Policing a health crisis: protest after the pandemic

Last month, six members of Extinction Rebellion had their homes raided by officers from Western Australia Police Force’s counter-terrorist State Security Investigation Group.

You might think the activists had, to paraphrase one recent environmentalist manifesto, blown up a pipeline, or at least blocked a road, broken some windows, or set a pram on fire. In fact, they had done nothing more than daub a bridge in Perth’s CBD with easily removable spray-chalked graffiti aimed at Woodside, Australia’s largest independent oil and gas producer, for the company’s proposed $16.2 billion Scarborough project in the Pilbara. All six, after having been arrested, were charged with property damage and fined around $2,000.

As a member of Extinction Rebellion South Australia, I’ve grown accustomed to increasing surveillance of our activities by police and other state groups. The presence of counter-terrorism agents is now a familiar feature of our protests targeting fossil fuel companies and the political parties that are beholden to them. The WA raids, however, represent a stark escalation in the criminalisation of a group founded on principles of non-violent civil disobedience.

XRWA spokesperson Emma Sangalli tells me that they have spray-chalked other sites in the past in full view of police, who did not intervene to stop them. In contrast, according to Sangalli, the six Scarborough activists were given bail conditions including bans on associating with each other and going near Woodside. They also had their phones seized and searched despite the police not having obtained a data access order that would allow them to do so. If they unlocked their phones, the six were told, they would get them back sooner. So far, one activist has been successful in getting a magistrate to change their bail conditions. Another, who is in Australia on a UK visa and was not directly involved in the chalking, has not. Sangalli believes CCTV footage was used to trace the activists following the bridge’s graffitiing, and that they were filmed by plain-clothed officers at previous actions.      

Laraine Newton, who was caught up in the raids and is the mother of one of the other arrestees, says:

I can’t deny that being raided by State Security was a bit of a shock. Initially I was a little bemused, but as my house was searched, then I was taken away, arrested and given draconian bail conditions, the truth of the situation hit home. This was nothing less than intimidation. The bail conditions have hit hard. Being restricted from seeing family and friends, including my daughter, has left me anxious and distressed.   

It isn’t some quirk of contemporary Australian sociopolitics that the despoliation of the natural world for profit is regarded as business-as-usual while the peaceful protesting of these outrages is forcefully suppressed. It’s the inevitable result of state capture by fossil fuel companies, and their corrosive fear of losing the social licence to dig up oil and gas in perpetuity.

In his book Carbon Captured (2020), Matto Mildenberger calls this kind of ensnarement ‘double representation’ to reflect how emitters have achieved political representation on both the left and right, through industrial unions sensitive to job losses on the one hand, and industrial business associations critical of regulation on the other.

The problem is particularly pronounced in Western Australia, a state long economically dependent on extractive industries, and that has perhaps the most frictionless of all the country’s revolving doors between political parties and fossil fuel companies. In the most egregious example, former Labor Treasurer Ben Wyatt—cousin of Ken Wyatt, current federal Minister for Indigenous Australians—joined the boards of both Woodside and Rio Tinto almost as soon as he’d resigned from government at last March’s state election. Wyatt was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Mark McGowan’s Labor administration when Rio Tinto knowingly blew up the sacred Juukan Gorge site in the Pilbara, the same region in which Woodside are proposing to develop their offshore gas field at Scarborough. (As Joe Keller remarks in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, ‘a little man makes a mistake and they hang him by the thumbs; the big ones become ambassadors’.)

According to the Conservation Council of Western Australia and the Australia Institute, the Scarborough development could result in more than 1.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions across its lifetime—equivalent to the amount released by 15 coal-fired power stations.

Australia is a country in thrall to what I’ve called, after American tech security specialist Bruce Schneier, ‘security theatre’—that is, a range of political and social measures that appear to increase our safety but that in actuality do nothing of the sort. From public housing tower lockdowns to the deployment of generals to leadership positions and soldiers to the streets, to the imposition of nighttime curfews that do little if any practical good, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided state and national governments with even more opportunities to look tough in the face of what is in essence, like climate change, a crisis of health rather than law and order.

It has also given cover for what Naomi Klein famously termed the ‘shock doctrine’, the tactic whereby governments use a crisis—in this case the pandemic—to make state and private sector dreams of increased power come true with next to no scrutiny. Stories of cops accessing QR check-in data, supposedly to solve crimes, have become commonplace. In Western Australia, as Waleed Aly noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, they’ve even accessed data multiple times without a warrant, a practice we’re told has since been banned. In WA, in a move now also being adopted in South Australia and Victoria and that other states will doubtless follow, an app that uses geolocation and facial recognition software to track and identify people in home quarantine has been rolled out. How long before these dystopian apps, based on racially biased and easily hackable tech and backed up by police door-knocks, are being deployed for purposes unrelated to the pandemic?           

As Daniel Lopez recently noted in an article for this website, a certain level of what he calls ‘coercive measures’—namely fines and criminal charges—are necessary to enforce public health orders designed to reduce Covid infections and deaths. But whatever your views on those who oppose vaccinations and lockdowns—I happen to think they’re for the most part dangerously misguided—there’s nothing progressive about championing the use of overzealous policing against them, whether that be in the form of heavy-handed arrests of vulnerable protest organisers or the violent putting down of rallies with baton rounds capable of causing serious injury.

The left’s failure to build solidarity over such tactics will only ensure the creep and normalisation of their use. It will also most likely come back to haunt us as we organise around threats to our collective wellbeing vastly more exercising than short-term public health interventions. Paramilitary outfits like WA’s State Security Investigation Group, and my own state’s Security Response Section (SRS), are as good examples as you could want of Maslow’s hammer, the idea that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. 

Even the likes of John Coyne, in an article for the establishmentarian Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has argued that climate activism requires a ‘nuanced security response’, writing:

While terrorism may not be supported by many Australians, there’s broad community support for doing more on climate change, and forcing the government to do more through radical measures. While a revolutionary change in the Australian political landscape and how it addresses climate change is theoretically possible, it hardly seems likely for the foreseeable future. In the interim, any use of narratives that paint climate activists as extremists is set for failure.

In the lead up to November’s critical COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, activist groups like Extinction Rebellion may well test Coyne’s optimism. If the talks, like so many others before them, end in collapse or hopelessly compromised consensus, you can guarantee it. We are, after all, facing what the most recent IPCC report called ‘code red for humanity’, a ticking bomb with even less time on the clock than we had been led to believe.

While even the most hardened climate denialist might baulk at the State Security Investigation Group’s overreach in WA, another, much more difficult question of proportionality remains: what actions taken by individuals and organisations are commensurate with the existential threat posed by the climate crisis? It is, quite simply, deranging of all ordinary sensibilities that activists are now being treated like terrorists for spray-chalking a bridge while governments in cahoots with fossil fuel companies continue to green light massively carbon-polluting projects like Scarborough, and permit the permanent destruction of sites of profound cultural and ecological significance.

The drift of both major parties into a kind of pro-fossil fuel radicalism is not, despite what I’m told every other day by Extinction Rebellion’s critics, solvable by elections, planting more trees, or reducing personal consumption. At this point, nothing I’m aware of stands a better chance of succeeding than mass non-violent civil disobedience. It’s tempting to think of the WA raids as a sign that the authorities are as convinced of this as anyone.          

For their part, XRWA told me the raids were, ultimately, ‘more motivating than discouraging’. Rowan Newton, daughter of Laraine, says that

the overreach and injustice of the police’s actions have not only succeeded in angering and galvanising rebels in WA but all over Australia. No matter what they do we will continue fighting for a safe future for them and everyone around us. We will not be deterred.

I hope she is right. 



Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Authoritarians are Control freaks with a capital C Ben.
    They despise dissent and protest because they make them squirm.
    ‘Who dares question my authority!’
    The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights is an anathema to their authority.
    We are entering the new Dark Ages.

  2. This connects the dots. It warrants careful attention. A few observations:

    ?The instruments of state capture (who David Ritter terms the Fossil Fuel Order) are right to fear the genuinely democratic, free speech potential of chalk. Their ‘social licence’ is deeply questionable and more flaky by the day, while the legitimacy and plurality of voices calling for social, economic and climate justice only increases.

    ?Central to Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ is the view that real change only occurs during crises, and the changes depend on the “ideas lying around”. Chalk literally enables communities to ensure it is *their* ideas lying around.

    ? John Coyne is correct to note that efforts to paint climate activists as extremist are fraught with risk for the Fossil Fuel Order. The contrast between the terror squad and chalk – with it’s echoes of ochre, playgrounds, suffragettes, scientists and dreamers – could not be more stark. The Oz, (indeed global) polity could likely be satisfied ’free chalking’ was the lesser of the two harms. There is opportunity here.

    ? The many who seek justice must indeed build solidarity if they hope to prevail in the struggle against entrenched power.

    ?With the right framing, chalk could could serve as a gentle ‘connective tissue. Something we could all agree on and use to help articulate, express and realise our‘shared consensus’. For example the shared insistence on greater democracy, voice, equality, community, place, imagination, and public space.

    ?Also, the emerging realisation that we would be well-served by a more expansive view of ‘the self’, one that acknowledges that each of our ‘selves’ is as much dependent on the ‘we’ and the ‘me’.

    ?Tyranny is notorious for overreach. As Rowan Newton points out, when the Fossil Fuel Order is drawn into battle with chalk, they have indeed overreached … and are liable to fall.

    ?We will not be deterred. We need democracy on the streets.

    ?Get chalk. Get chalking.

    Connect the dots.

  3. Good article but I disagree with the final premise. At the end of the day action on climate change will be taken by governments so elections do matter. The writer seems to see political sides as right- liberal business, left- labor unions, both beholden to fossil fuel interests. But apart from the mining sector most unions have been calling for climate action for years. Also, there is a party in Australia that could demand action by holding the balance of power in both houses, the Greens. I commend extinction rebellion for their actions in winning people to the cause but ultimately those people will wield their power at the ballot box.

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