Human rights advocates and lawyers have called a recent New South Wales Police surveillance operation, which targeted the campsite of the climate activist group Blockade Australia over the weekend, the latest in a series of “very alarming” police actions that target peaceful activists with overly harsh tactics.
On Sunday morning, New South Wales police officers were deployed to a campsite in Colo, which sits just over 80 kilometres north-west of Sydney’s CBD. There, two officers were reported to have breached a campsite belonging to members of the climate activist group, Blockade Australia, to surveil their plans for an unignorable “disruption” in Sydney’s CBD from June 27.
According to activists at the site, two people who would later be identified as police officers were seen hiding in a bush wearing “full camouflage gear” at about 8:30a.m. on Sunday morning. The activists said they approached the officers, who turned out to be armed and masked, to ask what they were doing. The officers didn’t answer their questions, stayed put, and kept “silent”.
“They did not identify themselves as police,” said members of Blockade Australia the next day in a statement.
“When they did not speak or move, a climate activist tapped one of the camouflaged people on the shoulder and asked if they were okay. The person was heard to say, “We’ve been compromised.”
Half an hour later, a “large black car” sped down the private driveway and up into the campsite, the group said. The two officers in camo “grabbed and pushed several climate activists”, and then jumped into the car, where two others clad in black tops and jeans were sitting inside and allegedly holding guns.
Shortly after, officers from the nearby Hawkesbury Police Area command would respond to the incident with air support, dogs, a riot squad, “police rescue”, and even NSW Police’s “Raptor Squad”, a sort of militarised special ops unit ordinarily reserved for bikie stings, and other organised gang crime.
The operation saw seven activists arrested and charged with a range of offences. When they appeared in Penrith Local Court the next day, only five of them were granted bail.
The group’s defence team, which is being led by Mark Davis via Sydney City Crime lawyers, said it will “vigorously defend these cases, where Police failed to reveal their identities”, and sidestepped basic police protocol by entering the camp “improperly”.
Davis told the court that activists wouldn't’ have known whether the police surveilling the camp “were far right vigilantes or if they were from the Daily Telegraph,” and suggested that asking them questions wasn’t unreasonable.
In a bid to justify the response, which Blockade Australia called “insane overreach”, the first officers on-site claimed they were “surrounded” by the climate activists, who then went on to damage the tyres on their police car, “rendering it undriveable”. It didn’t stop police swarming them anyway, the activists said.
“By 11a.m., a massive police search and seizure operation was underway. Seven climate activists were arrested and were held overnight. Forty more activists—including children, people with disabilities and elderly people—were surrounded by police and detained for over four hours in a cold, wet field,” the activists said.
“Police breached multiple protocols in their interactions with us, denying virtually every civil liberty there is. One police officer urinated in front of a 14-year-old girl.”
According to police, the operation was launched as part of ongoing investigations into planned protest activity across the state, under a new task force called “Strike Force Guard”. NSW Police acting assistant commissioner, Paul Dunstan, said the police responding to the campsite were met with around 40 activists, who police allege “pushed, shoved and jostled” with officers, who reportedly “feared for their lives”.
Sophie McNeill, an Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE the state’s police response to what has generally been a non-violent movement was “very concerning”. Perhaps more concerning, she said, were the attempts made by police to cut the activists off from their phones as a condition of bail.
“There has been a worrying trend in Australia recently, with police targeting peaceful climate activists with overly harsh tactics and charges,” McNeill said.
“Concerned citizens have the fundamental right to protest and that must be protected. It was very alarming that police tried to apply extremely strict bail conditions that would have seen those facing charges restricted from accessing phones and computers. I'm pleased the magistrate rejected these overzealous requests.”
The group was accused by police of planning a week-long series of major disruption across Sydney at the end of June. Only a couple of months ago, Blockade Australia claimed responsibility for a series of blockades of Port Botany which in large part prompted a new set of anti-protest laws in the state.
Much to the dismay of the NSW Greens, along with environmental and human rights groups, the new laws were introduced in early April, after Labor threw its support behind a bill that introduced fines of up to $22,000 and even two years jail time for anyone found to have blocked roads, ports or access to any other major infrastructure.
At the time, Mark Morey, head of Unions NSW, condemned the move and branded it “unacceptable”. He stood squarely at odds with NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, who called the peaceful climate activists “guerilla” activists who were being anarchists for “anarchy’s sake”.
The bipartisan support for NSW police’s expanded set of powers has since been used as a launchpad for police leadership, who have been able to enforce these new laws pretty much unopposed.
On Monday, police minister Paul Toole said the members of Blockade Australia, whose children were allegedly subject to public police urination, have “no respect for people’s lives”.
The move in NSW has spurred a similar effort in Victoria, where the state’s Labor government will this week table a bill that would threaten activists caught protesting deforestation with unprecedented fines and even jail time.
In response to the bill, protestors gathered outside parliament in Melbourne on Tuesday, where they wheeled a giant burning koala skeleton—named “Blinky”—down the street, as part of a call on MPs to reject the proposed laws.
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