Chalk painting and police raids: why climate activists come under fire | Environment

As protesters obstructed coal trains bound for Newcastle port for days, the local environment center kept its distance.

But after two weeks of disruption caused by Blockade Australia, police arrived at the Hunter Valley Environment Center on a Friday afternoon last month with a search warrant on the premises and at a shared house nearby.

It is not yet clear how the Hunter Environmental Center was involved in the raids which saw 19 people arrested. A few days earlier, the New South Wales Police had trained Tuohy Strike Force – mobilization of police resources usually reserved for organized criminal groups such as outlaw motorcycle gangs – to target “disruptive protesters”.

“We are collateral damage,” says Georgina Woods, member of the centre’s organizing committee.

Founded in 2004 in the coal country NSW, the centre’s work mainly involved investigative and awareness-raising campaigns on local conservation issues, water pollution, and monitoring of coal ash dams left by power plants. electric closed.

“It seems like a hugely exaggeration to us. They turned and raided a local environmental center in response to a few weeks of protests, ”Woods said.

The incident is the most recent example of what civil society groups have described as a growing “climate of repression” facing environmental activists in Australia.

Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, a report released last week by the Human Rights Law Center, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Environmental Defenders Office highlighted how the use of heavy-handed police tactics, punitive bail conditions , private prosecutions, the introduction of anti-protest laws and inflammatory rhetoric from business and political leaders have combined to create an alarming trend.

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Yusur Al-Azzawi, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Center, who co-authored the report, says there has not been a single turning point, but hostility to the climate protests has grown in the country. in recent years.

“Climate advocates are being pursued, intimidated and harassed just for calling for action on climate change,” Al-Azzawi said. “What’s really scary is that we’re not talking about one or two isolated incidents. We envision a systemic and large-scale attack.

Other civil society groups have expressed similar concerns. On Monday, eight groups including, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and the Wilderness Society released a statement denouncing “the broader treatment of protesters by Australian law enforcement.”

Nikita White, an Amnesty International activist, said the police of environmental activists have become more aggressive in recent years.

“The raid on the Hunter Community Environmental Center in Newcastle last week reminded me of the attacks Amnesty is seeing all over the world against activists and human rights defenders, where governments are raiding in their offices, their homes in an attempt to quell dissent, “Blanc said.

“I think that purpose is to silence this dissent to prevent people from protesting.”

The chalk painting survey

An NSW Police spokesperson said he respected the right to protest peacefully, but did not answer specific questions about why the local environmental center was targeted.

“The NSW Police Force recognizes and supports the rights of individuals and groups to demonstrate peacefully,” the spokesperson said. “As with any unauthorized protest activity, anyone who breaks the law or engages in anti-social behavior will be treated accordingly.”

The raid on the center is not the only example of police crackdown on climate activism in recent times.

Last week, Eric Serge Herbert, 22, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for his role in the blockade of Newcastle harbor.

In Western Australia, three protesters who cut off the only road to the Burrup Peninsula – where the Pilbara gas industry operates – were placed on strict bail conditions that prevented them from teaming up with a list of activists identified by the police. Although all drove, two of the three were forced to return home as they were not allowed to be in the same car together.

In August, police raided the homes of six Extinction Rebellion activists in Perth amid allegations they had tagged a pedestrian bridge with washable chalk paint in plain sight of Woodside’s headquarters during a protest against the fossil fuel giant’s Scarborough gas project.

Kelly Hawes, said police did nothing at the time. So she was surprised when agents led by the State Security Investigation Group raided her home in the early hours of the morning about two weeks later.

“They were in fact anti-terrorist cops. It was chalk paint, ”says Hawes. “They filled my house. It was me and all those massive, tied up officers standing in my little apartment. “

Ordinarily, minor infractions like this would be dealt with by a court summons – if picked up at all. Although she became involved in Extinction Rebellion believing she could be arrested, Hawes said the police response was a “total overrun” and an attempt at intimidation.

WA Police were contacted but did not respond by posting.

“It will skyrocket”

Protests – and environmental protests in particular – have long been a political lightning rod in Australia and authorities are often antagonistic, but some argue that climate change protests pose a unique threat.

Asio has been actively monitor anti-coalmining activists since 2012, although their interest dates back 40 years, when the Australian intelligence community first recognized the risks posed by climate change. A 1981 Office of National Assessment report suggested that environmental groups could rally as climate change science was “sensationalized by the press and others,” with the implications for fossil fuel exports as primary concern. .

This concern remains at the heart of the government’s concerns. Days before the search of the Hunter Environment Center, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told reporters during a stop in Singleton that the disruptions in the flow of coal into Newcastle harbor caused by the demonstrators had cost $ 60 million.

“If they have any other way for this nation to make money right now, then we’re all ears,” Joyce said. “In the meantime, we have to earn some money.”

Simon Rice, professor of law and social justice at the University of Sydney, says that compared to other movements such as Black Lives Matter or even the recent anti-lockdown protests, the climate change protests are unique in that that they pose a direct challenge to commercial interests.

“I actually think the climate change protests pose a real threat to our current state’s energy source, which is fossil fuel exports,” Rice said. “Climate change pushes all those buttons.”

In October last year, Rice himself was caught in this situation while attending a student rally on climate change at the University of Sydney as a legal observer. He was pushed to the ground by the police and fined $ 1,000.

Rice says that as climate change worsens and governments are seen to be doing far too little, protesters will only become more ambitious in targeting companies they deem responsible. This in turn is likely to lead to a more aggressive response from law enforcement and political leaders who feel compelled to act.

“It’s going to skyrocket,” Rice said. “Governments are increasingly willing to use the powers at their disposal with more confidence and less discretion than before.”

Dr Kristy Campion, senior lecturer in terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University, said that while authorities – particularly in the United States – were concerned about the threat posed by “eco-terrorism” since the 1990s, it turned out to be an illusion.

“One of the things I constantly shake my head is this idea that everything is being pushed by left-wing hippies who have stepped up to the point of activism,” Campion says. “In terms of the ability for environmental concern to manifest itself in terrorist violence, well, yes there is a capacity, but it’s not from the left, it’s from the right.”

Campion says that while the more radical environmental groups limit their activity to nonviolent direct action – where property is damaged but not people – white nationalist groups already comfortable with violence are increasingly turning to violence. environmentalist language.

While this threat should be watched, Campion says the golden rule for law enforcement and governments going forward should be to ensure that any response to a perceived threat remains proportional.

“If you have someone doing sidewalk art with chalk, it manifests as a fundamentally different problem than planting a bomb in a public place,” she says. “If you don’t give people the space to disagree and protest, you will only catalyze stronger reactions against yourself. “

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