Violet Coco has put herself on the line in taking protest actions aimed at saving the planet from climate collapse. And in having been arrested on numerous occasions over the last few years, the ardent climate defender has shown determination to forge social change via civil disobedience.
But it would seem that NSW authorities underestimated the support she and the campaign to take viable action on climate has in the community when the judiciary sentenced her to 15 months prison over a peaceful but disruptive direct action that blocked a single lane of the Harbour Bridge in April.
Indeed, when NSW premier Dominic Perrottet appeared on the television stating that her punishment was “not excessive” but rather “pleasing to see”, it was clear that the government’s authoritarian stance aimed at protecting fossil fuel profits above all else had crept a little too far.
So, when Coco returned to court on 13 December to appeal the decision to deny her bail, a huge crowd gathered out front of the Downing Centre, which represented a variety of civil society groups standing together in solidarity with Violet and in opposition to the state’s new anti-protest regime.
Galvanising a movement
Towards the end of last year, scientific evaluations had the planet reaching 1.5°C heating by 2030 and humanity being on course to push the temperature to a 2.4°C rise on preindustrial levels, which was leading to a distinct uptick in climate protest that bent the law in a nonharmful manner.
And by March this year, Fireproof Australia was disrupting major roads in Greater Sydney, while Blockade Australia shut down Port Botany for five days straight. And it was at this point that the NSW Liberal Nationals government rolled out a draconian anti-protest regime in response.
First spruiked on 2GB radio by the NSW roads minister and shock jock Ben Fordham, the new anti-protest laws were jammed through in early April, so that those carrying out actions that block roads, tunnels, bridges or major facilities now face up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a $22,000 fine.
So, when Coco and fellow Fireproof Australia activists blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes on 13 April, she and three others who’d participated in what amounts to a bit of guerrilla theatre were charged under these laws that carry disproportionately severe penalties.
For the love of planet
Coco has been released on bail as she awaits the March appeal of her sentence, which requires her to spend at least 8 months inside.
This punishment was meted out after extreme bail conditions saw her under house arrest, which involved 24 hours confinement for 24 days, followed by another 102 days where she was permitted to leave her home for less than 5 hours a day.
The activist’s arrest in April marked the 28th time she’s been taken into custody for protesting. And while she’s the most prominent figure, Violet is hardly alone in taking such drastic measures. And this is only set to escalate as the extreme weather events appear more frequently and more brutally.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Violet Coco about her desire to stay out of gaol, the state of the climate crisis at present, and how she considers the attempt to silence those drawing attention to the mounting crisis is only set to fail.
Violet, you’ve just spent 11 nights in Silverwater Correctional Centre. This is not the first time you’ve spent time in custody in relation to nonviolent climate actions, but it’s the longest stretch you’ve served.
What was prison like? And how do you consider the prospect of having to spend more time in there?
Prison is an awful place, and it’s so heartbreaking to see how much the system fails the people who are in there, treating them in a subhuman way.
I very much hope not to be spending any more time in prison. But what I hope for more is to see climate action.
Your imprisonment sparked widespread grassroots support. And this seems to have galvanised the climate movement, as different groups came together to unite in the call for your release, for the right to protest to be restored and for action to be taken on climate.
What are your thoughts on this outcome?
I’m so grateful for the support of so many people to make sure that I am home for Christmas.
And it’s really heartening and hopeful to think of the environmental protection movement working together because that can only be a good sign for our planet.
In a similar manner to your imprisonment, the new anti-protest regime appears to be driving a broader based movement.
I spoke to an anti-logging campaigner in Victoria this week, who said the same thing is happening there in relation to the Andrews government’s new protest regime.
What are your thoughts on these laws and the prospect that they’re strengthening the movement?
Throughout history, the conversation around the right to protest has always come alongside people protesting great injustices.
So, it’s not surprising that this conversation is having to be had at the same time that we are having to make a lot of noise regarding the habitability of our planet being at stake.
The threat that these laws pose in making people too afraid to protest is scary. But what we’re seeing is that people are being emboldened to fight for their rights, which is really heartening.
Your crime and punishment have served to draw attention to the climate crisis, but a lot of the discussion at present is around the laws and the sentencing rather than the broader issue.
How would you describe the state of the planet at present?
I tend to rely on the science, which is we’re reaching the endgame, and if we do not act on the climate and ecological emergency immediately, we are going to see hell on Earth conditions. And that really terrifies me.
These anti-protest laws are like taking out your smoke alarm when you have a fire instead of using a hose.
When you speak about the climate crisis, you speak with immediacy. Can you elaborate on how immediate we’re talking?
We have people like Sir David King, who two years ago said we have three to four years to change the trajectory of our current system, or we face the collapse of our liveable planet.
So, in reality, it is already too late for a lot of people, like the people in Lismore or those who suffered the fires, but there is a still a chance to change the trajectory and save a lot more.
We need to be acting urgently. Our government has known about the climate and ecological emergency for decades, and if we had acted on it when we first realised the threat that is being faced, then we would have had a much smoother and easier transition.
But because they have not acted upon it and they’ve failed us deeply, we now need to have an emergency speed transition.
We cannot move fast enough to protect the lives of the people in Australia and, indeed, around the world.
Australia is in what the scientists call “disaster alley”. We are going to see mass floods and mass fires and swing between those at increasingly deadly rates until we really begin to repair and heal this planet, which includes restoring ecosystems, not just stopping fossil fuels.
Do you think at the official level the climate crisis is still being spoken about as something in the future, whereas it’s something that’s already upon us?
The current policies in place are a death sentence to the majority of Australia.
Billions of lives are going to be lost if we don’t have immediate action and people are still beating around the bush and not really addressing the issue according to the science, which is we need to be doing this right now.
We spoke in August last year just after you’d been arrested for staging a demonstration out the front of Parliament House in Canberra.
You spoke about ANU Earth Science Professor Will Steffen’s warning that we’re facing “hell on Earth” and you also talked about the importance of civil disobedience movements, like the one led by Gandhi, as well as the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement.
Back then, you were talking about the need for such a movement. How do you consider that movement now?
It’s very clear that our democracy has failed us. We needed to be acting upon this years ago – decades ago. And our current system has not facilitated that.
So, we really need to be looking at better forms of democracy, like Citizens Assemblies, to be facilitating the change that is required to protect human lives.
Movements, like Extinction Rebellion, that are really calling for that better form of democracy that is going to see us have the changes that we need are definitely where I have been throwing my support.
There’s been a change of government in this country, which saw a nation that was one of the greatest climate pariah’s passing laws to reduce emissions as its first move under a new parliament.
But meanwhile, we’ve got this crackdown on climate protesters, which is also happening in the UK.
How do you see the state of play regarding governments and climate action at present?
Our government is still giving $22,000 a minute to the fossil fuel industry and, indeed, they were trying to pass new laws just this week to give the fossil fuel industry even more taxpayer dollars to support them.
So, I have no hope whatsoever in our current government actually doing what is required to protect Australians from the climate breakdown.
And lastly, Violet, will the forces trying to silence the message about the mounting crisis succeed?
What we have seen with the response to my imprisonment shows that they won’t succeed, that Australians won’t be gaslighted into believing they are the quiet Australians.
Australians are loud. We speak the truth. We won’t be silenced. And we won’t let these fear tactics stop us from a just outcome.
The main photo of Violet Coco was taken by Julian Meehan
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