When I was a young activist, more than 20 years ago, a cry would often go up at any large protest: “Take the road!” Protestors would spill off the footpath: if we moved fast enough, at least a lane or two would generally be ours. Sometimes this was a bid to not be hemmed into a dangerously narrow space by a line of police, with cars whizzing by on the other side. Sometimes, as in the case of protests like Reclaim the Streets, taking the road was the object: by interrupting the flow of vehicular traffic, we were trying to draw attention to the fact that our built environments were damagingly car-centric.
Now the stakes are so much higher, on both sides. Not only has our environment continued to be degraded to the point where the survival of a living planet is in doubt but, for those who rightly wish to protest this state of affairs, the legal penalties are now severe. A raft of anti-protest legislation has been passed by state governments across Australia in recent years, all of it in reaction to acts of civil disobedience staged by environmental activists.
The jailing of 32-year-old Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco in December last year was a clear indication of the consequences of these new anti-protest laws. Coco was arrested on 15 April 2022 after a protest on the Sydney Harbour Bridge during which she parked a truck and stood on the road holding a flare, blocking one of five city-bound vehicle lanes.
The protest, organised by activist group Fireproof Australia, came just weeks after legislation passed in the NSW parliament that targets protestors taking action at ports, railway stations, on bridges, tunnels or “major roads”, who now face fines of up to $21,000, or two years’ jail, for actions that disrupt or obstruct traffic, including pedestrian traffic.
In early December 2022, Coco was sentenced to 15 months prison with a minimum non-parole period of eight months, and was also denied bail while she waited for an appeal of her sentence. Denial of bail was reversed on appeal, but Coco still faces the possibility of a jail term.
These NSW anti-protest laws, which were passed with the support of the state Labor opposition, were preceded in 2019 by the Palaszczuk government in Queensland banning “dangerous” lock-on devices used by protestors, despite the government failing to produce any evidence of danger or harm to the public caused by these devices.
In Victoria, in 2022, the Andrews government passed laws that target protestors campaigning against deforestation, with up to 12 months’ jail or a $21,000 fine for “hindering, obstructing or interfering with timber harvesting operations”.
For protest actions to become contingent on permission from the court, or from police, is to undermine that fundamental right entirely.
Meanwhile, in Tasmania, the Workplace Protection Bill, also passed in 2022, makes it an offence to “substantially” obstruct business activities, with jail terms of up to two years for a second offence: another bill aimed at environmental protestors trying to protect old growth forests from logging.
These legislative powers, taken separately and together, should alarm all union members and progressives – and, to their credit, unions have been among the dissenting groups to these laws. The union movement has sought and won exemptions to many of these bills for protected industrial action and strikes, but these rounds of legislation come in a context where union power itself has been stymied and the legal pathways to protected industrial action are already extremely narrow.
This raft of anti-protest laws also comes after 20-plus years of “anti-terrorist” legislation and rhetoric that has, to a significant degree, criminalised non-violent protest in Australia. It should be remembered that the COVID pandemic, too, has given governments in Australia a pretext for suppressing protest under the umbrella of public health orders: a mass protest for Black Lives Matter in Sydney during 2021, for instance, was only granted permission to proceed at the eleventh hour, by order of the NSW Supreme Court.
Young activists in general, including school students, will bear the brunt of these anti-protest laws.
The fact that democratic protest in Australia can hinge on a court order is, in itself, a cause for huge alarm. The right to protest should be – is – fundamental. For protest actions to become contingent on permission from the court, or from police, is to undermine that right entirely. Governments across the country gesture at the notion that “permitted” or “legitimate” protests are not the target of these laws, but if no protestor is permitted by law to stand on a road, or a bridge, or interrupt traffic, or obstruct a pedestrian on the footpath, or block a coal train or a bulldozer, then the question is begged: what is left of protest at all?
In this situation, it is imperative for unionists and progressives to resist the divide-and-conquer tactics of the state. Sorting protest actions and protestors into categories marked “legitimate” or “illegitimate” is a favourite tactic of governments both contemporary and historical. Such rhetoric, and the legislation that accompanies it, pits a mythical “public” against protestors, including striking workers, who are somehow not members of the same public. Nor should union members allow themselves to be complacent about the willingness of Labor politicians and governments, along with conservative ones, to suppress protest action in Australia.
Getting dragged through the courts is an exhausting, demoralising, frightening experience for any activist – and, needless to say, the justice and policing system in Australia is marred by the same biases, particularly racial, that characterise the rest of our society. This means that First Nations protestors and other activists of colour face additional risks in terms of arrest, charges, and sentencing.
Young activists in general, including school students, who continue to lead local and worldwide movements for environmental justice, will bear the brunt of these anti-protest laws, just as they face an adulthood of ecosystem crisis and collapse. It is deeply, manifestly unfair. The responsibility of unionists, particularly those of us with experience of social movements, is to both speak and act in support of those activists targeted by anti-protest laws. Standing on the road in protest should not be a crime.