We have been following the patterns of police behaviour and repressive legislation for nearly two decades, and for the most recent ten years I have been monitoring police all over the country – how they operate, the laws that they use, or mis-use, and trends that are happening across the continent, such as continued militarisation of the police force.
On Sunday 19th of June, things changed, and things stepped up a notch. People connected to Blockade Australia were gathering at a private property outside of Sydney and were raided after police botched a (potentially unlawful) surveillance operation. The story is outlined here – well, the start of the story – we keep thinking it can’t get worse and it does, so we will be writing more.
However in response, Human Rights Law Centre took the lead, with a few of us collaborating and we secured more than 40 organisations showing support for the human rights of Blockade Australia and the need for peaceful protest to be recognised as legitimate. See below. In addition there were several groups that wanted to express their support who didn’t make the deadline – Extinction Rebellion Australia, Conservation Council WA, Wage Piece
Civil society groups warn against police overreach in NSW climate defenders raid
Forty civil society organisations have expressed alarm at reports of police overreach in preemptive policing of protest, with NSW police conducting covert surveillance and a raid on climate activists north of Sydney on Sunday.
Police had been covertly surveilling a private property where individuals linked to Blockade Australia were camped. Blockade Australia has been behind an effort of resistance to pressure Australian governments to take stronger action on the climate crisis. Serious concerns have been raised regarding the legal basis of the surveillance, the reported failure of police conducting surveillance to identify themselves, and reports of injuries sustained by activists from an encounter with an unmarked police car.
Following this, a raid was reportedly conducted with about 100 police officers, many of them armed, and Blockade Australia members told media that a dog squad, riot police and helicopters were also present. About 40 individuals were detained during the raid, eight individuals were charged with offences (including for conspiracy to obstruct a road under new anti-protest laws) and two remain in detention.
The extensive covert surveillance and pre-emptive policing sets a disturbing precedent for protest rights. The raid also continues a troubling trend in the state of disproportionate crack-downs on the right to protest. In March, NSW Parliament passed the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022, draconian new anti-protest laws which threaten everyone from people marching for gender equality to anti-war protestors with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine.
Where previous legislation in NSW covered disruption on major bridges or tunnels, the expanded offence covers roads, train stations, ports and public and private infrastructure, and has been widely condemned.
These new laws are part of a concerning trend nationwide of bipartisan support for regressive legislation that further criminalises peaceful community activists. This week alone, there has been significant community push back against anti-protest laws before the Victorian and Tasmanian parliaments.
The groups call on NSW police to act responsibly, with integrity and respect for human rights in response to protests in the coming weeks.
David Morris, CEO of Environmental Defenders Office, said:
“The trend that we are seeing around Australia towards the criminalisation of peaceful protest has far reaching and damaging implications for our democracy and linked positive environmental outcomes.
“Legislation which unjustly restricts people’s freedoms to express dissent ought to be wound back. Heavy penalties and greater restrictions on peaceful protest included in recent reforms are not a proportionate response to non-violent citizen action which draws attention to the climate crisis or other kinds of environmental damage.”
Alice Drury, Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said:
“Sending in 100 armed police officers to threaten and intimidate people planning a peaceful protest is alarming and disproportionate. NSW police and politicians should commit to protecting protest for the health of our democracy.
“These protesters are responding to the seriousness of the climate crisis, which we know is causing devastation for people and our planet. On major issues like this, governments should expect people to continue to come together to voice their concern and demand action. Politicians should resist the knee-jerk response of criminalising protests because it’s frustrating or disruptive.”
Lucy Manne, CEO of 350.org Australia, said:
“Until fossil fuel companies are held to account for the damage they are causing, peaceful protest will only grow. It’s appalling to see this police overreach attempting to silence those who are seeking to exercise their democratic right to protest in order to protect their communities from the harm caused by the climate crisis.”
Stephen Blanks, spokesperson for NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said:
“The reported policing over the weekend at Colo Valley appears to be heavy-handed and is cause for concern.
“NSWCCL has expressed concerns about increasingly harsh and disproportionate laws and actions taken against political protesters in recent years, and supports victims of such laws and actions. The legal right to peaceful protest is fundamental to our democracy. Protests hold governments to account and make our country better. The police need to take extra care to assure the community that their actions are justifiable.”
Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney Branch Secretary Paul Keating, said:
“The very reasons communities and the trade union have opposed these anti-protest laws is for the very reasons like what occurred on the weekend with these raids. This isn’t just over-reach, this is the anti-democratic nature of the law that creates space for such overreach and infringes on our democratic rights that so many community groups and organisations and the trade union movement in NSW has voiced its outrage about.
“All affiliates of Unions NSW in April through a meeting of the Unions NSW executive unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning these anti-protest laws and demanding that they be revoked. We are seeing now the power of a police state that allows for the police without any accountability to reach into the rights of the people to protest against governments. The MUA will not stand by, we will mobilise to defend our communities, to defend the rights of the people to protest.”
Amnesty International Australia Campaigner Nikita White said.
“There has been a disturbing trend towards clamping down on peaceful protest and civil disobedience in NSW, particularly during the pandemic and we are very concerned about the allegations made about the conduct of police during the raid on Blockade Australia.
“Peaceful protests are a fundamental aspect of a vibrant society, and as recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, states should recognise and respect the positive role of peaceful protests as a means to strengthen human rights.”
Justice and Peace Office, Sydney ArchDiocese, Julie Macken said:
“We’re on a slippery slope as a nation when people come together to share their ideas and concerns about the climate crisis and are put under armed surveillance and risk arrest, for merely discussing ideas.
“The climate movement has been characterised by nonviolent action for twenty years. This escalation of state surveillance and intervention is unwarranted and every citizen should be concerned at this dangerous development.”
- 350.org Australia
- Amnesty International Australia
- Australian Youth Climate Coalition
- Climate Action Network Australia
- Human Rights Law Centre
- Climate Justice Union
- Greenpeace Australia Pacific
- New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties
- Australian Democracy Network
- Sydney ArchDiocese, Justice and Peace Office
- Maritime Union of Australia
- Mackay Action Group
- Reef Action Whitsundays
- Legal Observers NSW
- Environment Victoria
- Environmental Defenders Office
- Knitting Nanas Hunter Loop
- South East Forest Rescue
- Frontline Action on Coal
- Australian Anti bases Campaign Coalition
- Redfern Legal Centre
- Bob Brown Foundation
- Forest Conservation Victoria
- WACA (Whistleblowers, Activists and Communities Alliance)
- Friends of the Earth Australia
- World Animal Protection
- Galilee Rising
- Melbourne Activist Legal Support
- ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change)
- Grata Fund
- National Justice Project
- Yingura Womens Trust
- Environment East Gippsland
- Lismore Environment Centre
- Community Legal Centres NSW
- Hope for Nauru
- Nature Conservation Council of NSW
- Goongerah Environment Centre – GECO
- The Sunrise Project