Protect Protest, Defend Dissent

Protect Protest, Defend Dissent

Extinction Rebellion Australia, 15 Apr 2024

Friday 12th April's rally in Melbourne was in support of the right to protest and to highlight the importance of dissent to democracy. Organised by XR Vic, the rally's speakers included Greens MP Tim Read as well as speakers from Free Palestine and other political movements. Climate activists Brad Homewood and Violet Coco sent messages of support from prison.

Protect protest banner

The rally drew attention to the increasing repression and criminalisation of peaceful protests and the silencing of dissenting voices. All photos in this article are by Matt Hrkac. Full list of speakers:

  • Kieran Stuart-Assheton from the Black People's Union
  • Elsbeth (El) from Teachers and School Staff for Palestine
  • Nathalie from Wage Peace
  • Mary Merkenich from Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alliance
  • Tami Gadir from Solidarity
  • Anastasia Radievska from the Australian Democracy Network
  • Lucy Key, from Amnesty International
  • Mai from the Free Palestine Melbourne
Kieran Stuart-Assheton from the Black People's Union
Kieran Stuart-Assheton from the Black People's Union

The rally followed an escalation in the policing of peaceful protests, including the recent imprisonment of Extinction Rebellion activists Violet CoCo and Brad Homewood for two months after their West Gate Bridge climate protest, an attempt by Victoria Police to introduce a protest permit system and the use of OC (pepper) spray, tear gas and rubber bullets at some protests associated with the Free Palestine movement. Penalties for forest protests in Tasmania have increased, with Bob Brown Foundation activist Dr Colette Harmsen serving a three-month prison term in Hobart last year and Syed Ali Imran Alisha currently on remand in jail.

Speakers El and and Nathalie
Speakers El from Teachers and School Staff for Palestine and Nathalie from Wage Peace

Along with the curtailing of peaceful protests, there is a trend of media and government organisations punishing and silencing the expression of dissent. ABC correspondent Antoinette Latouf was dismissed from a casual presenting role for sharing a post from Human Rights Watch alleging Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza. Green Left has been banned for the second time in two weeks by Facebook due to their campaign in support of the Palestinian struggle and for resistance fighter Leila Khaled's right to speak in Australia at the Ecosocialism 2024 conference. Teachers and School Staff for Palestine have been resisting a ban on wearing keffiyehs at schools and universities.

Tami and and Anastasia Radievska
Tami Gadir from Solidarity and Anastasia Radievska from the Australian Democracy Network and Anastasia Radievska from the Australian Democracy Network

All this occurs in the context of First Nations Australians being the most incarcerated people in the world and suffering from constant over-policing.

Liberty Victoria, Environmental Justice Australia, Amnesty International Australia, Pax Christi, Australian Democracy Network and Melbourne Activist Legal Support have written an open letter calling on the Victorian Premier and Attorney General to affirm the government’s respect for the right to protest, including protest that involves some level of disruption. The letter also cites the Declaration of Our Right to Protest, endorsed by 120 community organisations, including Human Rights Law Centre, Human Rights Watch and Community Legal Centres Australia, which affirms that "tolerance of disruption to ordinary life is necessary in a democratic society if our rights to peaceful protest, association and expression are to have true value".

Speakers Lucy and Mai
Lucy Key, from Amnesty International and Mai from the Free Palestine Melbourne

Anastasia Radievska, spokesperson for Australian Democracy Network said: "Disruptive protest has been the catalyst for many of the rights and freedoms our community values today. Stonemasons marching down the road in Melbourne CBD secured the right to an eight-hour day. Protest is a proud tradition and driver of change that shouldn’t be the subject of disproportionate policing and government denigration."

Tim Read, Greens MP, said: "Protests got us the eight-hour day, women's right to vote and saved the Franklin River, so the Greens will always defend the right to protest."

Nathalie, Syrian/Palestinian writer and community organiser from Wage Peace, said: "It's been six months of active genocide against Palestinians. People are furious and they are exercising their right to protest, as they should in an active democracy. But the police response has been nothing short of repressive, unfair and escalatory. We must not be silent or passive as hundreds of my people and our children are murdered day in, day out, with weapons and machinery manufactured and transported here by Australian workers."

Protesters outside the State Library

Dr Colette Harmsen, veterinarian and volunteer with the Bob Brown Foundation, sent a message of support from the Tasmanian wilderness: "In 2023 I served three months jail time for peaceful environmental protest. We will continue to break the law when those laws are designed to protect the industries that contribute to the climate emergency. Industries such as mining, forestry, coal, gas and animal farming. We will continue our acts of civil disobedience because our planet is worth it. A jail term will not deter us. If I can inspire just one person to stand up for Tasmania's forests, that will make me very happy."

Young protesters on the steps of the State Library

Brad Homewood and Violet Coco sent the following messages of support from prison.

Brad Homewood:

We went into this action knowing that a custodial sentence was a very real possibility, and ultimately this is a price we are both willing to pay. But that does not mean we think that non–violent protestors belong in prison, in fact we firmly believe that prisons are grossly overused, and are committed to prison reform in the interim, and in an ideal world and in the long run, prison abolition. While we might all come at it from different angles, our collective struggle for peace, justice and a liveable planet is a shared one, and we are at our strongest when we recognise this fact and form strong alliances with those with whom we share a common cause. Or, as the book Beautiful Trouble says: ‘if you’re not uncomfortable, your coalition isn’t big enough’.

We both made this personal sacrifice by exploiting our white privilege in a toxic system that is inherently racist and violent, and the cruel irony is not lost on me that I’m a white fella who feels relatively safe in the Koori unit at Ravenhall prison. This experience has only hardened my resolve and reaffirmed my commitment to our collective struggle.

I’m very much looking forward to being reunited with my strong and gorgeous fiancee Violet CoCo, and joining you all on the streets again, because as Martin Luther King said: an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Thank you for your solidarity, Brad Homewood

Violet CoCo:

This is stolen land. Treaties were never signed, sovereignty was never ceded, this always was, always will be First Nations country. If colonisation had not ravaged this planet, we would not be in such deep and rising waters. I’m writing this as I serve a 2-month sentence for sounding the alarm on the climate and ecological emergency. Australia is the 3rd largest exporter of carbon emissions. We are the drug dealers of the fossil fuel industry, allowing mines to ravage our precious ecosystems while fat cats get rich, and we, the people, suffer worsening floods, fires and cost of living crises.

As the planet heats up, things will only get harder and more expensive. The scientists warn of civilisation's collapse and hell on earth conditions. Yet the fossil fuel industry gets $22000 a minute in handouts from our tax dollars, from the government that's supposed to be serving us, while we struggle to survive in the damage they leave in their wake.

The second largest citizens’ petition in Australian history was to declare a climate emergency, with 350,000 signatures. The largest is to investigate media corruption in this country. What progress has been made on these issues as a result?

We have asked politely and in the bounds of their rules for decades and have been ignored while we cascade toward an unliveable planet. Now, we are in our final hour. We must do or die. We must find the courage to act. As retired NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner for 39 years Greg Mullins says, 'we need to be noisy, naughty Australians. The government only listens to the squeaky wheel.’

We must find the courage to be unignorable. We must act in proportion to the threat we face. I have been imprisoned for sounding the alarm on the climate and ecological emergency for over a month now, but I am as determined as ever to protect the liveability of our planet. We all know I shouldn't be here. That it is a mark of a good democracy that it makes room for protest. We know we owe so much positive social change to protest, and we need to protect protest. We need to protect protest because it is the voice of the people, saving lives throughout history, and now more than ever it is essential for peace, justice and a liveable planet.

However we know that they will always fight back in the face of losing power and money. So also, my friends, be brave enough to know that this is a battle worth fighting. We are the majority, and we are rising.

Power to the people!

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