Australian climate campaigner Deanna ‘Violet’ CoCo found herself facing a 15-month prison sentence after she and three other activists drove a truck onto Sydney Harbour Bridge last April and blocked one of its lanes during the morning rush hour.
The group lit orange flares and livestreamed their protest leading to gridlock 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, passed only days before in response to similar previous protests and created new criminal penalties for any damage or disruption to major roads.
CoCo, who told Al Jazeera she staged the protest to highlight “climate breakdown”, was initially found guilty and given a 15-month jail term (the law allows a maximum of two years). But after the 32-year-old appealed, the verdict was overturned.
A police report claiming the protest had obstructed an ambulance was found to have been falsified.
“[New South Wales police] went to quite a lot of detail to stress this ambulance had been blocked,” CoCo told Al Jazeera.
“It wasn’t just in the fact sheet that there may have been an ambulance. There was a whole sentence describing this ambulance that had lights and sirens on. It was a huge aggravating factor in not just my sentencing, but my intense bail conditions.”
Along with three days in a cell on remand, CoCo was placed under 24-hour curfew for 20 days, with a further 126 days of restricted movement. District Court Judge Mark Williams, who overturned the sentence, described her bail conditions as ‘quasi-custody.’
Australia is not the only liberal democracy where civil liberties and other political freedoms are under threat from ever more draconian laws introduced by governments that have struggled to deal with new forms of protests.
Pioneered by groups like Extinction Rebellion, small groups of protesters have taken increasingly radical approaches to draw attention to their causes — from blocking roads like CoCo did, to sit-downs and defacing artworks.
CoCo says part of her protest was to challenge the state-based legislation, which had been passed in New South Wales just four days before she drove onto the Harbour Bridge.
“Many Australians didn’t know that these laws had been brought into effect. And so as much as this protest was about climate and climate breakdown, it was very much also about exposing these laws and challenging them.”
Power of protest
Like other Western democracies, Australia has a long history of peaceful, civil protest, which has often led to social and political change.
In the late 1800s, women held protests to demand the right to vote, while public action against the Vietnam War attracted thousands of people in the late 1960s.
More recently, Australia’s Indigenous communities have used the power of protest to raise the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, attracting tens of thousands of people every year. Climate change action — including public disruption and protests at mining and logging sites — has also continued.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, however, insists draconian laws are necessary for the authorities to cope with the new types of protest.
“There’s no place in our state for that type of behaviour,” he told reporters after the court overturned Coco’s jail term. “If you want to protest in NSW, you’re free to protest. But when you protest, you do not inconvenience people across NSW.”
Critics say the laws are not really about protecting residents from “inconvenience” but protecting state governments’ close economic ties with extractive industries, such as mining, logging and coal seam gas. The states of Queensland and Tasmania have also toughened laws on protest.
The Australia Institute — a public policy think tank — released a report in 2021 demonstrating that state and federal governments provided 10.3 billion Australian dollars ($6.9bn) in subsidies to major fossil fuel users, the equivalent of nearly 20,000 Australian dollars ($13,405) per minute.
“Coal, oil and gas companies in Australia give the impression that they are major contributors to the Australian economy, but our research shows that they are major recipients of government funds,” said Rod Campbell, research director at The Australia Institute.
“From a climate perspective this is inexcusable 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 they’re protecting through these anti-protest scores, the logging industry, the mining industry, the fossil fuels industries.”
“We have seen them, literally passing the laws that those industries want,” he said.
Shoebridge plans to introduce a bill at the federal level which will protect the right to protest and rebalance state-introduced legislation — such as the New South Wales law which saw CoCo arrested — around protest.
“Those are laws that have gone well beyond the traditional legal sanctions for people engaging in disruptive but not violent protest,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The hope is that at a federal level, there’s more political distance from those industries. That’s why we’re progressing with drafting a proposed bill to protect the right of protest.”
The crackdown on protests in Australia mirrors similar moves in countries such as the United Kingdom, where a bill was introduced at the end of 2022 to make ‘locking on’ style protests a criminal offence, and another introduced to restrict strike action.
The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks the democratic and civic health of countries across the world, recently downgraded the UK’s status to ‘obstructed’, placing it alongside countries including Hungary and South Africa.
“The government’s interference with protests and negative attitudes towards civil society have serious and troubling implications for its liberal democracy standards and human rights norms,” it said, adding that the government was increasingly hostile towards those speaking out against its policies in areas such as climate change and refugees.
The rights group also downgraded Australia to ‘narrowed’, citing “a deterioration in fundamental freedoms due to concerns around freedom of the press, the targeting of whistle-blowers, anti-protest laws and increased 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 extremely quickly in parliament”.
“I think this is not coincidental,” he said. “I think it’s because the climate change movement has stepped up. And as a response, the anti-protest legislation has stepped up as well.”
He said that threats of prison time and hefty fines were implemented as a deterrent to protest.
“The goal is to deter because they don’t want people to protest,” he said. “There is a deep danger that many human rights and civil society organisations are highlighting that these will eventually undermine the right to protest altogether.”
CoCo’s appeal against her conviction also raised questions about the police handling of such cases.
Police had originally asserted that the protest had presented an “imposition to a critical emergency service [which had] the potential to result in fatality,” while the sentencing magistrate had stressed the fact that the protesters had “halted an ambulance under lights and siren” as part of the justification for imposing a more severe sentence.
At the appeal, however, the presiding magistrate noted that the police had falsified the facts and that there had been no ambulance.
CoCo was given a 12-month conditional release which she described as “basically a good behaviour bond”. While the conditions of her release do not prevent her from engaging in ‘lawful’ protest, she would breach the conditions with an action such as blocking the Harbour Bridge — an illegal act under the new legislation.
While the New South Wales Police Force would not comment on the specifics of the case, they told Al Jazeera that they recognised and supported “the rights of individuals and groups to exercise their rights of free speech and lawful assembly in a safe environment”. The force added that it had facilitated “hundreds of lawful protests every year” and would continue to do so.
“That includes working with protest organisers and community groups before — and during — protests to ensure their right to protest in a lawful and peaceful manner is met, and public safety is maintained with minimal danger or disruption to the wider community.”
Certainly, the new laws have not deterred Coco.
She says the issue of ‘climate breakdown’ was simply too big to be ignored.
“They can sentence me to 1,000 years in prison, and that will not be more terrifying than thinking about every single person that I love facing climate breakdown,” she said.