Thu, 02 Feb 2023

Premier Perrottet pleased with prison punishment for protester

Independent Australia
07 Dec 2022, 16:52 GMT+10

Climate protesters such as Deanna Coco are receiving harsh punishment from lawmakers who are out of touch with real global threats, writes Wendy Bacon.

NSW PREMIER Dominic Perrottet is pleased that a Sydney magistrate gaoled protester Deanna "Violet" Coco on Friday. But he is out of step with international and Australian human rights and climate change groups and activists, who have quickly mobilised to show solidarity.

On Monday, protests were held in Sydney, Canberra and Perth calling for the release of Coco who blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for half an hour during a morning peak hour in April. She climbed onto the roof of a truck holding a flare to draw attention to the global climate emergency and Australia's lack of preparedness for bushfires. Three other members of the group Fireproof Australia, who have not been gaoled, held a banner and glued themselves to the road.

Coco pleaded guilty to seven charges, including disrupting vehicles, possessing a flare distress signal in a public place and failing to comply with police direction.

Magistrate Allison Hawkins sentenced Coco to 15 months in prison, with a non-parole period of eight months and fined her $2,500. Her lawyer, Mark Davis, has lodged an appeal which will be heard on 2 March 2023. Unusually for a non-violent offender, Hawkins refused bail pending an appeal against the sentence. Davis, who will again apply for bail in the District Court next week, said refusal of bail pending appeal was "outrageous".

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In Sydney, about a hundred protestors gathered outside NSW Parliament House and then marched to the Downing Centre Court Centre. The crowd included members of climate action groups Extinction Rebellion, Knitting Nannas and Fireproof Australia but also others who, while they might not conduct a similar protest themselves, believe in the right of others to do so.

One of the protest organisers, Knitting Nanna Marie Flood, was unable to attend due to illness. Her message called for the release of Coco and an end to the criminalisation and intimidation of climate activists.

It was read by another Knitting Nanna, Eurydice Aroney:

Protesters holding signs at a rally to free Deanna "Violet" Coco (Photo: Zebedee Parkes)

The message ended with a call to all climate activists:

The Knitting Nannas have launched a challenge to the validity of the protest laws through the Environmental Defenders' Office.

One of those attending the protest was Josh Pallas, President of NSW Council for Civil Liberties. Civil Liberties has been defending the right to protest in NSW for more than half a century.

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In a media release, he said:

Deputy Lord Mayor and Greens Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore told the crowd that they had the support of the City of Sydney which recently passed a unanimous motion calling for the repeal of the NSW Government's draconian anti-protest laws:

Amnesty International voices support for democracy

Amnesty International spokesperson Veronica Koman emphasised how important it was to see the defence of democratic rights from a regional perspective. She said that Amnesty is concerned that severe repression of pro-independence activists in West Papua was spreading across to other parts of Indonesia. She fears the same pattern of increasing repression taking hold in NSW.

Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill, who has won many awards for her journalism, was another person who was quick to respond.

'Outrageous. Climate activist who blocked traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge gaoled for at least eight months,' she tweeted on Friday. Since then, she has followed the issue closely, criticising the ABC for failing to quote a human rights source in its coverage of the court case and speaking at a protest in Perth on Monday.

On Tuesday, she posted this tweet with a short campaigning #FreeVioletCoco video that has already attracted nearly 13,000 views:

If you are reading this, you will know I am in prison

In gaoling Coco, Magistrate Hawkins went out of her way to diminish and delegitimise her protest. She described it as a "childish stunt" that let an "entire city suffer" through her "selfish emotional action".

Coco has been involved with climate change protests for more than four years and has been arrested in several other protests. On one occasion, she set light to an empty pram outside Parliament House. Rather than fight on technicalities, she chose to plead guilty, knowing that if the magistrate was hostile, she could be taken into custody at the end of Friday's hearing. Several steps ahead of her critics, she made a video and wrote a long piece to be published if she went to prison.

The piece begins:

Protesters making a stand against anti-protest laws (Photo: Zebedee Parkes)

She describes how her understanding of the facts of climate science and the inadequacy of the current response led her to decide to give up her studies and devote herself to actions that would draw attention to the climate emergency:

She describes how she has already been forced to comply with onerous bail conditions:

Premier Perrottet says he does not object to protest so long as it does not interfere with "our way of life". If it does, individuals should have the "book thrown at them". His "way of life" is one in which commuters are never held up in traffic by a protest while endlessly sitting in traffic because of governments' poor transport planning. A way of life in which it is fine for governments to take years to house people whose lives are destroyed by fires and floods induced by climate change, to allow people to risk death from heat because they cannot afford air conditioners, open more coal and gas operations that will increase carbon emissions and turn a blind eye to millions of climate refugees in the Asia Pacific region.

It involves only protesting when you have permission and in tightly policed zones where passers-by ignore you.

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Labor still backs anti-protest laws

NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns also says he has no regrets for supporting the laws which he says were necessary to stop multiple protests. But laws don't target multiple actions, they target individuals. He has not raised his voice to condemn police harassment of individual activists even before they protest and bail conditions that breach democratic rights to freedom of assembly. There was no visible Labor presence at Sydney's rally.

Perrottet and Minns may be making Right-wing shock jocks happy but they are out of line with international principles of human rights. They also fail to acknowledge that many of Australia's most famous protest movements around land rights, apartheid, green bans, women's rights, prison reform and environment often involved actions that would have led to arrest under current anti-protest laws.

They display ignorance of traditions of civil disobedience.

As UNSW Professor Luke McNamara told SBS News:

He believes disruption and protest need to go hand-in-hand in order to result in tangible change:

This article originally appeared on City Hub Sydney and has been republished with permission.

Wendy Bacon was previously a Professor of Journalism at UTS. She joined the protest. You can follow Wendy on Twitter @Wendy_Bacon.

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