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The police crackdown on Blockade Australia

Journalist Wendy Bacon on the ways police are targeting protestors before they’ve even begun to protest.
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Last week, environmental activists Blockade Australia shut down traffic in Sydney, causing hours of chaos in the city.

But it was the police response to the blockade that could have the longest legacy, with Human Rights Watch calling the police crackdown and the use of new anti-protest laws “an alarming new trend”.

So what did the police do to crackdown on these protestors and what do their actions tell us about the new era of anti-protest laws?

Today, journalist Wendy Bacon on the ways police are targeting protestors before they’ve even begun to protest. 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: Journalist Wendy Bacon.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.

Last week, environmental activists Blockade Australia shut down traffic in Sydney, causing hours of chaos in the city.

But it was the police response to the blockade that could have the longest legacy, with Human Rights Watch calling the police crackdown and the use of new anti-protest laws “an alarming new trend”. 

So what did the police do to crackdown on these protestors and what do their actions tell us about the new era of anti-protest laws?

Today, journalist Wendy Bacon, on the ways police are targeting protestors, before they’ve even begun to protest. 

It’s Tuesday, July 5.

[Theme Music Ends]

##RUBY:
So Wendy, last week we protesters in Sydney blocking traffic across the harbour and also in the CBD. Would you be able to just describe to me what it is that that happened after they did that?

##Wendy:
Yeah, it began on Monday morning last week when a fairly big group of people met and entered the road leading up to the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. 

##Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“Good morning. Climate protesters briefly forced the closure of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel this morning and tried to block key intersections in the city as they marched through Sydney's CBD.”
 

##Archival tape -- Protestors:
“What do we want? Climate Justice. When do we want it? Now!”

 

##Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“One major issue they caused was blocking the Harbour Tunnel. Rather, it was closed while the white car blocked the southbound lanes. The woman had put a bicycle lock around her neck and attached herself to the steering wheel.”

##Wendy:
And then a young woman, Mali Cooper, took her car down towards the tunnel and turned it so that the traffic could not go through. And that was really the starting point of a couple of days of this sort of activity. 

##Archival tape -- Mali:
“Hi, My name is Mali, I’m 22, I'm currently locked on to a car at the start of the Sydney harbour tunnel.”

##Wendy:
She was in the car for quite a period and turned on her Face Time video. 

##Archival tape -- Mali:
“It's been a pretty full on year. I was in Lismore, I was lucky, but I was in Lismore for both of the major floods. I’ve seen a lot of devastation happen. I’ve seen people that I love lose everything.”

##Wendy:
And so she very clearly explained her motivation, her feeling about the climate crisis. 

##Archival tape -- Mali:
“I don't want to have to be here, it is for all of us. And Some people may not understand that, and I sympathise with that, I do, I get it…”

##Archival tape -- Unknown person:
“You fucking selfish piece of shit!”

##Archival tape -- Mali:
“I will not be silent, I will not sit by anymore anymore.“

##Wendy:
After she'd been talking for a few minutes, the police arrived and asked her for her ID, which she was then handing over. 

##Archival tape -- Police:
“Can you get out of the car for us, thanks?..you need to hop out of the car.”

##Wendy:
And at that point the screen went black.

And she was arrested. 

##Archival tape -- Police:
“Put your hands on the dashboard and stay like that…”

##Wendy:
So then on the Tuesday morning, a group gathered in Hyde Park and at a certain point they took off in towards William Street and a lot of police arrived, possibly hundreds overall and then were pushing people back onto the pavement and arresting people. That was all over fairly quickly. 

##RUBY:
And can you tell me a little bit more about the police response that we saw, the crackdown on the protesters? How did police and other authorities handle this? 

##Wendy:
I think in some ways, I mean, there was the usual shoving. The police were obviously heavily armed. People were pushed to the ground. But I would say the real strength of the police was happening behind the scenes.

##RUBY:
Right, I want to talk about what is happening behind the scenes in a moment, Wendy. But first, I want to understand who exactly these protesters are - and where this particular movement started? It sounds like for at least some of these protestors there is a connection to the flooding, earlier this year? 

##Wendy:
Look, they haven't been around for very long. As far as I know, the first anyone heard of them was earlier this year in Sydney in March, and that was after the devastating floods in the Northern Rivers and of course a year or so after the terrible bushfires that just spread along the coast. So that was the context in which they emerged. 

What they’re really … they’re using disruption to stop further disruption, if you like. And I think that's very much at the nub of it.

Now, their approach is to say we are in an absolute existential, as some people have called it, climate crisis. We cannot go on as business as usual. The current policies are not enough to make a difference. So they feel they have an obligation as citizens and human beings to take action that will attract attention to the crisis and turn it around. 

##RUBY:
Right, and since Blockade Australia began using these kind of disruptive protest tactics, beginning back in March, how have authorities responded?

##Wendy:
Well, I think what happened is after their initial protests, which were, things like, a couple of people peacefully locked on to a bridge approaching Port Botany caused a lot of disruption and in the traffic down there. Now in response to that, that initial action, the New South Wales Government passed some very draconian new protest laws and set up Strike Force Guard, a police unit which I'll come back to. But these protest laws, you can go to prison for up to two years. You could be fined up to $22,000. If you disrupt a wide range of infrastructure.

So they've turned protest offences that once might have been the sort of thing someone will get arrested, then they go into court and get a fine and then you know, they go on, they've got it on their record to something that's potentially very serious and could end up someone imprisoned for months, even years. 

So that was the main response, that obviously that was very controversial and a large number of human rights and environmental rights, legal centres campaigned, made statements, wrote letters. And both the Greens and the Animal Justice Party and a couple of independents did try to block those laws. But because New South Wales Labor supported them, they could not be stopped. And so they came into law. So by the time this protest campaign was underway, those laws were waiting and ready to be used by the police.

##RUBY:
Mmm so can you tell me more about how police have used the laws then - how are they interpreting them? 

##Wendy:
Well, I think you really have to look at the law and the arrests, and we won't actually know whether people will be convicted. There will be defences. So the law and the arrests is one thing.

But at the same time, and I think this is the most significant thing, they set up this Strike Force Guard that has been carrying out surveillance. 

And the actual purpose of that group is not to enforce the law and arrest people during protests. 

It's actually to disrupt the planning of protests, to actually stop them happening. 

##RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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##RUBY:
Wendy, can you tell me a bit more about how police are intersecting with groups like Blockade Australia, even before we get to the point of the protests? How are they trying to stop them from happening? 

##Wendy:
Well, I think the best example of that is now two or so weeks ago, there's a property on the outskirts of Sydney - flood affected - near the Colo river and the owner of said allowed up to 40 or so people to camp on that site. 

They were doing the sort of thing that is quite common actually is non non-violent protest training. And you know planning the protests. Yes. 

I spoke to one of the people who was at the camp. 

 

That's a guy, he's a trained horticulturist, Nicholas Weaver. 

 

So one person, discovered in the bush a man in camouflage carrying a pistol. This was very alarming. They had no idea who he was. And they asked him what he was doing, but he wouldn't identify himself. And then fairly quickly, a woman also in camouflage stood up. And again, they wouldn't identify themselves.

 

Some people interfered with these people's attempts to leave the property in a car.
 

So then very, very shortly after that, a massive number of police arrived. Up to 20 vehicles, large vehicles, small vehicles, various police from very heavily armed squads descend on the place.

And then they declared it a crime scene, which meant no one could leave for 6 hours and they took away a huge amount of material. 

Now, Nicholas was then taken into custody. Now, he didn't get out of custody for a couple of days. 

Again, one of the things, he ended up in a small prison and from there he was given bail and a woman just happened by coincidence. I actually know this woman and I know how unfair this was. She offered for Nicholas to stay at her house. So he was expecting to be bailed out, but then they decided to because she shared the same venues as he did. She wasn’t appropriate. Well, that eventually got all fixed up and he was bailed out the following day. 

##RUBY:
Right. 

##Wendy:
If you like, I think that you could say they're using bail as a form of arbitrary punishment.

##RUBY:
And so what do you think that the police intention is here with an operation like this?

##Wendy:
I think their intention is to stop it even happening, not to deal with the impacts of it happening. And one of the ways I think they're doing that is through the when they do the arrest, through the bail laws. And actually the bail laws are meant to be about getting people to turn up to court. But in this case, it's very clearly a form of punishment.

So the impact for Nicholas, is that he had come from Victoria. Absolutely, with the intention of protesting, quite possibly getting arrested. And I think, you know, people when they make that sort of decision, they know they're responsible for their decisions. But what he didn't expect was to be arrested at a peaceful camp and never he was never even able to attend the protest because he now is not allowed to enter Sydney and he's not allowed to contact any of the people that he was previously connected with in the protest movement at all.

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. And I suppose there is a bigger question here, Wendy, about proportionality, whether the threat that these protesters pose is equivalent to the police response or whether there is overreach happening here. 

##Wendy:
Yes, some people are going to make this choice. And, a significant number of the 21 arrested in the protests are younger women. Do we want to completely smash and intimidate these people for standing up for what they believe in? 

And, you know, they're not arguing that other people should not take other actions, like trying to get the best policies or trying to reduce emissions by other means. But they are saying that this is really urgent. Now, if it is really urgent, perhaps it's appropriate that we actually do disrupt. 

But in terms of whether this is overreach, I think as these cases go through the courts and are raised in public debate, what is going to be challenged is not only whether it's an overreach, but whether these tactics of surveillance, tracking people, searching people as they're walking along the street, smashing a camp, are actually legal and our legal system. It may be that the right to assembly is part of, under the Constitution, the implied right to political communication.

So it may well be that not only is it police sort of overreach in a if you like, in a moral sense, but it may well be overreach in a legal sense. 

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. Wendy, thank you so much for your time.

##Wendy:
Thank you very much.

##RUBY:
Charges were brought against seven activists after the Colo river raid, including Nicholas Weaver, who was charged with five offences, including assault, intimidating police and affray.

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[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today, 

Dozens of evacuation orders are in place across Sydney and NSW as heavy rain continues to fall across the state.

The Hawkesbury, Nepean and Colo rivers overflowed on Sunday night and on Monday prompting mass evacuations and hundreds of requests for emergency assistance. 

While the rain is set to ease today, the New South Wales Emergency Services Commissioner  warned residents to stay vigilant. 

And the federal government has released data revealing Australia’s mining and energy exports are expected to reach a record high totalling over $400 billion dollars. The trade data showed that Australian export earnings had increased by 26 percent in the past financial year. 

 

Earnings from coal and liquefied natural gas – the nation’s second and third-largest exports – have both more than doubled in the past 12 months.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends

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