Australian climate activist Deanna ‘Violet’ CoCo faced a 15-month prison sentence after she and three other activists drove a truck onto Sydney Harbor Bridge and blocked one of its lanes during the morning rush hour last April.
The group lit orange flares and livestreamed their protest that led to a standoff in Australia’s largest city. After about 25 minutes, the police arrived and arrested them.
CoCo and her fellow activists were charged under the Roads and Crimes Amendment Act, which had been passed just days earlier in response to similar earlier protests and introduced new criminal penalties for damage to or disruption of major roads.
CoCo, who told Al Jazeera she organized the protest to highlight the “climate crisis,” was initially found guilty and given a 15-month prison sentence (the law allows for a maximum of two years). But after the 32-year-old appealed, the verdict was overturned.
A police report alleging that the protest had obstructed an ambulance was found to have been forged.
“(New South Wales Police) went into great detail to emphasize that this ambulance was blocked,” CoCo told Al Jazeera.
“It wasn’t just in the fact sheet that an ambulance might have been there. There was a whole sentence describing this ambulance with flashing lights and sirens. It was a huge aggravating factor, not only for my conviction, but also for my intense bail conditions.
Along with three days in pretrial detention, CoCo was placed under a 24-hour curfew for 20 days, with an additional 126 days of restricted movement. District Court Judge Mark Williams, who overturned the verdict, described her bail conditions as “quasi-custody.”
Australia is not the only liberal democracy where civil liberties and other political freedoms are under increasing threat draconian laws introduced by governments that have struggled to deal with new forms of protest.
Pioneered by groups like Extinction Rebellion, small groups of protesters have taken increasingly radical approaches to draw attention to their causes — from blocking roads as CoCo did, to sit-downs and defacement of artwork.
CoCo says part of her protest was to challenge state-based legislation passed in New South Wales just four days before she crossed the Harbor Bridge.
“Many Australians were unaware that these laws had come into effect. And as much as this protest was about climate and climate degradation, it was also very much about exposing and challenging these laws.”
Power of protest
Like other Western democracies, Australia has a long history of peaceful civil protest, often leading to social and political change.
In the late 1800s, women staged protests to demand the right to vote, while public action against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s attracted thousands.
More recently, Australia’s Indigenous communities have used the power of protest to raise the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, which attracts tens of thousands of people each year. Climate change actions, including public disturbances and protests at mining and logging sites, have also continued.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, however, insists that draconian laws are needed for authorities to deal with the new forms of protest.
“There is no place for that kind of behavior in our state,” he told reporters after the court overturned Coco’s jail sentence. “If you want to protest in NSW, you are free to protest. But if you protest, you won’t be a nuisance to people all over NSW.
Critics say the laws are not really aimed at protecting residents from “inconvenience,” but at protecting state governments’ close economic ties to extractive industries, such as mining, logging and coal gas. The states of Queensland and Tasmania have also tightened protest laws.
The Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, has a report in 2021, showing that state and federal governments have provided AUD10.3 billion ($6.9 billion) in subsidies to major fossil fuel users, the equivalent of nearly AUD20,000 ($13,405) per minute.
“Coal, oil and gas companies in Australia may appear to be major contributors to the Australian economy, but our research shows that they are major recipients of government funding,” said Rod Campbell, research director at The Australia Institute.
“From a climate perspective this is unforgivable and from an economic perspective it is irresponsible.”
Greens Senator David Shoebridge told Al Jazeera that “state governments are so close to the extractive industries that through these anti-protest scores they are protecting the logging industry, the mining industry and the fossil fuel industry.”
“We’ve seen them literally pass the laws that these industries want,” he said.
Shoebridge plans to introduce a bill at the federal level that will protect the right to protest and rebalance state legislation — such as the New South Wales law that arrested CoCo — around protest.
“These are laws that go far beyond traditional legal sanctions for people who engage in disruptive but non-violent protest,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The hope is that there is more political distance to those industries at the federal level. That is why we are making progress in drafting a bill to protect the right to protest.”
The crackdown on protests in Australia mirrors similar moves in countries such as the United Kingdom, where a bill was introduced in late 2022 to criminalize ‘locking on’-style protests and another to restrict strike action.
The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks the democratic and social health of countries around the world, recently downgraded the UK’s status to ‘impeded’, alongside countries like Hungary and South Africa.
“The government’s involvement in protests and negative attitudes towards civil society have serious and troubling consequences for its standards of liberal democracy and human rights,” it said, adding that the government was increasingly hostile to those who spoke out against its policies in areas such as change and refugees.
The rights group also relegated Australia to ‘narrowed’, citing “a deterioration in fundamental freedoms due to press freedom concerns, attacking whistleblowers, anti-protest laws and heightened surveillance”.
Piero Moraro, a criminologist at Edith Cowan University, told Al Jazeera that the rapid erosion of civil liberties was concerning.
He told Al Jazeera that Australia’s anti-protest laws were “passed in parliament extremely quickly”.
“I don’t think this is a coincidence,” he said. “I think it’s because the climate change movement has ramped up. And in response to this, anti-protest legislation has also been tightened.”
He said threats of jail time and hefty fines were introduced as a deterrent to protests.
“The goal is to deter, because they don’t want people to protest,” he said. “There is a great danger that many human rights and civil society organizations emphasize that they will ultimately completely undermine the right to demonstrate.”
CoCo’s appeal against her conviction also raised questions about the police’s handling of such cases.
Police had originally claimed that the protest had presented an “imposition of a critical emergency service (which) had the potential to be deadly”, while the sentencing magistrate had emphasized that the protesters had “stopped an ambulance under lights and siren” as part of the justification for imposing a more severe penalty.
At the appeal, however, the chairman found that the police had falsified the facts and that there had been no ambulance.
CoCo was given a 12-month parole which she described as “essentially a good behavioral bond”. While the terms of her release do not prevent her from protesting “legally,” she would be violating the terms with an action such as blocking the Harbor Bridge – an illegal act under the new law.
While New South Wales Police would not comment on details of the case, they told Al Jazeera they recognized “the rights of individuals and groups to exercise their right to free expression and lawful assembly in a safe environment” and supported. The force added that it had facilitated “hundreds of lawful protests each year” and would continue to do so.
“That includes working with protest organizers and community groups before – and during – protests to ensure that their right to protest in a lawful and peaceful manner is met, and that public safety is maintained with minimal danger or disruption to the wider community. community.”
The new laws certainly haven’t deterred Coco.
She says the problem of the “climate crisis” was simply too big to ignore.
“They could sentence me to 1,000 years in prison, and that won’t be more terrifying than thinking of every person I love facing a climate crisis,” she said.