Alert: Build the resistance to defend protest rights

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Two years ago, New South Wales (NSW) passed repressive anti-protest laws aimed squarely at climate activists engaged in disrupting the business of polluting companies. In November 2023, 100 kayakers arrested for blockading the Port of Newcastle faced fines of up to $22,000 or jail for up to two years. The state’s dragnet isn’t limited to environmental defenders, though. Opponents of the legislation warn that it poses grave risks for all dissenters, including the union movement. How right they are!

Currently targeted is the dynamic Palestine solidarity movement. With ports declared vital infrastructure, those supporting the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and workers heeding the call of the Palestinian union movement to stop arms shipments to Israel face arrest. This is what happened to 23 people at the Port of Botany in November last year during a 500-strong sit-down protest called by Trade Unionist for Palestine. They were charged with “damage or disruption to a major facility” under the new laws. The repression escalated in late March when a further 19 unionists were arrested, among them Paul Keating, the NSW branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and four other members of the union. We call for all these charges to be dropped immediately!

NSW is not the only state to introduce laws targeted at protest rights. In Queensland, police cracked down on pro-Palestine unionists at the annual May Day march. Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania have all introduced measures with jail sentences of between one and two years. Last year, South Australia hastily rammed through legislation with just 22 minutes of scrutiny in the Lower House. Sparked by a three-day protest by Extinction Rebellion outside an oil and gas conference in Adelaide, these new laws hike fines from $750 to $50,000 and add the threat of jail for “disruptive protests.”

In Victoria, where the Palestine solidarity movement has held weekly rallies every Sunday for more than six months, police are complaining that there are too many rallies and marches! Their solution is to demand a permit system to reduce the frequency of protests. It is not up to police to determine when it is appropriate to protest! Tarneen Onus-Browne, a community organiser with Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, gets to the nub of the matter, arguing “a permit to protest defeats the point of a protest, and impacts our democratic rights.”

Protest rights are precious and attempts to curtail them is drawing opposition, from the courts to the streets. Two members of the Knitting Nannas, with the support of the Environmental Defenders Office, had a win when the Supreme Court upheld parts of their constitutional challenge against the NSW laws late last year. The court found in favour of their argument that criminalising certain protest activities “impermissibly burdened the implied freedom of political communication” and is therefore unconstitutional.

The call for protest permits in Victoria is drawing strong opposition. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Human Rights Law Centre and Melbourne Activist Legal Support have called out the dangers. Students for Palestine launched a sign-on statement pledging to defy anti-protest laws if they are introduced. We support mass, disciplined defiance to make the laws unworkable in the event they are enacted.

The Palestine solidarity movement is also demanding that the NSW government withdraw all charges against Paul Keating and the other unionists, while advocating for an end to the genocide in Gaza. On Saturday, 25 May this was one of three demands at mass rallies held at docks around the country. This National Day of Action also demanded the imposition of an arms embargo and trade sanctions on the state of Israel.

The right to protest is a fundamental democratic right, and this growing resistance is a great start. Drop the charges against union, climate justice and Palestine solidarity activists! Repeal all anti-protest legislation now. Build massive, disciplined protest actions to stop the climate vandals and boycott apartheid Israel.

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