Wales Police Force used unprecedented resources and tactics to crush climate change protests in Sydney.

Twenty-one mostly younger women have been arrested during this week’s protests. They have mostly been charged with several offences including blocking roads, which can result in two years’ imprisonment or a $22,000 fine under harsh anti-protest laws passed by the NSW government earlier this year. Seven people were arrested at a camp before the protests, and two of them have been refused bail and have been in custody for nearly two weeks. They have been charged in relation to planning protests. Evidence against one includes drawing on a whiteboard.

NSW police tactics have included spying on a peaceful camp, breaking it up with scores of armed police, holding people in custody for unusually long periods and then imposing extraordinary bail conditions that prevent people from entering inner Sydney or associating with friends, even through social media or third parties. They have followed and searched suspected protesters in the street and tailed cars.

The group behind the protests, Blockade Australia, emerged in March when it blocked roads leading to Port Botany on four occasions. Protesters carried signs such as “Survival depends on our resistance” and streamed videos while tied to poles and other structures.

The NSW government’s response to these peaceful but disruptive protests was to introduce new laws that created serious offences for blocking infrastructure, including manufacturing hubs, tunnels, bridges and unspecified roads. NSW Police Force set up Strike Force Guard, which aimed to “prevent, investigate and disrupt unauthorised protests”.

Scores of legal, civil rights and environmental groups claimed the laws threatened democratic rights to protest by effectively handing control of protests over to police. As originally drafted, the laws potentially turned protests outside parliament or during industrial action into serious crimes.

When it looked like the laws would be defeated, the Coalition government agreed to exclude these. While some Labor MPs had concerns, NSW Labor leader Chris Minns enthusiastically supported the bills. Labor MPs voted for the legislation, which meant it passed despite strong opposition from the NSW Greens, the Animal Justice Party and some independents.

In mid-June, about 40 people gathered for a protest-planning camp on a private, flood-affected property near the Colo River on Sydney’s western fringe. One of those attending the camp was trained horticulturalist Nicholas Weaver, who travelled from Victoria. He told The Saturday Paper that after trying for years to get serious action on climate change, he reached the conclusion that we need “more meaningful ways to express the significance of climate crisis”. He believes “transformative change is needed to every sector of society” and that protests are needed that “stand in the way of the current system and highlight climate destruction”.

Weaver didn’t get to attend this week’s protests. During the camp, he and several friends discovered a man carrying a pistol hiding in camouflage on the property. Soon afterwards a woman, also camouflaged, stood up. Weaver says he was frightened by the discovery, especially because the armed people refused to identify themselves. NSW Police Force has since acknowledged they were police carrying out an investigation on private property.

Protesters attempted to prevent the camouflaged people leaving in a car but, before long, the camp was raided by a helicopter and scores of vehicles carrying about 100 heavily armed police. Police declared the site a “crime scene”, which meant campers could be detained for six hours. Strike Force Guard had a warrant that enabled them to carry away equipment at the camp.

Weaver and others were arrested. He was charged with five offences, including assault, intimidating police and affray. He was taken to Windsor Police Station and then to a small remand prison where he was eventually granted conditional bail. Hours later police told him he hadn’t met his bail conditions because the 78-year-old woman who had offered her home for him to stay in “shared his values” and was therefore inappropriate.

Weaver was taken to Silverwater prison and was bailed the next day. His bail conditions include not visiting Sydney’s CBD and having no association with 15 friends, some of whom have not been arrested. This means no social media or contact through third parties, some of whom he described as “like family support”. Another woman who responded to a comment on a barred friend’s Facebook page was taken back into custody.

The raid was a warning. Last week, 18 civil society organisations expressed alarm and called for police to act “responsibly, with integrity and respect for human rights” in relation to planned protests. “Sending in 100 armed police is alarming and disproportionate,” said Human Rights Law Centre director Alice Drury. NSW Greens MLC Abigail Boyd again tried unsuccessfully to disallow protest law regulations in parliament last week but again Labor refused to support her.

On Monday morning, protesters took to the road near the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. One, Mali Cooper, who has witnessed climate change-induced devastation in two Lismore floods, locked herself onto the steering wheel of her car and blocked the tunnel. The 22-year-old then used a FaceTime video to explain her actions. She explained that she understood the frustration of “inconvenienced” people but that this was nothing compared with the terrifying inconvenience of climate change as a result of which people whom she loved “lost everything”.

Although “overwhelmed” and “frightened” by an angry man abusing her and banging on her car, she said, “I cannot stay silent”. Police arrived and the screen went black. Cooper was granted bail on strict conditions, including that she returns to Lismore and regularly reports to police. She appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project saying she did not regret her actions and described herself as “privileged to have a voice” to express her message.

By Wednesday, Cooper had collected her belongings and begun the long trip back to the far north coast of NSW. Police followed her and rearrested her on grounds that she would not arrive in Lismore by the required hour of 8pm. She spent another night in police custody. In Newtown Court House on Thursday, police asked the magistrate to refuse bail. Her lawyer, Sydney City Crime’s Mark Davis, called Cooper’s grandmother, who had come to court to support her. She gave evidence that Cooper had stayed with her overnight and left later than expected because she was exhausted and had slept late. The magistrate granted bail on condition she left immediately for Lismore, this time without a required hour of arrival.

Another 21 people were arrested for blocking roads on Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, a man who drove into protesters pleaded guilty to negligent driving and got a fine of $465 and three demerit points.

Blockade Australia declared a “rest day” on Wednesday. When The Saturday Paper visited the group in Sydney at an inner-west community centre, they were cooking food  but some supporters were staying away because they felt intimidated. Bell Gottwald, who lives near Bega, where she witnessed the devastation of the 2019 bushfires, said the trauma of those around her and failure of government to address local needs caused her to act. “Thinking you can deal with it at an individual level is delusional,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat. The urgency won’t go away. There’s no forgetting.” She admitted the situation was nerve-racking. On her short walk to the community centre, she’d witnessed about 20 police cars, including large black SUVs. Friends were approached by police and “patted down”.

While we were talking, about 20 people had gathered in a community park to plan what to do next. A helicopter and many plain-clothes and riot police descended and broke up the meeting. Those present say police threw people to the ground. Another person was arrested.

There will be many legal arguments and tests of evidence before the hundreds of charges against those arrested are resolved. Eleven people arrested on Tuesday were held in custody overnight. When they finally appeared before Magistrate Gary Still on Wednesday afternoon, he asked why they had not been granted bail by the police, as usually occurs. By then lawyer Mark Davis had spent many hours with police negotiating conditions similar to those that were required by a different magistrate.

The Saturday Paper spoke to several activists who said they sympathise with ordinary people inconvenienced by protests but don’t regret their actions. They support a range of climate-change strategies but believe resistance is essential.

Conservative politicians and media will continue to appeal to their own audiences by condemning them. The NSW deputy premier, Paul Toole, used the hackneyed term “professional protesters” to denounce them. In fact, the protesters come from a wide range of occupations – including teachers, farmers, cafe owners and media professionals – and vary greatly in age.

Globally, they are not alone. In April, 1000 scientists used civil disobedience tactics after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Chaining himself to the Los Angeles office of oil and gas funder JP Morgan, climate scientist Peter Kalmus said, “It’s the eleventh hour in terms of Earth breakdown and I feel terrified for my kids and for humanity. I actually don’t get how any scientist who understands could possibly stay on the sidelines at this point.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Hostile climate".

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Wendy Bacon is a journalist. She was a professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.

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