‘Strike Force Guard’: suppression of climate protest threatens us all

Nov 25, 2022
Blockade Australia

“The totalising control that [NSW police] have on my life is crushing and it is clearly designed to be so,” writes an activist in this collection of first-hand accounts of the suppression of climate protest by NSW police ‘Strike Force Guard’.

Policing of protest has long been fraught in New South Wales. Over years a slow creep has chipped away at the right to peaceful public assembly. We reached an ugly and repressive high watermark this year. Legal changes and growing police repression against climate protestors has been widely documented (for example, here and here). Readers of this journal are likely aware of this alarming trend. In this article, we convey stories of activists targeted by the new laws and Strike Force Guard. These are anonymised accounts written in consultation with affected persons.

Zara, 45, is a media and communications worker who lends her skills to the climate movement during large mobilisations and times of need. Zara was reading in bed at 9am on a Sunday morning when ten riot police in body armour smashed the door in and stormed into her house. Zara ran to the door, and was struck in the head by the battering ram. She was ordered to sit and not move for over three hours while police catalogued and removed her phones, notebook, hat, toothbrush and camping equipment. Over thirty-five police took part in this raid against a single woman in her dressing gown.

“I could hear a helicopter overhead. The policeman’s grip on my arms was painful and left bruises. My head was aching from the battering ram. They made me sit, without a drink, or my jumper, or access to the toilet, unable to contact anyone, for hours. … I was treated like a dangerous and despicable person”, Zara said.

For Zara, “the loss of my communications equipment was devastating. … It took three months to restore all my accounts. Strike Force Guard has still not returned my equipment. I had nightmares for months. I feel sick when I think about it. I am a peaceful person exercising a democratic right to participate in public discourse … [f]or this I was assaulted, detained and my life and work severely disrupted.”

A few months after the raid on Zara, Strike Force Guard spied on and raided climate activists on June 19 at a rural property in the Blue Mountains. People present at the camp were tracked through the bush with dogs and helicopters and were later charged with offences like ‘conspiracy to commit an indictable offence’. This raid was condemned by forty civil society organisations.

Despite the objections of human rights experts, the persecution of climate activists continues. A series of arbitrary raids and arrests targeted environmentalists during June and July. In November, police in four states ‘visited’ homes of climate advocates in the lead up to the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). Video footage shows police stating ‘you may be arrested if you attend a protest’ and ‘this is an unlawful protest’. Police ‘visited’ school students, elders, tradies, nurses — over forty people in total — to deter their participation in activism.

Peaceful public assembly is not unlawful in NSW.  Further, organisers of the IMARC protest had submitted a Form 1 to police (a process under the Summary Offences Act which can lead to a protest being “authorised”). It is vital that we reject any assertions that peaceful protest are inherently ‘unlawful’.

Alex, 22, is a student from regional NSW. Alex was arrested and capsicum sprayed for peacefully walking on a street during a climate rally. Capsicum spray is intended to be used as a ‘last resort’ for police. Instead, it’s increasingly used as ‘crowd control’ at peaceful protest events, in a clear breach of police’ guidelines. Once sprayed, Alex was thrown to the ground, charged with ‘Block Sydney Harbour Bridge’ and held in custody overnight. This is a new offence, passed by the NSW parliament in April 2022 with the explicit purpose of stifling climate protest.  Alex was not close to the bridge.

Alex was released with draconian bail conditions that prohibited him from contacting his closest friends, prohibited travel and compelled him to reveal the contents of his phone to police on demand. The limits imposed on Alex’s freedom of movement and association and the abrogation of his right to privacy are grossly disproportionate to his ‘crime’: attending a rally.

On 2 November, Alex was pulled over by police while driving to a concert in Sydney. The police defected the car, confiscated Alex’s phone and arrested him for an alleged breach of bail. Alex was held overnight at a police station and granted bail the next day. Two hours after being released Alex was arrested disembarking a train in Sydney and again held in custody overnight. In court the police prosecutor opposed bail. The presiding Magistrate granted bail adding extreme conditions of daily reporting to a police station, a curfew at his residence and $10,000 bail surety.

“The totalising control that these conditions have on my life is crushing and it is clearly designed to be so. These conditions exist to suppress my spirit and sever my connections to my community and other activists. The prosecution and the courts know very well that the charges against me will result in very minor sentences so they have devised these obscene bail conditions to be the real punishment.

“The knowledge that police can re-arrest me on a whim has me jumping at shadows. The police have taken away my ability to feel safe even when I’m at home as they’ve shown me that they are willing to cross any boundaries to squash dissent.”

The policing in the lead up to IMARC has elicited a swift response. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties and others wrote to government Ministers and police to express concern. Alex Greenwich, MP for Sydney, has asked the Police Minister Questions on Notice about Strike Force Guard, and the City of Sydney Council has unanimously passed a motion condemning the policing of protest.

The right to peaceful assembly must be protected and defended. We must continue to condemn and resist regressive legal changes and over-policing. As these stories show, any one of us who has attended a protest, or intends on attending protests in the future should be concerned about this crackdown.

 

You may also be interested in: NSW police ‘Strike Force Guard III’ formed to silence threats to fossil fuel driven political order, published on November 10, 2022.

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