Free Violet Coco: Unite and fight to defeat repressive anti-protest laws

December rally in Sydney demanding Coco be released on bail. Photo courtesy of Knitting Nanas.
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FSP and Radical Women in Australia are thrilled to report that the campaign to free Violet Coco has been successful. On March 15, 2023, Coco was issued a conditional release order after Judge Mark Williams ruled that she had been initially imprisoned on false information provided by the New South Wales police.

It was no April Fool’s Day joke when the New South Wales State government rammed through the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 on April 1 last year. With its passage, the Perrottet Liberal-National Party government, with the support of the Labor opposition, took a sledge hammer to protest rights. It is now an offence to block a road or a “major facility” anywhere in the state. The Minister for Roads can declare anything a major facility and those who transgress can be jailed for up to two years and/or fined up to $22,000.

Home-grown political prisoner. Violet Coco is the first person jailed under these laws and is unlikely to be the last. The 32-year-old climate activist was jailed in Silverwater. She was sentenced to 15 months with a minimum eight month non-parole period. She has lodged an appeal which will not be heard until March. Initially denied bail, she was released, with onerous conditions, after winning a bail appeal on 13 December. More than 100 people rallied in support outside the court.

What on earth did Coco do to attract such a harsh sentence? She was part of a 28-minute protest last April that blocked one of the five city-bound lanes on the Harbour Bridge. Her sentence amounts to more than a fortnight in prison for every minute that drivers had to change lanes!

The jailing of Coco criminalises dissent. The Perrottet government knew exactly what it was doing and whose interests it was protecting when it legislated some of the most repressive anti-protest laws in the world. This legislation is all about protecting fossil fuel super profits from determined climate protesters, who refuse to be ignored.

The Premier declared that the sentence given to Coco was “pleasing to see.” He called for protesters “who put our way of life at risk” to “have the book thrown at them.” In reality, it is extreme weather events such as the destructive floods that have devastated the east coast, not direct action climate protests, that are turning lives upside down! The Labor opposition leader, Chris Minns, when asked about the extreme sentence, declared, “I don’t regret supporting those laws.”

Many other protesters have also been arrested and subjected to strict bail conditions and widespread non-association orders. Twenty-two related court cases are still working their way through the system.

Worrying trend. NSW is not the only jurisdiction to legislate draconian laws aimed at climate activists. Last August both Tasmania and Victoria passed legislation which erodes protest rights. The new Victorian laws, which crack down on forest protests, allow jail sentences of up to 12 months and $21,000 fines. In 2019, Queensland passed legislation criminalising the use of “lock on” devices. This is despite such devices having long be used as part of protests, including by women’s liberationists campaigning for equal pay and suffragists fighting for the vote.

Existing laws have also been unearthed to intimidate climate protesters. Last December, laws that had not been used for three decades in Queensland, were dusted off to charge nine people — aged from 53 to 81 — for disrupting the Queensland Parliament. Scheduled to appear in court in February, they face penalties of up to three years.

Rallying support. When Coco was sentenced and incarcerated on 2 December, this quickly sparked outrage and generated solidarity from many quarters. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said that new layers of support had been “energised.” Within days of the sentence, rallies took place in Perth and Melbourne. More than 200 rallied outside the NSW Parliament on 5 December. They did not seek permission and blocked Macquarie Street. The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union issued a statement calling for the charges against her to be dropped. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association declared that “peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned.” ABC journalist, Sara Ferguson, tweeted that the sentence was “outrageous” and raised the issue with Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, on The 7:30 Report.

Many are actively backing the campaign, despite having different views about what it will take to significantly slow the warming of the planet and stop the escalating climate crisis. Coco is part of the movement that believes disruptive tactics are the key to stopping the corporate profiteers. Others, including the Freedom Socialist Party, argue that it is necessary to build a mass movement with ecosocialist demands to replace capitalism with a socialist planned economy. Regardless of these differing perspectives, unity is essential to defeat the anti-protest laws and free the political prisoners caught in this web of repression.