“Like the Hydra”: Strategic incapacitation fails to decapitate the climate movement

Zelda Grimshaw is a lifelong campaigner for peace, earth and human rights and a UN observer of the ballot for independence in East Timor in 1999, covers the recent actions by blockade Australia and the rise of the use of the law to attack basic rights in Australia (Pearls and Irritations 22 June 2023).

On 19 June 2022, NSW Police Force’s Strike Force Guard launched their infamous ‘strategic incapacitation’ operation targeting Blockade Australia. ‘The Colo Raids’ saw over a hundred police with dogs, motorbikes, trucks, cranes, and helicopters swoop down on a rural property where the climate group had gathered.

Forty-three activists were arrested that day and over the following fortnight in connection with Blockade Australia’s ‘Week of Climate Resistance’ in Sydney.

One year later to the day Blockade Australia burst back onto the scene of Australian climate activism with three simultaneous actions at major ports on the east coast. “Like the hydra, we are back threefold. You cannot decapitate the climate movement” they stated in a press conference as they announced their return.

Photo from Blockade Australia

Melbourne, Brisbane, and Newcastle ports were blockaded on Monday 19 June by activists suspended on monopoles, bipods and tripods across roads and rail bridges to the export facilities.

On Tuesday 20 June, Blockade Australia struck again, with simultaneous closures of the Melbourne and Brisbane ports. A single activist on a climbable structure has proven to be the favoured method of the radical group, and the tactic has successfully ‘caused chaos’ at the economic pinch points the group targets.

This is in line with the stated aim of Blockade Australia: ‘to build a political movement that can physically resist Australia’s planet destroying operations with disruptive and targeted action that shuts down the everyday functioning of this machine’.

Blockade Australia’s return, in larger numbers and across three locations, evidences a rare determination. The repression experienced in June 2022 and subsequently would give pause to many. ‘Strategic incapacitation’ is a policing technique that aims to smash the organising ability of a group of people, such that the group can no longer function.

To this end, Strike Force Guard laid serious charges, such as conspiracy, affray, assault and intimidate police, against the nine people arrested at during ‘The Colo Raids’. The following week Strike Force Guard deployed NSW’ new anti-protest legislation against more than 30 other people who were participating in a street march as part of Blockade Australia’s ‘Week of Climate Resistance’.

Along with those arrested at the march, individuals connected with Blockade Australia were pointedly targeted by Strike Force Guard. Immi was pulled over in her car and given 72 hours to leave the state after police discovered a box of gardening tools deemed dangerous. Jason was nabbed at a train station, by a plain clothes officer who had been ‘tailing’ him and was charged with obstructing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Walter was pulled over and arrested for having a texta – a ‘graffiti implement’ – in his car. Many of the more serious charges against Blockade Australia organisers have since been dropped. Charges against Immi, Jason and Walter were all withdrawn, or laughed out of court. The charges, however, were not the point. Police targeted these activists and laid the most serious charges possible because criminal offences allow for more punitive bail conditions. This is where ‘strategic incapacitation’ really came into play.

A functioning democracy would not ordinarily impose bail conditions on people charged with marching on a street or possessing a texta.

NSW courts, however, approved numerous limitations on peoples’ freedom of movement, expression and association.

Conditions commonly imposed on Blockade Australia protesters included weekly or even daily reporting to police, requirements to not enter the state of NSW or the city of Sydney, bans on using encrypted devices or platforms, and, crucially for organisers, a ban on associating with any of the other 42 people arrested during the June ’22 mobilisation.

Some of those arrested in 2022 under the NSW legislation at a meeting in a private property

People accused of violent crimes are bailed with fewer limitations on their freedoms. The punitive bail conditions were the main play of the ‘strategic incapacitation’, disabling the climate activists and granting the police increased search and surveillance powers during the long wait for a court date.

Despite repressive legislation and punitive bail conditions, Blockade Australia has managed to thrive.

Now present in at least three states, the group is a disparate collection of individuals including elderly activists like Elizabeth Hartrick and Sharron Hodge, through to youngsters still in their teens.

What the network has in common is a close understanding of climate science, and the sense of urgency that understanding conveys. Asserting ‘this system is not broken, this system needs breaking’, the group rejects carbon offsetting as another greenwashing ploy.

Tinkering around the edges of climate mitigation will not suffice; total transformation, ‘ecosystems not empires’, is what the group advocates.

Blockade Australia has taken the slogan ‘system change not climate change’ to heart, and devised a way to practice what that slogan preaches. Targeting the supply chain, blocking the export facilities that enable Australian extractivism, the group has struck at the core of Australia’s economic functioning.

Prominent climate scientists and even the UN Secretary General have called for disruptive action to halt the systems that are driving global heating, or, as Blockade Australia put it, ‘corporate driven climate collapse’.

Five activists were arrested on Monday and Tuesday this week. One of the five, Darsh Rasborsek, has been remanded in custody until July 17 in Brisbane.

A year of intense surveillance and the prospect of jail sentences appears to have deepened the commitment of this group of people, however. Both in number and in disruptive power, the collectivity has grown.

Indeed, like the hydra, Blockade Australia is back threefold.

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